Breaking with Jakarta


Calls have been made for Indonesia’s Riau province to become a state of America. DERWIN PEREIRA considers if such proposals and breakaway moves elsewhere in the country signal the archipelago’s eventual fracture, or whether the centre can still hold.

Adversity often prompts innovation. Or at least that is the theory.

In Indonesia’s Riau province, academic Tabrani Rab is giving Jakarta the slight jitters and would certainly send the country’s founding fathers spinning in their graves with a rather novel plan: that Riau separate from the world’s largest archipelago and join the United States of America.

The government thinks he is crazy. Dr Tabrani feels otherwise, and is plodding away with the controversial plan that he hopes to encapsulate in a 500-page white paper titled, Options For An Independent Riau.

He suggests offering the Natunas, which sit atop the world’s largest liquefied gas field, and Riau’s huge oil reserves, to become the 51st state of the American federation, which geographically is 20,000km away on the other side of planet Earth.

Of course, this will never happen. It is impossible. Jakarta and the still hawkish military, bred in the bone with the cardinal notion of a unitary state, will never allow it, even more so now after suffering the humiliation of releasing East Timor.

Naturally, the US State Department has not commented on the plan.

But Dr Tabrani’s wild scheme is not the point. The significance of his ideas is that they reflect deep-seated unhappiness with the deal Riau has been dealt by Jakarta over the last 50 years.

By all rights, Riau should be the richest province of Indonesia, a sort of “Sumatran Brunei” with its four million population living off the fat of the land.

The reality is very different.

Although not the poorest province by any means, residents of Riau are hardly rich. The original ethnic Malay inhabitants are acutely aware that their wealth has been siphoned off to enable the political elite to live profligate lifestyles.

Even more galling, they see their Javanese neighbours living in complexes built by US oil conglomerates such as Caltex, enjoying a far higher standard than they do.

In varying degrees, Aceh, Irian Jaya and East Kalimantan have very similar stories to tell. Political discourse in these areas revolves, more than ever before, around a world-view opposed to perceived “Javanese imperialism”.

Besides this, widening disparities, made worse by the prevailing economic malaise, plus past military atrocities, is the lifeblood of a growing desire for a better deal both within the regions and in relation to Jakarta.

But compromise is in the air.

The government passed an Autonomy Bill and a revenue-sharing law in Parliament last week, which strategists in the Home Affairs Ministry hope will diffuse tensions in the provinces.

It is far too early to say whether these two laws will satisfy local demands. If the government does not live up to its words, calls from the regions will only grow louder.

For Jakarta, the key question is whether it can satisfy the outer islands without – paradoxically – encouraging the very separatist tendencies it is seeking to accommodate.

One can argue that concessions by regimes in large and diverse countries only whet the appetite of the regions for more.The former Soviet Union is instructive in this respect. Reformers like Mr Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, found himself on a slippery slide he could not control and ended up conceding far more than he ever intended to.

The USSR is no more today, replaced by several independent states. For conservatives in Jakarta, the tragedy of the fallen superpower is their greatest nightmare.


INDONESIA’s size, geography and ethnic diversity would have demanded a system of government that allowed considerable power to be devolved from the centre.

But, as political scientist Audrey Kahin of Cornell University argues, neither under the Dutch colonialists nor in the subsequent half century of independence has anything more than lip service been paid to the idea.

The Dutch Indies left a legacy of a strong central administration with a shell of largely powerless regions. The sinews of power were held by the Dutch and indigenous, mainly Javanese, civil servants.

The Dutch did experiment with the concept of federalism, but with ulterior political motives. In the ’40s, it moved to establish 15 states outside Java as counterweights to the newly-formed and fragile Indonesian republic.

Dutch efforts were aimed at undermining independence efforts by raising fears of “Javanese imperialism” in the outer islands. As a result of these moves, federalism and other concepts of decentralisation were discredited by the newly-independent Indonesian government under President Sukarno.

However, it was to appear again after a resurgence of regionalist and separatist tendencies in the ’50s.

