Riau Islands residents clash with police, military against plans for new eco-city

The plans to develop the island into a new economic hub necessitates the eviction of hundreds of families from their homes before the end of the month.


Police officers check a blocked road on Sept. 8, 2023 on Rempang Island, Riau Islands province. PHOTO: ANTARA/ THE JAKARTA POST

September 13, 2023

JAKARTA – Residents of Rempang Island in Riau Islands province clashed last week with security forces in a demonstration against plans to develop the island into a new economic hub, which necessitates the eviction of hundreds of families from their homes before the end of the month.

A joint team consisting of around 1,000 members from the National Police and the Indonesian Military (TNI) clashed on Thursday with protesters, who had tried to the stop security forces from setting up posts and marking boundaries for the new development project.

Local people felled trees, burned tires and hurled stones and molotov cocktails on Barelang Batam Bridge, while security forces fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd, according to various news reports.

Following the skirmish, police arrested seven people for allegedly inciting the riot. They have been charged with violating Article 212 of the Criminal Code for assaulting security personnel, which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

Batam, Rempang and Galang (Balerang) Police chief Sr. Comr. Nugroho Tri Nuryanto, said on Friday that police have also set up seven security posts throughout the island following the clash.

“We have set up these posts because, from the orders we received from the Batam Concession Agency [BP Batam], Rempang Island must be swept and cleared [of local residents] by Sept. 28,” Nugroho said, as quoted by Kompas.id.

This is because plans to develop the island, which is located near neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, into a new special economic zone called the Rimpang Eco-City are already in motion.Investment in the development of the island is targeted at US$11.5 billion and the project is being spearheaded by PT Makmur Elok Graha (MEG).

Rempang residents, however, have questioned why they need to be evicted, particularly since the 10,000 people living in the area are only occupying a small portion of the 17,000-hectare island.

“We want to continue [living] here, because this island is part of our identity, where our cultural roots lie. We are not at all opposing the investment plan, we just want to [live] side by side with it,” Bobby, a representative of the local community, told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.

Following Thursday’s riot, Bobby, whose brother is among the seven arrested by the police, said that Rempang residents were living in fear, as authorities have begun entering local villages.

“The arrests carried out of residents here are a very cruel form of intimidation. To this day, they are still being detained for assaulting security officers. As a result, local residents are beginning to grow afraid of defending their rights,” Bobby said.

Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD, meanwhile, said that people living in Rempang were illegal squatters, as the government had leased Rempang Island since 2002.

“It’s the process of clearing [Rempang] that has become the source of the trouble. It’s not about land rights, it’s about [the eviction] process, because they have been living there for around a dozen years and they now suddenly have to leave,” Mahfud said on Friday, as quoted by Antara.

He has called on local security forces to continue clearing the area, but has instructed them to prioritize a humanitarian approach.

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