Suspend the Rempang Island Project
PRESIDENT Joko Widodo cannot simply wash his hands of the violence that broke out on Rempang Island, Batam, Riau Islands Province, at the beginning of this month. The disturbances on September 7 erupted because the people of Rempang are opposed to the plan by the government, who want to build the Rempang Eco-City, to arbitrarily relocate them.
An investigation carried out by National Solidarity for Rempang, a grouping of civil organizations coordinated by the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), found that around 20 people were injured in the clash between security forces and people opposed to their forced relocation from their villages. As well as this, 10 junior high school students and their teachers were taken to hospital after inhaling tear gas fired by police officers.
An initial investigation by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) also found the security forces had used excessive force when handling the protest on the island. Therefore, when Jokowi said, “Really, this trivial business has gone as far as the president?” he was belittling a conflict that had caused casualties among his own people.
Following this violence, Jokowi must not simply ignore the Rempang issue because the Rempang Eco-City is a strategic national project. The bloody conflict would not have happened if the government had not forced through the Rempang Eco-City project, which is being managed by Makmur Elok Graha, part of the Artha Graha Network owned by tycoon Tomy Winata. The project itself has had problems from the outset.
An investigation by the Indonesian Ombudsman found indications of maladministration by the Batam Development Authority (BP Batam) and the Batam City government. The BP Batam allocated 16,500 hectares of land on the island for the Rempang Eco-City, comprising industry, trade and tourist areas. The allocation of land was against the rules because the Agrarian and Spatial Planning Ministry or the National Land Agency had not yet issued BP Batam with a land use rights certificate.
This certificate can only be issued if the land is clear and clean, meaning there are no disputes over control, and no buildings on it. But long before the plan for the Rempang Eco-City project, there were dozens of villages that had stood for hundreds of years. These lands have been occupied by people for generations.
Even if the inhabitants of Rempang do not have land deeds, it is not their fault. The government has been negligent in allowing the people of Rempang to exercise their rights. But the government has for decades been collecting land and building taxes from the people, who have gone back and forth trying to arrange their land deeds, but have always been turned away by the Land Agency.
Given the strong opposition from local people, as well as the problematic legal status of the land, the government should not force the clearing of the villages. And all forms of violence by the security forces must be stopped. Until there is a voluntary agreement with the people, the Rempang Eco-City project must be suspended. If not, the smoldering embers in Rempang could turn into the flames of a conflict with more casualties.