Friday, March 24, 2006

 

Confusion sinks salvage operation

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The Jakarta Post
By Abdul Khalik
March 20, 2006


Salvaging sunken treasure is already a technically complicated operation. In Indonesia, such work is made all the more challenging by government bodies and regulations that often send mixed messages to companies eager to plumb the depths in search of lost treasures.

A recent example concerns the MV Siren, a ship that was confiscated by police while involved in salvaging sunken treasure off the coast of Cirebon in West Java. Police also confiscated all of the items recovered from the sea by the ship, and arrested several crew members, including two foreign nationals, for "illegally plundering Indonesia's natural resources".

While the police are confident they did their duty in enforcing the law, a member of the national committee authorized to vet all companies interested in salvaging treasures in Indonesian waters sees things differently.

Hasyim Zaini says the ship, belonging to PT Paradigma Putra Sejahtera (PT PPS) and Belgium-based Cosmix CPRL, met all of the requirements and obtained all the necessary documents for its work in Cirebon.

"In the history of treasure recovery in Indonesia, the salvage operation in Cirebon had the most complete documents and the best salvaging procedures. It makes no sense for the police to confiscate the ship," he said.

The head of the Navy command overseeing the Java Sea and parts of Kalimantan and Sumatra, Commodore Jurianto, also confirmed that his office, which is a member of the national committee, had issued the necessary permits to PT PPS and Cosmix to recover the sunken treasure.

"As far as the permits are concerned, the ship obtained all of the documents," Jurianto said.

After a month-long survey of the area, PT PPS was convinced a huge treasure lay on the ocean's floor about 70 miles off the Cirebon coast. The company applied for a salvage permit in January 2004 to the National Committee on Sunken Treasures, which comprises 11 different government agencies and is chaired by the maritime affairs and fisheries minister.

In addition to officials from the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, the committee also includes officials from the Education Ministry, the Navy, the Transportation Ministry, the Tourism and Culture Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Trade Ministry.

Under a 2000 presidential decree on sunken treasure, the committee assesses all companies applying for permits to recover sunken treasure. It then issues a recommendation to the maritime affairs minister, who then decides whether to issue a permit.

"Each body (on the committee) required PT PPS to complete technical assessments having to do with that body's area of expertise, such as whether the salvage operation would harm the environment or if the ship was capable of carrying out the project," Hasyim said.

The National Police and the Attorney General's Office are not represented on the committee.

The committee issued a recommendation Feb. 16, 2004, stating that PT PPS had satisfied all requirements, and the maritime affairs minister issued the company a salvage permit Feb. 19.

PT PPS, which hired several foreign experts for the operation, began work off the coast of Cirebon in April 2004, and in October 2005 announced the end of its operation.

In total, the company recovered over 490,000 pieces of ceramic, gold coins, glassware and other materials dating back to China's fifth dynasty. The items were reportedly lost when in the 10th century a ship sank while sailing from the capital of Sriwijaya Kingdom (now Palembang, South Sumatra) to Singosari in what is now East Java.

Of the items recovered, it was determined 76,000 of the pieces could be restored and sold at auction. All of the materials were placed in a warehouse in Tangerang and a safe-deposit box with Bank Mandiri.

In October 2005, representatives of Christie's auction house visited the warehouse and agreed to organize an auction of the materials in Amsterdam in December this year. Experts estimated the total value of the pieces could reach US$40 million.

Despite having the proper permits, police confiscated the materials and the ship in January. Earlier this month they arrested a German citizen, identified as Fred Dobberphul, and a French citizen, identified as Jean-Paul Blancan, for "involvement in an illegal salvage operation".

"We are investigating them for illegally salvaging protected natural resources. They have violated the 1990 law on the conservation of natural resources. We have confiscated all of the materials recovered from the sea," National Police spokesman Brig. Gen. Anton Bachrul Alam said.

The Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry has sent a letter to the police asking them to halt the investigation and release the salvaged items and the detained foreign nationals. In the letter, the ministry says the salvage operation was legal and the recovered materials belong to the state.

However, National Police chief Gen. Sutanto said the investigation would continue unless the Attorney General's Office ordered its halt.

"We are still waiting for an interdepartmental solution. We hope this will be settled soon because we are worried the value of the salvaged items could drop," Hasyim said.


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