There was widespread resentment at the preponderance of the country’s foreign exchange being channelled to Java, while nearly three-fourths of this income was being earned from the natural resources of the other islands.

Politically, economic grievances were matched by Jakarta’s refusal to allow people in the provinces and districts to elect their leaders. This was the prerogative of the central government. An autonomy law in 1948 permitting election in the regions was completely disregarded.

To diffuse tensions, the government passed a law in 1957 to strengthen earlier autonomy provisions. The regions would be granted full autonomy except in foreign affairs and defence.

In practice, this never happened, partly by design and also due to political circumstances. Armed rebellions in Sumatra and Sulawesi killed off all hopes and reinforced government suspicions of granting too much power to the outlying provinces.

Forced to confront a threat to the very existence of Indonesia, Jakarta had the excuse to impose martial law and ultimately impose a unitary state by force.

Mr Suharto’s ascendancy as president in the mid-’60s and Abri’s domination of government undercut, once and for all, any threats by movements for regional autonomy.

The first steps were taken in 1969 when the military centralised its structure creating regional commands that were subordinated to the centre. To prevent regional warlordism from re- emerging, Abri ensured that commanders outside Java and the military elite in Jakarta were always Javanese.

Added to this was the discovery of massive oil and natural gas resources, particularly in Aceh and East Kalimantan, and the willingness of foreign governments to pump huge financial support to the New Order regime. It provided the central government with the means to ensure loyalty throughout the archipelago.

As a consequence, Java rode the East Asian bubble with the oil boom and successful industrialisation. The outer islands, at their least restive, were like vassals at the periphery supporting their Javanese lord.

But the central government did not stop extending the tentacles of control. A transmigration policy was introduced to bind the country together by spreading Javanese people and culture throughout the archipelago.

A series of laws was passed from the ’70s, one of which was to standardise administrative structures throughout Indonesia. It established the desa, or village, as the lowest unit of administrative system. The desa’s internal organisation and functions were patterned curiously along the Javanese model of village government. These smaller villages gave Jakarta greater control, even more so because the village head, previously elected, was replaced under this law by a civil servant appointed by the governor.

With the new system in place, many revenue sources prescribed under local custom and law also became inoperative. Bit by bit, the provinces, districts and villages were put under Jakarta’s thumb.

Ironically, the more the screws turned, the more the seeds for regional dissidence were sown. With Mr Suharto’s downfall and the winds of reformasi, restive provinces such as Aceh and Irian Jaya began the push for a greater say. The turning-point really was the East Timor decision on Jan 27. It afforded others like resource-rich Riau and East Kalimantan, and to a lesser extent Central Kalimantan and South Sulawesi, to join the bandwagon for a fairer deal from Jakarta.

Notes a Cabinet Minister: “Our decision to let East Timor go its own way opened the floodgates of change. The other provinces just latched on to the opportunity to up the ante. There was no turning back.” The old historical question had re-emerged. For the first time in 50 years, the Javanese centre was being challenged openly by the outer islands.


JAKARTA responded arguably with innovation.

Dr Ryaas Rashid, the director-general for regional autonomy in the Home Affairs Ministry, led a seven-member team to formulate a law which will grant greater independence for provincial districts.

The Bill was passed in a plenary session last week after endorsement by all parliamentary factions.

Dr Ryaas tells Sunday Review that the major aim of the new law was to “pre-empt the disintegration and collapse of the Indonesian state if voices for autonomy later turn to calls to break away”.

“There is consensus that Jakarta does not understand the aspirations of Indonesians in the provinces. The central government has become very unpopular as a result,” he says. “The new law hopes to democratise local governments and give them more authority to make decisions in the interests of their community.”

The law would allow each provincial district:

* More freedom to recruit, promote and pay its own bureaucrats, draw up its own regulations, levy taxes and run schools and health centres;
* Authority over the exploitation of local resources, currently controlled by Jakarta, such as forestry, plantation, fishery and small-scale mining; and
* Political control by city councils, which will be allowed to conduct elections free of interference from the capital.

