When Indonesia's politicians and pundits talk about the separatist movements that plague the country, two provinces on the opposite ends of the archipelago are mentioned first: Aceh and Irian Jaya. But tagged on to the end of the discussion is Riau.
According to rebel leader Tabrani Rab, the separatist Free Riau Movement (GRM) now has 20,000 fighters ready to take up arms for independence.
But any would-be liberation forces are keeping a much lower profile than colleagues in Aceh and Irian Jaya, also known as West Papua. Lacking the strong ethnic and religious resentment toward the Javanese leaders of the country that is common in both of those provinces, sentiment for independence runs at a lower level here. And, while claiming 250,000 supporters, Rab and other Riau separatists say they'll accomplish their goal peacefully.
Like other disgruntled Indonesian regions, little of the wealth from Riau's abundant natural resources stays in the province. Every week the flat, scrubby plains of east Sumatra pump out millions of barrels of crude; Riau produces about 65 percent of Indonesia's oil. For decades thousands have flocked here from all over Indonesia in search of work in the oil or forestry industries.
"The people believe Riau's economic resources have been exploited and almost none of the profits have come back," says Alazhar, a literature lecturer at the Islamic University of Riau.
To rectify that inequity, Rab talks of five options, including a proposal to join the United States. Other suggestions include integration with neighboring Malaysia or Singapore, outright independence, or renting its strategic coastline on the Straits of Malacca as a US naval base.
"There is no choice for us," says Rab, a medical doctor who also teaches at the University of Riau. "We were a kingdom before. It is easy for us to get members."
Any one of Rab's options is Jakarta's nightmare. Until the 19th century, Riau was an independent kingdom linked in a loose confederation with the sultanates of Malaysia. But today it is Indonesia's lifeblood. Without Riau's oil revenue, Jakarta cannot balance its state budget. Riau is also highly strategic territory, straddling the world's busiest shipping lane and including islands stretching to Borneo.
No stranger to controversy, Rab took up arms in a rebellion against Jakarta in the 1950s. In 1985, he was jailed by then-president Suharto for leading a failed bid by Riau's provincial parliament to elect its own governor.
More recently he hosted a meeting at his home with separatists from Aceh and Irian Jaya to form a common front aimed at lobbying the international community to consider allowing Indonesia to break up peacefully. "I told the [Riau] students that anyone who takes down the flag of Indonesia will be shot by the military," says Rab.
Indonesia's current government is far more open to new ideas than its predecessors. President Abdurrahman Wahid even persuaded Rab to sit on a committee on regional autonomy. In January, new laws will take effect to give more power and revenue to the regions, but there are few details on their implementation. Jakarta is now at least listening to plans to take over the running of one major oil prospecting area, or block. Rab's brother, Eddy Saputra, an official in the local mining department, says a new local operation could be used as a model when contracts expire on other blocks. "We don't need very sophisticated technology [to keep extracting]."
For the people here, oil revenues are not the only cause of irritation. Every year more forests burn in fires blamed on forestry firms, working under license from Jakarta. In Batam Island, south of Singapore, quarrying by Jakarta-sponsored industry has caused serious erosion.
A few months ago a people's congress met to consider these complaints. While not a majority, the largest vote on the preferred form of government was for independence. A delegation from the Riau islands, part of the province off Sumatra, walked out after the congress refused to consider their suggestion that they form their own province.
Mr. Alazhar, chair of a working committee, admits there is a long way to go before Riau's fate is clear. The congress adopted 54 action points, including demands that Riau control 100 percent of its oil revenue and that the central government restore expropriated land.
Unpalatable as these ideas may be to Jakarta, Alazhar suggests that if the 53 points were properly addressed, Indonesia could win back the hearts of would-be separatists. If independence does come, it will not be any time soon, he says. "Maybe in 10 years time, it could happen."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society