Regional autonomy from Suharto to Wahid

Down to Earth No. 46, August 2000

The idea of devolving authority to regional centres has been around for a long time. Indeed, incipient movements for autonomy and regional independence were strong in the first years of after independence, but clumsy CIA support triggered the centralist policies of the Sukarno regime. (Kahin, A.R. and Kahin, G.McT., 1995. Subversion as Foreign Policy: the Secret Eisenhower and Dulles Debacle in Indonesia. The New Press, New York). Such movements, then, as now, have always come up against staunch opposition from the Java-based leadership for whom the centralised state is sacrosanct both for historical and economic reasons.

In 1974, during the Suharto regime, Law (No.5) on regional governance purported to give the regions greater autonomy. Instead, it extended the reach of central government control to the smallest village, bringing a vast administrative empire firmly under Jakarta's control. This law and the later Village Governance Law (No 5/1979) imposed a single uniform administration system on all villages throughout Indonesia, thus destroying customary decision-making bodies which formed a vital part of traditional life in many areas. In the inaugural congress of AMAN, the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago, abolishing these laws emerged as one of the main demands - see DTE Special Issue October 99. These laws have now both been replaced by Law No.22 of 1999.

The centralisation of control and 'personalisation' of Indonesia's wealth were the hall-marks of Suharto's career as President of Indonesia. Knowing as we do now the vastness of his family's business empire and the extent of their grip on the national economy, any suggestion that Suharto would encourage regional autonomy appears ridiculous. But in 1995 at least, he again felt it necessary to pay lip service to the idea. In April of that year Suharto launched a two year pilot project to introduce regional autonomy in 26 Kabupaten (districts). This was described as the first clear effort by the government to implement the decentralisation requirements of the 1974 Law.
(Jakarta Post 11/Apr/95)

In July 1995 Suharto was quoted as saying; "In an increasingly fast changing world, there will be no place for a centralistic government where all decisions are made by the central administration..." as this would "hamper the growth and development of creativity and initiative in society."
(Jakarta Post 12/July/95)

Ironically, this was the year that Suharto decided to convert one million hectares of peat swamp forests in Central Kalimantan into rice-fields - thereby setting in motion one of the worst ecological disasters of the century.* The extreme centralisation of decision-making made sure that this disastrous project would plough on for four more years, overturning objections of local peoples as it destroyed their livelihoods and laid waste to a huge swathe of irreplaceable forest.

The Central Kalimantan mega-project disaster - an object lesson on how not to do a development project - epitomised the way that Suharto ran Indonesia and belied his commitment to any form of regional autonomy. Its predictable end in failure echoed the last hugely damaging years of Suharto's presidency. Both project and presidency have left deep wounds which will take many years to heal.

A rushed job

After the economic collapse of 1997 and the ousting of Suharto the following year, regional autonomy was resurrected as a potential means of quelling unrest which had erupted across the archipelago. With the help of international experts, Habibie's team drafted up Law 22 and submitted it to parliament in April 1999. It was a rushed job. Some of those involved in the drafting process admit that the law is imperfect, but point out that not pressing ahead may have been disastrous for a country rocked by social unrest, economic deprivation and demands for a bigger share of resource revenues from resource-rich regions like Riau and Kalimantan. West Papua had already been openly demanding independence and in Aceh, continuing military brutality was fuelling the emergence of a pro-referendum civil society movement. The referendum process for East Timor was already in train by the time that laws 22 and 25 were passed. Perhaps the Habibie government had a vague hope the new laws would help persuade the East Timorese population to vote for autonomy instead of independence. Law No 22 includes a special directive on East Timor awarding it "special autonomy in the context of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia"- an offer now extended to Aceh and West Papua.