Defence, foreign affairs, judicial, fiscal and religious affairs would continue to remain in the hands of the central government. It would also be responsible for setting national standards in health and education.

It applies in principle to all 27 provinces, although a separate autonomy package has been prepared for the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, which has been offered independence if its residents reject autonomy in a ballot.

Home Affairs Minister Syarwan Hamid hailed the passage of the Bill. “What has been achieved will be recorded in the history of Indonesia as a new chapter towards the birth of regional governments that are truly decentralised.”

Dr Ryaas says that the law, which will take effect two years after its endorsement by the president, targets sub-regencies and, rather than provinces, for what he described as “heavy autonomy” because they were closest to the masyarakat and understood what local people wanted best.

The long-term aim, he adds, was to turn them into self-sustaining economic units that could generate revenue without relying on the central government for subsidies.

Far-sighted Indonesian economic planners had argued long before the monetary crisis struck the country in 1997 that over-centralisation was counter-productive. With the fall in oil revenues from the mid-’80s, there was already a pressing need to increase non-oil revenues and reduce financial dependency on the centre.

The problem became more pronounced with the economic downturn. “The crisis can only be overcome collectively,” says Dr Ryaas. “We have to give local authorities the power to generate income and revenue so that they can help us overcome the economic crisis. Jakarta has realised that this has to be done collectively and that it can’t go solo on this one.”

Linked to the autonomy law is a separate and more controversial Bill on revenue-sharing between central and regional governments which was also approved by legislators, albeit, after a heated parliamentary debate.

All provinces, especially the resource-rich ones, stand to get 15 and 30 per cent, respectively, of the oil and gas royalties – Jakarta’s most jealously-guarded cash cows. They will also receive 80 per cent of the revenue from fishery, forestry and gold, copper and tin mining.

Overall, they could get a more than 150-per cent jump in revenues from the central government. Government sources say the fiscal bill – dubbed “the soul of regional autonomy” – had long been considered the Achilles heel of reaching any compromise.

Dr Ryaas is confident that the provinces will accept an arrangement that gives them such increases. “I believe that most of them will accept the laws because it is our best effort to create a fair share between one region and another.”


THE island of Bengkalis is part of Riau. Unlike many of the 17,000 scattered landmass pieces that dot the Indonesian archipelago east to west for 5,000 km, it is no ordinary island.

Bengkalis is the oil well of Indonesia. To say it is rich is an understatement. Caltex says that the island, which is twice the size of Singapore and has a population of 1.1 million, produces some 600,000 barrels of oil daily and gives Jakarta 17 trillion rupiah a year.

Bengkalis’ chief economic planner Syukri Harto says that it gets 2 per cent of that amount yearly for development. He maintains that the autonomy law will allow his district to “recover from decades of stunted growth”.

“The laws were never fair before,” he says. “Now the government has decided to listen and give us our dues.”

What he finds appealing is its decision to let the districts manage economic sectors like farming and palm oil plantation that previously came under Jakarta’s purview.

An added bonus, he says, is that Bengkalis, like all other districts, will no longer have to go through provincial authorities and Jakarta for project approvals.

He cites land clearance as an example where both would pass conflicting orders to the district without an inkling of the ground situation.

Support for the autonomy plan, however, is qualified. Mr Syukri stresses that it depends on whether the government will give Bengkalis its 15-per cent share of the oil revenue.

If anything, this is where the people and elite at district and provincial level speak with one voice, even with the passing of the fiscal Bill. They say that Jakarta’s track record in the last 50 years of making empty promises on this is haunting.

The government’s formula for an equitable distribution also falls short of what some provinces had demanded initially. The figures vary, but they all want a much bigger share of the revenue pie. That is the heart of the matter.

Before the law was passed, Irian Jaya wanted 80 per cent of its revenue share, Aceh also 80 per cent and East Kalimantan 70 per cent. Only Riau got more than what it had asked for, which was 10 per cent of oil production and 60 per cent from other resources.

