Saturday, May 24, 2008

Middle Rocks Now Happy Hunting Ground For Johor Fishermen

From Nor Faridah A. Rashid

THE HAGUE, May 24 - Johor fishermen can now fish to their hearts' content in the fish-rich waters of Middle Rocks, without fear of being shooed away by Singapore naval authorities as they have been since the mid-80's.

This follows the awarding of sovereignty over Middle Rocks to Malaysia by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a 15 to 1 vote in The Hague Friday.

Middle Rocks lies close to Pulau Batu Puteh, located 7.7 nautical miles off Johor's Tanjung Penyusuh, and sovereignty over which was awarded to Singapore by the ICJ in a 12 to four vote in the same judgement.

Prof Dr Nik Anuar Nik Mahmud of the Institute of Malay World and Civilisation, one of the researchers for Malaysia in the sovereignty dispute case, said the Johor fishermen can now go back to fishing in the waters of Middle Rocks.

They had been deprived of the rich fishing ground since 1986 when they were always shooed away from the area by the Singapore naval authories, he told Malaysian journalists here. Singapore had established a naval presence on the nearby Pulau Batu Puteh in the mid-80's.

During oral arguments from Nov 6 to 23 last year, the ICJ was told that fishermen from Johor used the waters off Pulau Batu Puteh for fishing and shelter until the mid-80's when Singapore established a permanent naval presence there and prevented them from fishing close to the island.

Noor Farida Ariffin, former Malaysian ambassador to the Netherlands and co-agent for the case, said the fishermen had the right to fish in the Middle Rocks area now that the court had declared that sovereignty over the marine feature belonged to Malaysia.

"Upon reflection, the ICJs decision was not bad at all," she said.

Prof Nik Anuar said the fact was that Malaysia now had sovereignty over Middle Rocks, which was a victory for the country and, as such, the fishermen would not face any problem like they did until now.

Malaysia could also build infrastructure on Middle Rocks or even station its navy personnel there if it wanted to, he said in outlining some of the activities which Malaysia could now do on Middle Rocks.

The ICJ decision giving sovereignty over Middle Rocks to Malaysia also means that Singapore is now more constrained in carrying out activities like reclamation due to the close proximity, about half a nautical mile, of Pulau Batu Puteh, or Pedra Branca as Singapore calls it, to Middle Rocks.

During the oral arguments, the ICJ was told of Singapores proposed reclamation plan to extend the island.

"Whatever plans they may have, like the reclamation plan, they cannot do it now," an official said.

In its judgment, the ICJ also ruled by 15 to 1 that sovereignty over another rock, South Ledge, belongs to the country in the territorial waters of which the feature is located.

This piece of the judgment was greeted positively by the Malaysian delegation led by Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Rais Yatim as South Ledge, a low tide elevation located just 1.7 km from Middle Rocks, was well within Malaysian waters, said officials.

There is a mood of confidence in the Malaysian delegation that Malaysia may just get South Ledge.

Rais told Malaysian journalists that since South Ledge is within the territorial waters of Middle Rocks, Malaysia appeared to be the sovereign holder.

The ICJ, in its ruling, noted that South Ledge fell within the apparently overlapping territorial waters generated by Pulau Batu Puteh and by Middle Rocks.

It concluded that since it had not been mandated by the two sides to draw the line of delimitation with respect to their territorial waters in the area, sovereignty over South Ledge belonged to the country in the territorial waters of which the rock was located.

Another positive aspect in the judgment relating to the sovereignty of Pulau Batu Puteh was the fact that the court had accepted that the Johor Sultanate had the original title to the island although Singapore had said that the island was "terra nullius" (no mans land) when Britain took possession of it in the mid-1800s to build the Hosburgh Lighthouse.

However, the court ruled that by 1980 when the dispute regarding Pulau Batu Puteh crystallised, sovereignty over the island was passed to Singapore.

This conclusion was based on the fact that between 1850 and 1953 Malaysia did not, in terms of evidence, effect any action or grounds which can be accepted as proof of sovereignty, be it in terms of occupation, conducting checks or supervision activities on Pulau Batu Puteh.

Another factor which led to Malaysia losing sovereignty over Pulau Batu Puteh to Singapore was the letter written by the Johor acting State Secretary dated Sept 21 1953 which the court regarded as proof that there was a handover of power and sovereignty over the island.

The letter stated that the "Johore Government (did) not claim ownership" of the island. Singapore had argued that the letter had expressed disclaimer of title of Pulau Batu Puteh.

The letter was in response to an enquiry dated June 12 1953 made on behalf of the Singapore Colonial Secretary seeking to clarify the status of Pulau Batu Puteh, where a lighthouse had been built, with a view to determining the "boundaries of the colony's territorial waters".

This goes to show that what civil servants do may have a repercussion and one should not take things for granted, although Malaysia had contended during the oral arguments that the Johor acting State Secretary did not have the authority or capacity to issue the letter - Bernama

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