Whether or not laws 22 and 25 halted a domino effect feared after East Timor's "loss" or damped down separatist aspirations in areas like Riau and Kalimantan cannot be proven. On the surface at least, public reaction to the new laws was less than enthusiastic. NGOs warned about the need to guarantee democratic process at local level to prevent the main beneficiaries of regional autonomy being local elites. There was scepticism as to whether there would be a genuine shift in control from centre to regions. Tabrani Rab, leader of the Riau Cultural Institute, which was pursuing Habibie through the courts for his failure to keep a promise on oil revenues, said:

"the government is not serious about giving money to the provinces. Maybe they make the rules about profit-sharing but they're not serious about following the rules." (Straits Times 30/April/99)

The Far Eastern Economic Review's assessment was that it was "too little too late".

Law 22 drew criticism for its flaws and lack of clarity. One point which raised particular concern was the retention of policy-making authority by central government, which covered areas including natural resources utilisation and national planning. Critics argued that this provision proved that the government was unwilling to relinquish any meaningful control to the regions, since they would be obliged to go along with potentially restrictive policies set by Jakarta, which might be wholly inappropriate locally. But others disagreed that autonomy would be limited significantly. DTE was assured by a source close to the drafting process that "the construction (at least in theory) is to allow the central government a measure of control and supervision, while at the same time giving the regions much more leeway in managing their own affairs."

The regional autonomy issue did not fill the headlines for long and such was the pace of political events that the issue was not widely discussed or even understood. For NGOs, community organisations and politicians alike, there was plenty else to think about. The Habibie government was pushing through other highly controversial pieces of legislation, prompting more protests by the students. Hundreds of new political parties were jostling for press attention. The first democratically held elections for a generation were held in June 1999, followed by weeks of vote-counting, victory for the PDP-Perjuangan and then the surprise selection of Abdurrahman Wahid as president.

New expectations

With Gus Dur as president, there was a surge of optimism among civil society organisations that there was a real opportunity to improve the management of natural resources and to build democracy at national and local levels. The new president showed his commitment to the regional autonomy project by creating the new cabinet post of Minister for Regional Autonomy and talking of the need for "full autonomy" in the regions. With the independence of East Timor and much talk of the "break-up" of Indonesia, for a short while discussions centred on the desirability or otherwise of reinventing Indonesia as a federal state - an idea that was soon stifled. Discussions were held on special autonomy measures for Aceh and West Papua. But there were soon signs of confrontation as well as reconciliation in the government's refusal to countenance the idea that these territories should separate from Indonesia. There were also indications that the President was willing to put local decision-making on one side and prioritise the interests of foreign investors in Indonesia as a main plank of economic recovery.

A questionable commitment

The Wahid's government's commitment to regional autonomy came under fire when the draft of Regulation No 25, 2000 started to be debated in the public arena early this year.

The regulation drew strong criticism for its focus on the areas where central government and provincial governments retain control and the resulting impression that the districts have only residual powers. It heightened suspicion that the government would not really relinquish significant authority to local governments.

When details of the regulation were made available as a draft, an editorial in the Jakarta Post pointed to some "severe logical, legal, financial and political problems". It alluded to the "tension among national-level technical government offices trying to preserve as much power as possible" and warned that ambiguities could be interpreted as giving authority to central institutions
(Jakarta Post 2/May/00)

When the draft regulation was put before parliament in May, there were several objections. One member of parliament charged that the regulation was not in line with the 1999 law and would only reinforce the authority of the central government. Others called on the central government to refrain from issuing regulations that meddled in the affairs of local government, if it was committed to implementing autonomy consistently. MPs called for guidelines, not more regulations, on how regional governments should manage their affairs (Jakarta Post 10/May/00). This had been argued earlier by Law and Legislation Minister Yusril Ihza Mahendra who had stated - in apparent contradiction to other ministers - that the government should not issue too many rulings but instead allow the provinces and districts to take the initiative in order to avoid "further intervention in the regions' internal affairs." He also said the government should allow local governments to implement autonomy now if they were ready.
(Jakarta Post 10/March/00)

But other, outside commentators warned that giving a "blank cheque" to regional governments on what they should do with their authority would lead to conflict and that regulations were required which delineated how local government should exercise their authority in a democratic fashion.
(Jakarta Post 10/May/00)