Miss Agus Azlaini of the Riau Chamber of Commerce says: “This is perhaps the biggest success of the Habibie administration. It is a big leap.

“For us, the crucial issue now is whether a new government that is elected after June will support this plan or kill it.” Besides natural resources, another matter that unites the provinces: concern that the government has decided to grant them only “light” or limited autonomy. They cannot elect their own governors. Their role is restricted largely to administration.

There will also no longer be a chain of command with districts playing the role of “subservient subordinates”.

In effect, the regions would be powerless. Government detractors charge that this is an elaborate ploy to undercut provincial power and its creeping assertiveness that could challenge the less than omnipotent centre.

Demands for economic and political changes in the last year, for example, have concentrated largely at provincial level. By reducing the governing unit to districts and villages, no serious centrifugal force could emerge. They are smaller in scale and much more manageable from a security perspective.

These shared perceptions go no further. Indeed, there is a discernible fault-line splitting the four provinces – Riau and East Kalimantan on one political pole, and Aceh and Irian Jaya on another.

Political temperatures are running high in Riau and the coal-mining haven of East Kalimantan. But many do back the autonomy proposals provided the government is willing to share the spoils fairly.

There is little evidence to suggest the growth of separatist forces in these two areas. If there are calls to break away, it may only be hot air to raise the political stakes in the duel with Jakarta.

There may be a handful of dreamers like Dr Tabrani Rab. But they are not pied pipers with followers in large numbers.

The reason is simple. These provinces never went through the wrenching psychological trauma of Aceh and Irian Jaya.

Go to once military-controlled districts in the latter two and one will notice a fairly widespread elite and ground opposition to the autonomy plan.

There is a history of opposition to central rule and separatist tendencies have taken on an organisational expression in the form of the Aceh Merdeka and Free Papua Movement.

Along Aceh’s east coast, on the northern tip of Sumatra, the small towns and cities have already declared their views. A white banner outside Lhokeseumawe declares: “War is not what we want. A referendum is what we demand.”

Another banner in a small town north of Siglie says: “Clearly an autonomy proposal is not enough for some Acehnese.” And burning Indonesia’s red-and-white-coloured national flag is the most acute manifestation of their feelings. In Irian Jaya, demonstrators on several occasions raised the flag of West Papua to symbolise an independent state.

It is not just about oil, gas or coal in these places. It is about losing loved ones, about having family members killed, raped and tortured by Abri soldiers during years of military operations to snuff out separatists.

Grievances against the military and the Javanese remain entrenched in their psyche, running like a San Andreas fault through the mind of Indonesia.

Two minds, two worlds, one country. Whatever autonomy plan in Aceh and Irian Jaya will confront an emotional stonewall. The head of Aceh’s Chamber of Commerce, Haji Sofyan Ibrahim Tiba, believes that such feelings will kill any government plan even if it is passed and implemented.

He says: “The autonomy laws sound a lot better than previous ones. But I don’t know what will happen in practice. We don’t trust the Javanese. One day they say yes and the next day they say no.

“Java has many wives and Aceh is one of them. We were used and it hurts badly. The only solution is a divorce.”

Many in Irian Jaya, the former Dutch West Irian, which was incorporated into Indonesia in 1963, share similar views. As Mr Willy Mandowen, a linguist at the Cendrawasih University in Jayapura, put it: “I think a lot of people won’t want anything to do with autonomy. It will be another 30 years of colonisation. Just give us back our independence. That is our human right.”


THERE are two major obstacles to regional autonomy taking shape. First, the financial implications are too hard for Jakarta to swallow and second, Abri will never allow Jakarta to release its grip on all but minor aspects of public policy to the region.

Insiders tell Sunday Review that the Finance Ministry, which had drawn up the revenue-sharing arrangement with the provinces, had stalled negotiations for a while because, as one presidential adviser notes “their demands were outrageous”. Even if a deal had been struck now, analysts believe Jakarta will tread very carefully on it given its economic implications for the country. For a start, the central government will be constrained by its US$100-billion foreign debt.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which put together a US$43-billion bailout plan in 1997, has insisted that servicing this debt should be Jakarta’s highest priority.

