Politics with a local flavour

  • Nation
  • Saturday, 26 Jun 2004

IBU DESLINARTI stood in the middle of her eight-hectares padi field. I stepped away when she talked to one of her tenant farmers. As they discussed the harvest I took in the magnificent view.  

Two active volcanoes frame the 40-year-old Minangkabau woman. Gunung Merapi, at 2,891m, towered behind her. Gunung Singgalang matches it. In between, the landscape is lush and dramatic.  

My drive from Bukittinggi, took me through some of the most beautiful countryside I have seen in Southeast Asia: cinnamon trees and bamboo groves, exquisite padi fields and water.  

. The sharply pointed roofs of the rumah gading – shaped like a buffalo’s horns – seem to rise out of the rich volcanic soil, along with the bulbous metallic domes of the various mushollahs peeking through the foliage. 

I had come to Lintau to get a sense of how the elections was affecting this bucolic part of Sumatra and discovered that outside Jakarta, politics takes on an intensely local flavour.  

Here in the homeland of Padang food, public life has become as spicy and as diverse as the cooking. It can also make you illEarlier this month, 43 of the 55 members of the West Sumatran legislature were found guilty of corruption. 

The balance of power between the centre and periphery – referred to as otonomi daerah (regional autonomy) in the local media - has become a contentious and highly emotional issue in contemporary Indonesia.  

After three decades of Suharto’s authoritarian ways, the decentralisation of power was inevitable. With the introduction of two major legislations - Law 22 and 25 - in January 2001, authority was yanked away from Jakarta.  

However, instead of settling the power on the country’s 30 provinces, some of which had a history of separatism (Papua, Acheh and Maluku, to name a few), the constitutional draughtsmen chose to pass the powers further down the ‘food-chain’ to Indonesia’s 416 regencies and municipalities.  

It was massive shift in government authority that left the centre with just five key areas of responsibility: diplomatic relations, national defence, fiscal and monetary authority as well as judicial and religious affairs. .  

Nearly two million civil servants were re-assigned from the central government to both provincial and regency governments. 

Decentralization brought about three changes in Indonesian politics. 

First, it gave provincial and district legislatures the power to elect local governors and district heads and to approve budgets. 

Secondly, local communities were empowered to make decisions on investment, public works, education and culture and thirdly, communities were supposed to ensure that leaders do not abuse their powers. 

For Ibu Deslinarti, a passionate advocate of Minangkabau adat and culture, regional autonomy has been positive overall: “We are taking charge of our own lives and our communities. Of course there are those who see the changes as a chance to make money. They must be brought to justice and we, in turn, will learn.”  

Over lunch, Deslinarti, who is unmarried, explained how the family’s property is managed: “Harta pesaka (customary property) is in the name of the head of the family, who is always a man. In this case it is my brother.”  

Besides her largehome, she runs a car workshop, six fish ponds and fruit orchards dotted across the valley. 

She said the land cannot be sold or transferred. “And since I am living in the family home I have complete control over the income from the property.  

“My brother can inquire about the income but cannot direct me to do anything I don’t want to do.” 

Interestingly the Minangkabau approach to property has impacted negatively on one of West Sumatra’s largest businesses, Semen Padang – a cement plant set up by the Dutch in the early 1900s and treated by the Minangkabau with fondness.  

Semen Padang’s failed privatisation in 1999 demonstrates how decentralisation had given rise to increased tensions between the centre and the periphery, as culture differences are reinforced by constitutional changes.  

, Semen Padang was sold along with its parent company (Gresik Cement) to the Mexican building materials giant, Cemex. However, West Sumatran legislators managed to drum up sufficient popular resentment to block the deal by arguing that Semen Padang was in itself an inalienable part of the province’s patrimony – extending the argument of harta pesaka

When the Mexicans sought to enforce the contract, local issues and conflicts over harta pesaka as well as various other customary rights stalled the negotiations and stymied the sale.  

Deslinarti said straightforwardly of the case: “The land belongs to the people of Padang - it can never be sold.” 

As I headed off to Jakarta I realised that her intense connection with the land – and indeed her own family – was a trait she shared with her people and that no one could hope to understand - or even lead - the Minangkabau unless they registered this reality.  

Whereas in the past it had possible to understand Indonesia merely by tackling Jakarta and, more especially, the Suhartos in their Jalan Cendana lair, the same is no longer the case.  

At its worse, regional autonomy has created hundreds of mini-Suhartos. At its best, it has empowered millions who never thought they would have a say in the way their communities were ordered and run. 

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