Dio Suhenda and Fadli, Jakarta – Several cabinet members and high-ranking police officers visited Rempang island and neighboring Batam in the Riau archipelago over the weekend, as the government looks to ensure the continuation of the Rempang Eco-City project despite mounting resistance from locals.
Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia, Home Minister Tito Karnavian, Agrarian and Spatial Planning Minister Hadi Tjahjanto and National Police deputy chief Comr. Gen. Agus Andrianto held a closed-door meeting on Sunday in Batam to discuss the fate of the Rempang project, which has been shrouded in uncertainty following two violent protests earlier this month.
The eco-city project, which is expected to attract US$11.5 billion in investment, will turn Rempang into a new special economic zone that will house what will be the world's second-largest glass-manufacturing factory. But locals strongly oppose the development plan, which forces them to move before the end of the month.
Following the meeting, Bahlil said that the government and security forces currently stationed on the island have agreed to prioritize a "softer" approach.
"Handling the Rempang [eco-city project] must be done in a kinder, softer way that also respects the locals who have lived there for generations," he said.
Bahlil went on to say that he, along with Muhammad Rudi, who is the head of the Batam Free Trade Zone Authority (BP Batam) – one of the project developers – and Riau Islands Governor Anwar Ahmad, will continue holding weekly meetings to monitor the development of the project.
Bahlil's visit to the Riau Islands came after President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo instructed him last week to personally sort out what the President claimed to be "miscommunication" among the residents.
The government previously claimed that people living on the island were illegal squatters and that they had already agreed to a compensation deal for their eviction earlier this year.
BP Batam spokesperson Ariastuty Sirait was quoted by Tribunnews.com as saying that the three ministers did not plan to visit Rempang on Sunday, although it remains unclear whether they will eventually do so in the coming days.
Living in fear
On Friday, two representatives from the National Police, Comr. Gen. Suntana and Brig. Gen. Yan Fitri Halimansyah, who respectively head the force's intelligence and legal divisions, held a meeting with Rempang locals.
Egoy, a community elder who participated in the meeting, told The Jakarta Post that the locals were not willing to be evicted from their ancestral homes.
"The compensation offer is not even comparable to the loss the people will feel [if we are forcefully evicted]," Egoy said.
Riots previously erupted on the island after a protest turned violent on Sept. 7. Just days later, another riot occurred in front of the BP Batam office, resulting in the arrest of 43 people.
Ria, a local resident, told the Post that people lived in constant fear, especially after the police set up security posts around the island following the Sept. 7 clash.
"We are now traumatized when we see officers in uniform. The whole village feels anxious now that they are here," she said.
The government's treatment of the protests in Rempang has also caught the attention of government-sanctioned independent body the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) as well as civil groups and religious organizations, many of which are urging the government to reconsider the development plan.
"Komnas Ham's position right now is [for the government] to reconsider its current plans to build an industry [in Rempang] so that it can be done without evicting local residents," commissioner Prabianto Mukti Wibowo said during a visit to Rempang on Saturday.
To this end, he said that the commission will soon begin lobbying the government, including by holding a meeting with the investment minister, to delay the Sept. 28 eviction deadline.
Bahlil said on Sunday that the commission has the right to make recommendations but hinted that the government would still uphold the eviction deadline.
BP Batam head Muhammad Rudi, who is also the mayor of Batam, said last week that investors might pull out of the eco-city project if BP Batam does not manage to evict the locals by the end of the month.