There is another dilemma. The government has to balance the demands for increasing revenue for resource-rich provinces with the policy of subsiding poor regions.

Mr Djohermansyah Djohan, a member of the team that drew up the autonomy law, says: “Reducing subsidies for the poor is very sensitive and a potentially-explosive issue in this period of economic crisis. The majority of people in Indonesia are dependent on subsidies from the central government. We cannot ignore the nation’s wider interests.”

While some of Jakarta’s financial planners are scratching their heads on whether the revenue-sharing Bill is practical, Abri generals are losing sleep on how to keep the country united.

Senior officers say that semantics played a large part in aggravating the situation and encouraging the regions to be more aggressive in their demands.

Says an army general: “Let’s be clear that what we are talking about is decentralisation. It is not autonomy. The Home Affairs Ministry is partly to blame for the choice of political terminology.

“The provinces and their districts have to understand that they are part of a big family and have to answer to Jakarta. They need to have a national outlook and bury their parochial demands.”

Despite withdrawing its forces from Aceh, Irian Jaya and East Timor, Abri has left intact the notorious Satuan Gabungan Intelijen (SGI) or Joint Intelligence Unit in these areas to continue surveillance on separatists.

Military intelligence sources say that the SGI will remain in place “for some time more” given Indonesia’s political volatility. Abri chief General Wiranto is also behind moves to increase the number of military territorial commands from 10 to 17. One can only assume that the aim, among other political motivations, is to tackle unexpected problems if autonomy fails. Such measures are understandable. For Javanese warriors like Gen Wiranto, the Natunas in the South China Sea, for example, are worth dying for.

After all, he commanded 20,000 troops and 15 ships in Indonesia’s largest-ever joint-defence exercise in 1996 against a mock invasion of the area, receiving the prestigious Bintang Dharma medal from Mr Suharto for this and setting him up for his current exalted office.

Psychologically, he and other senior officers will never bend. Abri, they maintain, has shed too much blood keeping Indonesia together.

Moreover, if East Timor goes independent, the military would have suffered its greatest humiliation and will be in no mood to make any further concessions – ever, if they have their own way.

Besides political and economic factors, there are practical problems. The government argues that more authority on investment policies would encourage local authorities to link up faster with foreign investors.

That is one reason why Jakarta is keen to grant tax incentives for foreign firms to take part in exploration and production work in the provinces. Others, however, are not too optimistic it will be smooth sailing.

An official of the state-owned Pertamina oil and gas agency cites, as an example, land compensation for oil exploration. Most districts would have drawn up their own regulations and prices that could vary significantly.

“The rules of the game will be difficult to comprehend because they will be so varied,” he says. “There could be a lot of confusion on the ground both for the locals as well as investors.”


THE theory of chaos, in natural science, explains how a butterfly beating its wings over the Amazon can lead to a hurricane in the Caribbean.

For the generals and bureaucrats in Jakarta, every little movement in the provinces has the potential to dismember Indonesia. For them, it demonstrates chaos theory at work in politics.

Are their fears justified, or is it nothing but paranoia borne of a schizophrenic political climate?

Abri and nationalist elements say that reformasi has lit a flame of expectation in the regions. The flame will burn even brighter. It is the Pandora’s Box caution. Hope, if allowed to escape, can be the most terrible threat to an established order.

According to this view, history is a linear progression and it will only be a matter of time before the country becomes the United States of Indonesia or breaks up into several independent entities like the former USSR or Yugoslavia.

Perhaps. One problem though. Not all butterflies cause hurricanes. Millions of butterflies flap billions of times all over the world with little immediate consequences. Rational people go about life without worrying about butterflies.

The Indonesian elite may be an exception in this respect. Preconditioned by the country’s history and political culture, they find rational debate on public policy issues difficult. This is most instructive in the autonomy debate.

