RANAI, Indonesia — Two days after Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo welcomed the continent to the Asian Games in August, the most popular member of his government offered the region a very different message. Susi Pudjiastuti, minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, sent 125 boats, mostly from neighboring countries, to the bottom of the sea.

It was the largest mass destruction of vessels linked to illegal fishing since Pudjiastuti entered government in 2014. And Indonesians seem to love her for it.

The explosions that scuttle the ships have become a national spectacle, making Pudjiastuti a wildly popular symbol of Indonesian strength by strictly enforcing nautical borders and adding to her image as one of the nation's most powerful women.

A total of 488 ships now sleep with the fishes. More will likely join them.

“Our plan was to create a deterrent by blowing up the vessels, publishing the footage, and showing the world we are really serious,” said Pudjiastuti in late August visiting the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. “Since the return of democracy [in 1998], a lot of things have improved in Indonesia, but nothing had changed when it came to our natural resources. The oligarchy still had control.”

“We had to clean up! That means being uncompromising,” she added, before puffing on a cigarette, smiling, and saying: “I'm nasty.”

She spent the morning in the Natuna archipelago commanding two small boats and a crew of employees — with her grandchildren along for the ride — surveying the coastline, meeting with local village leaders and directing men to pick up trash. The men wore wet suit tops emblazoned with the slogan, “the sea is our future.”

Then she went for a spin on a standup paddle board.


Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti surveys the seas near the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. (Photo by Didi Heriyanto)

Pudjiastuti's focus is technically to regulate fishing, but she's keenly aware that these chaotic waters are host to an array of serious issues. There is the fear of Chinese expansionism. There is drug smuggling, human trafficking, and piracy.

And she knows that her hard-charging, devil-may-care reputation has made her a celebrity on social media. Indonesians pass around images of her dancing out in the ocean, sprawled out sleeping at JFK airport in New York, and, of course, blowing up ships.

The president, Jokowi — though respected as a capable, relative moderate in the world's fourth-most populous country — has not been particularly active in the global arena. Whether intentionally or not, it has often fallen to the famous “Minister Susi” to project strength abroad and fire up feelings of pride in the young, diverse nation spread across more than 15,000 islands.

She's far more popular than the minister of foreign affairs, or indeed any other cabinet member, according to a survey released last year. This year, another poll indicated she is the most admired woman in the country, and citizens often describe her in epic terms.

“She is truly brave,” said 19-year-old Dali Hermansyah, a native of the Natuna Islands. “Maybe Indonesia has had greater heroes before. But they're all dead. She is the greatest living Indonesian hero.”

It's often reported that her beef is primarily with China. But more than half the boats destroyed — 276 — are from Vietnam, followed by vessels from the Philippines (90), Thailand (50), and Malaysia (41)s. Only one actually flew the Chinese flag, but she says most, if not all, of 26 caught and destroyed flying Indonesian flags were really under Beijing's control.


The Indonesian navy scuttles foreign fishing vessels caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters near Bitung, North Sulawesi on May 20, 2015. (Antara Foto/Reuters)

Ministry figures assert that the stock of available fish has more than doubled since 2013. Imam Musthofa, head of the World Wildlife Fund's Seascape and Fisheries program in Eastern Indonesia, says those numbers are exaggerated.

“According to us, that's not entirely true,” he said, not only because it simply takes longer for fish, especially big ones like tuna, to regenerate.

But he said it's clear her time in government has been good overall for the environment. “She has the right objectives and the political will, even if execution could be improved with more research.”

Pudjiastuti says they no longer use big explosions to sink the boats, because she has gotten the attention she initially wanted. And she denies that by littering the sea with wreckage, she's simply creating underwater trash.

“We only sink wood and metal boats, while removing the fiber ones from the water,” she said, now relaxing overlooking the sea at night. “Actually, the iron ships are good for creating future diving sites — they mean new reefs, new homes for fish — and we've even gotten requests to drop more near Bali to drive tourism.”

“Fishing makes up around 2, 3 percent of the Indonesian economy, which is still significant because of how big the country is,” said Yose Rizal Damuri, head of the economic department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. “But support for economic nationalism is Indonesia is very high, especially in extractive industries such as mining and finishing.”

This desire to preserve Indonesian resources for locals, was one of the main drivers of the creation of the nation itself, when Indonesians threw out the Dutch Empire after World War II and then struggled to forge a path independent from the world's economic powers — including the United States — before falling to decades of dictatorship.

“I just want to keep this spirit alive,” she said.

Stanley Widianto contributed reporting from Jakarta.