Sep 25, 2020 Last Updated 8:00 AM, Sep 25, 2020

A peaceful road to freedom

Published: Sep 11, 2007

Freek Colombijn

'Indonesians in the resource-rich outer regions no longer accept the heavy hand of Jakarta', Anne Booth writes in the last Inside Indonesia (July-September 1999). But the various regions differ greatly in the form of resistance they choose. On 15 March 1999 students of the Universitas Riau and other universities in Pekanbaru came to Professor Tabrani Rab, their teacher and the foremost informal leader of the province. Imitating the youth group who had once forced Sukarno and Hatta to proclaim Independence in 1945, the students handed over to Tabrani a declaration of independence for Riau, expecting him to read it out. Tabrani, caught in the crossfire between students, journalists, and police, wrote his own text and, instead of independence (Riau Merdeka), proclaimed the sovereignty of Riau (Riau berdaulat).

It is difficult to determine whether Tabrani's following actually consists of more than a few hundred faithful students, but there is no doubt that almost everybody in Pekanbaru spoke about the prospect of an independent Riau in the near future. Many calculated that if the oil revenues generated by Riau were to remain in the region, everybody would be rich. At present 15% of the oil revenue goes to Caltex Pacific Indonesia, the main contractor, 85% to Jakarta (last year it amounted to US$2 billion), and nothing remains in Riau itself.

About the same time, another Riau group put forward more modest, but equally insistent claims to Jakarta. A big group consisting of many prominent Riau figures went to Jakarta. The claim they presented was for 10% of the net oil revenues, and they warned of unrest in Riau if this were not granted. The governor of Riau, Saleh Djasit led the group, but the chief spokesman was the rector of Universitas Riau, Professor Muchtar Ahmad. By his actions, the recently installed governor indicated official provincial blessing for the initiative, yet managed to stay aloof. The group met delegations from two other resource-rich provinces, Aceh and East Kalimantan, to discuss a joint strategy by which to approach the national government. Later, the head of the national planning board received the Riau delegation, but not by the Minister of Finance, Bambang Subianto, which was a slap in the face for the delegates.

Tabrani took no part in the mission to Jakarta, but in the same week he issued a court summons to President B J Habibie, together with the Minister of Mining and Energy, the oil company Caltex Pacific Indonesia, and Pertamina. He alleged that President Habibie had already promised to return 10% of the oil revenues to Riau the previous year. As far as Tabrani was concerned, there was no longer any need to discuss the desirability of the 10% claim; Habibie only had to be forced to keep his promise. A remarkable incident during the first day in court was that the plaintiff had a writer read out a poem about the fate of tribal people in Riau. The lawsuit indicates the much greater openness today, and it underlines the lack of respect for Habibie. Ordinary people in Riau were sceptical about achieving any juridical success, but interpreted the lawsuit as a 'move' - that is the word they used - to back the 10% claim. The outcome of the case is still unclear.

Malay identity

On 23 April a new national law was passed decreeing that 15% of net oil revenue and 80% of forestry revenue are to remain in the provinces in which those revenues originate. This is more than the 10% demanded, but it remains to be seen how the law will work out in practice. Whereas experts expect no more than a 45% increase in the subsidy Riau now gets from Jakarta (Far Eastern Economic Review 13 May 1999), a local accountant calculated a 6.7 million times increase of the provincial budget (Riau Pos 14 April 1999). This raises the question of who would be entitled to share in the oil spoils, if 10-15% were to remain in the province. The question would become even more pressing were all revenues to remain in Riau Merdeka.

The original population consisted of Malays and various tribal groups, but Riau has always been very open to immigrants. Who then would be a citizen of the Republic of Riau? Only Malays and the tribal people? Or would they include the descendants of 19th century migrants? Or migrants of 30 years ago, or just 3 months ago? This question has not been addressed in Riau, let alone resolved. The many migrants have made the Malays an ethnic minority in their own province, and they feel uncertain about what constitutes their own ethnic identity. One idiosyncratic feature serving to mark their identity might be their long and vigorous tradition of written literature. It was no coincidence, therefore, the reading out of a poem preceded that in the lawsuit against Habibie launched by Tabrani the claim.

It is easy to imagine a Balkanisation of Riau, a process in which long forgotten loyalties are rediscovered, or imagined. There is, however, a sincere and very common feeling among the inhabitants of Riau that the pursuit of 10%, or more, does not warrant any violence. The violent events in Ambon and Sambas (West Kalimantan) have served as a deterrent, and in Riau little more than the smashing of some vehicles belonging to Caltex has occurred. Riau is seeking its own peaceful way towards more freedom.

Freek Colombijn ( is a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

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