JAKARTA - Indonesia's armed forces commander, General Moeldoko, has expressed regret over the naming of a new frigate after two marines responsible for a bombing in Orchard Road in 1965.
"We have no ill intent whatsoever to stir emotions. Not at all," he told Channel NewsAsia in an interview. "I apologise."
Gen Moeldoko, however, said that the name of the ship would remain the KRI Usman Harun.
"Relations between the two countries are on the mend," he said, adding that he had spoken with his Singapore counterpart, Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Ng Chee Meng.
Gen Moeldoko's apology is the first by an Indonesian military official, and signals a desire to close a chapter that has strained close military ties between the two neighbours since it was reported in February that Indonesia would name a frigate after marines Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said.
"It shows the armed forces leadership is taking seriously its bilateral relationship with Singapore, and possibly trying to close this chapter," Dr Terence Lee of the National University of Singapore told The Straits Times.
The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) have established strong ties since the 1970s and conduct a host of regular bilateral exercises. Gen Moeldoko's comments are the clearest sign yet that Jakarta wants to restore the relationship.
The marines were convicted for the MacDonald House bombing that killed three civilians and injured 33. They were executed in Singapore in 1968, prompting tensions with Indonesia, which called them heroes and buried them with full military honours. Both sides closed this chapter in 1973 when then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sprinkled flowers on their graves during a visit to Jakarta.
The February report drew protests from Singapore, and Singapore ministers told their counterparts the move would reopen old wounds. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament in February the ship would not be allowed to stop at Singapore ports or naval bases, and it would not be possible for the SAF to sail alongside or train with the KRI Usman Harun.
"We want good bilateral defence and close military-to-military ties with Indonesia," Dr Ng had said. "But strong defence ties can be built only on mutual trust and respect, expressed through appropriate acts that underscore friendship and amity."
Indonesian ministers maintained that the naming, decided much earlier, was in line with the navy tradition of naming ships after the country's heroes, and that no ill will was intended.
The issue resurfaced last month when two Indonesian marines posed as the bombers at an international defence conference in Jakarta. The SAF delegation withdrew from the event and returned to Singapore. Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Mr Djoko Suyanto, expressed regret over the incident and the inappropriate conduct of the men.
Gen Moeldoko noted that Singapore took part in a multilateral naval exercise that Indonesia hosted off Batam and the Natunas late last month, and said this was a positive step to rebuilding ties.
He also said in the interview on Monday that although there was no intention to stir emotions, "there are sensitivities that we did not foresee and it escalated".
"It is my responsibility as the Commander-in-Chief of the TNI to offer clarification and to take steps to ensure that the situation does not escalate," he said.
This article was published on April 16 in The Straits Times.
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