A lobster export scam has led to the arrest and departure of a Cabinet minister in Indonesia. Image: iStock

JAKARTA – The arrest and subsequent resignation of Maritime Affairs Minister Edhy Prabowo on corruption charges over the export of lobster seed to Vietnam has raised media speculation about a possible split between President Joko Widodo and Defense Minster Prabowo Subianto, Widodo’s former presidential rival.

Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) officers took the 47-year-old minister into custody after his early morning arrival from Hawaii on November 25, something they could not have done without the prior approval of the president.

Investigators have also detained Prabowo’s wife, another nine ministry officials and six suspects from private companies in what a KPK spokesman described as a sting operation directed against an export monopoly that had been under public scrutiny for some time.

Subianto has yet to react to the arrest of one of his closest aides, but observers believe he will seek to mitigate any tensions with the president arising from the arrest. “I think he will cut him (Prabowo) loose,” says one analyst. “He (Subianto) has his own ambitions and interests to consider.”

With Subianto’s own Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) remaining silent as well, former deputy chairman Arief Poyuono chimed in his assessment: “This is a slap in the face for him, given that he has preached against graft and stated it is a stage four cancer.”

In his only comment on the case, Widodo indicated support for the KPK’s move, which has rocked the Indonesian capital. “I believe the KPK has been working in an open, transparent and professional manner,” he said in a video released by his office. 

In a November 16 television interview, the president said he was largely satisfied with the performance of the current crop of ministers and thought they were working together better than his previous Cabinet.

But he didn’t rule out a reshuffle either, which will now become inevitable with Prabowo’s indictment and resignation. The president has previously criticized the lackluster showing of Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, who will still be nominally in charge of distributing the coronavirus vaccine when it finally arrives.

Agriculture Minister Syahul Yasin Limpo, an appointee from media magnate Surya Paloh’s National Democratic Party (Nasdem), has also been under fire for neglecting the country’s farmers after a significant decline in food crop and small plantation production.

Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo (C) talks to the press after being questioned at the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) Building, Jakarta, Indonesia on November 25, 2020. Photo: Eko Siswono Toyudho / Anadolu Agency / AFP

Prabowo has been with Subianto every step of the way since the former general returned from self-imposed exile in the early 2000s to launch a political career at the head of Gerindra, now one of the mainstays of the Widodo coalition.

After last year’s bitterly fought presidential campaign, Widodo shocked the political community by bringing Subianto into his second-term Cabinet in what many commentators saw as a clever move to remove him from the opposition’s ranks.

In doing so, he also set his rival up for another tilt at the presidency in 2024 when Widodo won’t be eligible to run. Gerindra has the third highest number of seats in Parliament behind the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and the Golkar Party.

Subianto has been in his element as defense minister, traveling widely while steering well clear of political landmines and apparently enjoying a cordial relationship with Widodo, whose mind remains firmly fixed on reviving the economy.

Only recently recovered from Covid-19, Prabowo had been compelled by US health protocols to stop over in Los Angeles first before he could fly on to Hawaii for a visit to Pacific University’s maritime research center.

He is the second minister in Widodo’s administration to face corruption charges. Youth and Sports Minister Imam Nahrawi resigned in September last year after he was indicted by the KPK for misusing a $1.8 million grant. He was later jailed for seven years. 

The lobster scandal had been simmering since last May when Prabowo controversially scrapped predecessor Susi Pudjiastiti’s 2016 ban on the export of lobster seed, which she had introduced after a sharp decline in domestic production.

Prabowo claimed the ban had led to rampant smuggling of the wild-caught seed and said it would be better for the government to legalize the trade and allow the state to benefit from the taxes.

Koran Tempo daily recently published a series of reports alleging subsequent collusion between the fisheries ministry and some of the 31 companies awarded licenses to export seed, whose owners and directors are linked to Gerindra.

Former Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti has overseen the demolition of foreign fishing boats caught poaching in Indonesian waters. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum/Donal Husni

Two other suspect companies are run by a former senior fisheries official who Pudjiastuti sacked in 2017 after he was convicted and jailed for seed smuggling and money laundering. 

Tempo claimed that some of the firms implicated in the scandal were only formed a few months ago, apparently for the express purpose of cashing in on the re-opening of the trade.

Vietnam has a thriving lobster export trade, mostly built around a stable supply of about four to five million domestically caught seed which are then on-grown to market size.

But given the insatiable demands of the China market, Vietnam has sought to expand its farmed lobster production by importing seed from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Indonesia’s natural supply of seed lobsters is as much as 20 times greater than Vietnam and over the space of a few years, before the ban came into force, more than 100 million were captured in Indonesian waters and then primarily exported to Vietnam.

Pudjiastuti changed all that, insisting that Indonesia had the potential to establish the world’s largest lobster aquaculture industry and provide its impoverished small-time fishermen with improved livelihoods. She was not available for comment on the latest development.  

Australian aquaculture expert Clive Jones, who is involved in a collaborative lobster farming project with Indonesia, says while seed lobster may sell for 74 US cents to $3.50, fully grown one-kilogram lobsters fetch between $50 and $100 each, depending on the variety.

Prabowo’s association with Subianto dates back to 1993 when a budding army career abruptly ended with his expulsion from the Indonesian Military Academy for fighting.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) shakes hands with Chairman of Gerindra Party Prabowo Subianto after Jokowi was sworn in for a second term as president at the parliament building in Jakarta on October 20, 2019. Photo by Achmad Ibrahim/Pool/AFP

According to an unofficial biography, Subianto paid for Prabowo’s higher education and also to become a leading exponent of pencak silat, a form of martial arts practiced across Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia.

After Subianto’s court martial for insubordination in 1998, Prabowo stuck with his mentor during the two years the disgraced general spent in Jordan, then followed him into politics in 2008 when he formed Gerindra in time for the 2009 general elections.

Representing his native South Sumatra, Prabowo served two parliamentary terms between 2009 and 2019, finally becoming chairman of the House agriculture and fisheries commission.

Although he won a third term in 2019, Prabowo relinquished his seat after his appointment to the Cabinet in place of Pudjiastuti, one of Widodo’s most effective but also most disruptive ministers who had a stormy relationship with powerful maritime coordinating minister Luhut Panjaitan.