Lack of consultation

The hurried introduction of laws 22 and 25 in 1999 and the implementing regulation No 25, were marked by an almost total lack of consultation. NGOs and academics, critical of the content of the new legislation, also looked askance at the way they had been drawn up. APKSA, a discussion forum of NGOs and other organisations in East Kalimantan, protested against the lack of transparency in drafting the May 2000 regulation, pointing out that at local level, only governors and district heads (Bupati) were involved in the process. One copy of the draft regulation, obtained by APKSA, had "confidential" stamped on it. This closed process which failed to involve the wider public was a "bad precedent", said APKSA and, like other laws that have been pushed through without consultation, could exact a high political and economic price. In a statement issued before the regulation was passed, APKSA recommended that the deadline for the law be extended to allow time for proper consultation. The forum also called on members of provincial and district parliaments throughout Kalimantan to criticise and reject "disrespectful practices" by the ministry of regional autonomy which carried out the policy-making process in a one-sided manner - "as was practised by the New Order administration."#

The lack of consultation was connected, as noted by APKSA, to the continuation of the same undemocratic attitudes and practices that characterised the Suharto regime. The pressure of time was also a factor - the need to rush through the autonomy legislation as quickly as possible to stem further unrest. Also, the governments of both Habibie and Wahid did not want 'dangerous' debates about federalism and/or separatism to become prominent.

On the other hand, there have been complaints from people involved in the drafting process that when civil society organisations were invited to consultation meetings, many failed to respond, or if they did attend, most failed to prepare adequately by reading the relevant documents. Indonesian NGOs do acknowledge a lack of capacity, but argue - with justification - that the pace of political, social and economic change in Indonesia has been so great that, at times, more immediate and apparently pressing issues than regional autonomy have taken priority. Also, there is a lack of confidence in the government's commitment to regional autonomy, and in its commitment to genuine consultation, especially after the 1999 forestry law fiasco, when the input from a series of consultations was ignored. It is not surprising then that some NGOs may regard "consultation" as a less than optimum use of their valuable time.


Regulation 25/2000 - Limits to autonomy

Key points which appear to limit the autonomy of "autonomous areas" are the central government's retention of authority to:

  • Set forest areas, and change their status and function;
  • Set criteria and charges for wood use licences, reforestation funds and investment funds for the costs of forest conservation;
  • Set criteria and standards for the management of forest products (from planning to rehabilitation);
  • Set criteria and standards for natural resource and ecosystem conservation in the fields of forestry and plantations; (section 4)
  • Set rules for awarding land rights and for land reform (14)
On the other hand, some protection may be provided by the central government's authority to:
  • Maintain human rights; (19)
  • Set environmental quality standards; (18).
The regulation also reaffirms the policy-making role of the central government in areas including natural resources management.

The area where provinces retain authority include setting standards and directives in a range of activities from agriculture to public works, and in matters which affect more than one district or municipality in the province.


Where now?

This is the state of affairs at the time of writing. For the President and his regional autonomy minister, the imperative is to get "regional autonomy" - whatever that means and however imperfect it is - moving forward. This urgency is sweeping aside demands for wider consultation from civil society and ignoring fears that the speed of implementation planned is over-ambitious and will end in chaos. Andi Mallarangeng, a member of the government team in charge of regional autonomy, outlines the dilemma from the government's point of view: "I agree that it should be phased. But if you do it step by step, people at the local level will say that it is a trick by the central government to devolve as little as possible and keep as much as possible. The local governments are threatening: if you don't give us autonomy now, we'll go for independence…saying let's implement it right now. We want the power now, we want the money now."
(Financial Times 26/April/00)

* See DTE 29/30, 33, 35, 37-39, 42, 43 and 45 for more details of this sorry saga
#Central Government is not serious in transferring autonomy to the regions, critical notes on the process and substance of the Regulation on the Authority of the Government and the Authority of Provinces as Autonomous Areas. Alliance of Natural Resources Policy Observers East Kalimantan (no date)