JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network): President 'Jokowi' Widodo has described local opposition to plans to develop a new eco-city project on Rempang Island, in Riau Islands, as a case of miscommunication, as he promised to send Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia to resolve the issue.
Over the past week, Rempang residents have been staging protests against the development plan. The national strategic project is slated to turn the 17,000-hectare island into a new economic zone that is expected to attract US$11.5 billion in investment, but at a cost of the forced eviction of hundreds of families living on the island.
Local demonstrators felled trees, burned tires and hurled stones and Molotov cocktails on the Batam, Rempang and Galang (Balerang) Bridge last Thursday (Sept 7), and in front of the office of the Batam Free Trade Zone Authority (BP Batam), one of the developers of the project, on Monday.
Security forces have fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds, while also arresting dozens of locals suspected of inciting the riots.
The President, however, said that the trouble in Rempang is simply due to “poor communication”.
According to Jokowi, local families had agreed on a deal for their eviction to be compensated with a 500-square-metre plot of land, along with a 45sq m house.
“But, due to the poor communication, [the eco-city project] has suddenly become an issue,”
Jokowi told reporters on Tuesday, adding that he would send Investment Minister Bahlil to Rempang to hold dialogue with locals.
Bahlil previously met with Rempang residents in August, although the meeting resulted in stalemate, as the government insisted on going through with the development project despite complaints from locals against the eviction plans.
The government claims that people living in Rempang are illegal squatters, as the island has been leased since 2002.
Human rights concerns
On Tuesday, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) mediated a closed-door meeting between Rempang locals and representatives of BP Batam, the Batam administration and local police. Komnas HAM chairwoman Atnike Nova Sigiro called on both Rempang locals and authorities to refrain from using force and to prioritise holding dialogue.
The Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI), meanwhile, has condemned the arrest of local people and the use of force by security personnel during the recent demonstrations, saying that the incidents were part of a growing trend of state repression to stamp out resistance to national strategic projects.
Drawing comparisons with the Wadas unrest in Central Java in 2022, the YLBHI said in a statement on Wednesday that these projects often “result in vertical conflicts between the state and its people” despite the projects’ intention of improving public welfare.
Rising tensions in Rempang also caught the attention of lawmakers, with members of House of Representatives Commission XI overseeing national development grilling BP Batam head Muhammad Rudi, who also serves as Batam mayor, during a meeting on Wednesday.
Following a series of questions from lawmakers probing into the Rempang riots, Rudi said that external provocateurs were likely riling up the Rempang community.
“[The negotiation process earlier this year] went fine, but when we came back [to Rempang recently], there were a lot of provocateurs that made the locals think twice about the deal,” Rudi said, adding that most of these provocateurs were likely to be informal landlords who would not receive compensation in the eviction process.
Rudi also said most of the people who participated in Monday’s demonstrations were not Rempang locals.
He also denied allegations that any civilians were injured during the demonstrations. He added that BP Batam had no choice but to complete the eviction process by the end of the month, lest it risk investors pulling out of the eco-city project.
In July, Indonesia signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Chinese glass manufacturers Xinyi Group to make Rempang home to the second-largest glass factory in the world. This comes as part of President Jokowi’s focus on downstreaming, as it would allow Indonesia to produce its own glass, rather than simply exporting raw quartz, similar to the government’s recent focus on developing nickel-processing plants after it imposed a nickel export ban.
Observers, however, have drawn parallels between the Rempang eco-city project and other Chinese-backed industries built throughout the country, which are usually met with resistance from locals.
In January, a labour strike turned violent at a Chinese-operated nickel-smelting factory in Central Sulawesi’s North Morowali regency, leaving at least two workers dead, including a Chinese national.
Discrimination against Chinese workers and sentiment that they are taking jobs away from locals were also rampant during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, as numerous Chinese workers were denied entry throughout the country under the guise that they might bring in the coronavirus from China, where the disease is believed to have originated.