The residents of Rempang Island and the surrounding Malay community are indignant. The Indonesian government’s effort to provide a space for a glass factory by China’s Xinyi Group means local residents are under a threat of being evicted from their homes, which they have occupied for a long time.
The residents held a demonstration on 7 September 2023 when the authorities were surveying the land. This demonstration ended in chaos. Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Unfortunately, the police’s actions had additional, unexpected negative effects. Tear gas explosions hit children at schools near the riot site, resulting in their being rushed to the hospital.
This incident went viral nationwide, especially when the picture of a father holding his toddler, who fainted after being hit by tear gas, was posted on social media. Responding to the riots that occurred, the Riau Malay Traditional Institute (LAM) issued a notice containing a warning and asking the governments to refrain from using “repressive, intimidating, and criminalizing methods”.
The violence on Rempang Island adds to the long list of land disputes in the country, which in our assessment, potentially threatens the national unity that Jakarta must take seriously. There is a perception that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government is handing over the area to a foreign company (from China, of all places) and this does not sit well with the Malay community in the country. This is a potential concern, as members of Sumatera’s Malay community had once pronounced intention to break away from Indonesia through the Free Riau Movement (FRM) in the 1990s.
The History of FRM
FRM was a form of protest by the Riau Community that was first galvanized three decades ago. Quoting Halloriau, this action was instigated by the political manoeuvring of the central government under Soeharto in 1985. At that time, Ismail Suko, a native of Riau, was officially elected by Riau’s Regional People’s Representative Assembly (DPRD) to be governor. In the vote, Suko surpassed TNI Major General Imam Munandar, who was favored by the central government to run for the second time.
However, General Benny Moerdani, Commander of the National Army and practically an extension of President Soeharto, appointed Imam Munandar as the province’s governor. An influential Riau community figure at the time, Prof. Tabrani Rab, called this development an act of insult to the people of Riau.
Tabrani then became a figure who played a big role in the FRM leadership. The group’s activism reached its peak on 15 March 1999, when Tabrani declared his demands for a “Free Riau” at his residence on Jalan Pattimura, Pekanbaru. The following is part of his declaration speech:
“For more than half a century we have depended on this republic for our livelihoods. During that time our oil was looted. Not a drop trickled down to our land. For more than a quarter of a century our land has been plundered by a central conspiracy and conglomerate. So today, we decided to determine our own destiny.”
FRM quickly became a hot topic among press alliance activists in universities and other elements of the society.
It is not surprising why many youth figures and activists gravitated towards this discourse. The disparity between development levels in Jakarta or Jawa Island and the rest of the country, including Riau, was stark. People at the grassroots level felt jealous and left behind. Riau, a region that is rich in natural energy resources and has the nickname “above the (palm) oil below the (crude) oil”, was actually the biggest producer of oil and gas at the time, yet its benefit did not translate into the welfare of the people.
It is true, in fact, that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Riau was afflicted with issues of poverty, whereby the percentage of the poor increased post-1997 crisis. This is because majority of the population still relied on traditional farming. By 2003, the poor portion of the population mainly concentrated within the agricultural sector. A stark contrast to a province which was supposedly the biggest oil and gas producer during this period.
A New Wave of Opposition
This brief throwback to the history of FRM is pertinent for one reason – it reinforces a trend of central government’s lack of attention and regard towards regional or peripheral areas.
In this case, the latest upheaval in Rempang Island has a potential to follow the pattern of protest that led to the rise of the FRM. If in the Soeharto’s era the central government was more inclined ensure a military grip over the province and Riau people, then in Jokowi’s era the central government appeared to cater to the demand and pressure by foreign investor, at the cost of the livelihood of the local Malay people.
Jokowi actually promised to distribute land certificates to the residents of Kampung Tua of Rempang Island as part of his presidential campaign in 2019. It must be noted that back then, many land disputes emanated from overlapping claims. However, the promise has not been fulfilled until now. Worse, the government’s explanation that the dispute was the result of misunderstandings could easily be perceived – or misperceived – as a dismissive attitude towards the whole situation and the Rempang people.
Considering these communication misnomers, the government should adopt a more measured approach in resolving the Rempang dispute. Most paramount is the imperative to ensure that the Rempang dispute does not escalate to a national security situation, as it will only disrupt Indonesia’s endeavour to promote economic development and spook foreign investors.
Below are several risks appended to the whole situation.
Opening Up Old Wounds
The dispute could trigger the opening of old wounds among the Malay people in Riau, who previously felt they were being ignored. If the government fails to quell their disappointment and anger, it is plausible that the grassroots community would drum up anti-Jakarta sentiment once again.
Currently, many influential figures from Riau have spoken out. One of them was Ustadz Abdul Somad, who invited Malay figures and lawyers to speak up to defend the people of Rempang Island. Various Malay community groups from various regions also chipped in, such as the Jambi Malay Community, West Kalimantan Malay Community, Rempang Galang Medan Solidarity and others. This massive response from Malay figures and organizations has the potential to galvanize a mass mobilization of Indonesia’s Malay community to fight for their rights, even if it means opposing the central government’s wishes.
The Malay People of Riau is intimate with Malaysia
The proximity of Riau and the Riau Islands to Malaysia cannot be denied, especially in geographical and cultural aspects. There are similarities in the culture of the Riau people and Malaysians, including in the spheres of language, religion and shared history. There are also people of Riau origins in Malaysia and vice versa. This close relationship is formally demonstrated by the presence of a Malaysian consulate in Pekanbaru, Riau’s capital.
There is a concern that the anti-Jakarta sentiment that transpired from the Rempang incident might somehow translate into a desire to join Malaysia. If the Indonesian government continues to ignore the interests of the Malay community in the case of Rempang Island, such a sentiment might not sound too alien for the grassroots who already feel alienated.
Such seditious narrative materialized towards the end of last year. The regent of Meranti Islands, a regency of Riau, threatened to seize control and join Malaysia because he believed the central government did not prioritize the welfare of his people. A similar issue was raised: despite the high production of oil in his area, the benefit did not trickle down to the people.
It should be noted that there are similar sentiments across the Malacca Strait. Also in 2022, former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad stated that the Riau Islands should become part of Malaysia because the region “is part of Tanah Melayu.” Similar sentiment has also been expressed at the grassroots level. In 2015, chatters in a discussion forum in Malaysia claimed that Sumatra belonged to Malaysia, bearing the controversial title “Sumatra itu milik Malaysia“.
The 2024 Election as a Momentum
FRM reached its peak in 1999 amidst the euphoria of Reformasi, when Jakarta had its hand full with matters pertaining to political and bureaucratic reforms of the central government.
In the next few months, Indonesia will conduct the first simultaneous elections of all levels of governance in its history. Central government’s occupation with this massive democratic process might be exploited by foreign agents to spark chaos in the country – the Rempang Island dispute could provide a perfect context for such a scenario if the problem is not resolved properly.
With the various considerations above, the central government must work towards providing an optimum solution for the community of the Rempang Island so that this dispute does not escalate further. There are three ways to do this: 1) effective public communication; 2) fair and just compensation, and; 3) avoidance of the use of violence. Furthermore, the central government must be more careful when approaching sensitive matters such as land ownership and foreign investments. Small mistakes in its policy execution could easily be exploited by external parties who seek personal gain at the expense of the Indonesia’s unity.