Nationalists talk about “disintegrasi Indonesia” taking place overnight, academics in Riau talk about joining the US, and local leaders from Irian Jaya are waiting for the United Nations to intervene and bail the province out.

All these appear rather far-fetched. Indonesia is not going to break up. For now at least.

There is no evidence of active centrifugal forces that could bring about the country’s “balkanisation”. Obvious tensions exist in Aceh, Irian Jaya and, to a lesser extent, in Riau and East Kalimantan. But there is neither the demographic weight nor the force to challenge Jakarta.

Every historical era reflects a specific power configuration between political forces that shape a country’s destiny.

In Indonesia, regional dissidence in 1999 is nowhere near as potent as it was in the ’50s. For one, the identity of interests that existed between the civilian and military elite to spark off armed rebellions in provinces like Sumatra and South Sulawesi then is conspicuously absent now.

There is also no united front, for the moment, among the provinces.

Today, the balance between centripetal forces and tendencies that threaten to tear Indonesia apart is tilted in favour of the former. This power constellation will continue provided the centre holds.

Most critical here is the type of coalition government that will emerge in the upcoming June general election and how it copes with the demands of “that other world” in Aceh and Irian Jaya.

Jakarta also has to come to terms with the fact that its transmigration policies and the half-finished process of nation-building have left Indonesia like a half-made omelette, not quite the melting pot of relatively successful, multi-ethnic countries like America.

Transmigration may have bought some unity but, paradoxically, at the cost of greatly escalating religious and ethnic conflict throughout the archipelago.

The violence in Ambon and West Kalimantan are only two bloody examples of what can go wrong when the central government attempts social engineering without understanding the full consequences.

An even more worrying sign is the sporadic violence engineered by rogue military elements to further the interests of certain political groups. They are tugging dangerously at loosening the yarn that can sunder Indonesia.

But, despite these problems, one must remember that Indonesia is a much more unified entity than it has ever been, both in the colonial period and before.

What it lacks most is confidence in this unity. Maybe it is because the government senses that it has pursued misguided policies in the regions for the last 50 years.

For the first time, perhaps, it might have got things right by passing the autonomy and revenue-sharing laws. They mark a significant breakthrough.

But it could all turn out to be another half-baked solution if the government backtracks on its implementation – as it had done several times before – and fails to give provinces a bigger share of the financial pie.

So, it remains to be seen whether Jakarta’s dead hand will be lifted fully on this age-old issue. Otherwise, Indonesia’s elite will continue to be haunted by fears of disintegration.

And what is more, it might just lead to further cycles of “innovation”.


In these hard times, cash-strapped but resource-rich provinces of Indonesia have accused Jakarta of siphoning off their wealth and doing little for them in return. Sunday Review takes a look some of the hotspots and their demands

* Huge natural gas fields on the east coast around Lhokseumawe and Lhoksukon. Managed by Mobil oil.
* Sizeable reserves of oil, gold, silver, copper and coal.
* Extensive agricultural plantations and fertiliser plants.
* Aceh contributes between US$2 billion (S$3.4 billion) to US$3 billion annually to Indonesia’s foreign exchange earnings.
* Strong Islamic identity, activities of the Aceh Merdeka Movement and the trauma of decade-long military atrocities in three districts is fuelling pressure for separation.

* Oil well of Indonesia. Produces more than 750,000 barrels daily mainly from the Bengkalis and Kampar islands.
* Natunas, the largest liquefied gas field in the world.
* Coal deposits.
* Palm oil plantations and fisheries in abundance.
* Contributes up to US$3 billion a year to the central government.

East Kalimantan
* Lucrative oil and gas industries.
* Timber production.
* Expanding coal and gold ventures.
* Contributes more than US$1 billion to Jakarta every year.

Irian Jaya
* Has one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines. Both are managed by US-run PT Freeport Indonesia.
* Gives more than US$1 billion a year to the Indonesian economy.
* Added resentment against establishment as a result of human rights atrocities by Abri.
* Calls for independence resisted by central government which is proposing as an alternative that Irian Jaya be divided into three autonomous regions.

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