Rempang Riot: Land Acquisition and Human Rights


Protesters throw stones at riot police on Sept. 11, 2023 to reject their resettlement following a rally outside the Batam Authority office building on Rempang Island, Riau Islands province. (Source:

Mhd Zakiul Fikri

…the objectives of the development should encompass not only macroeconomic growth but also micro-level welfare growth, leading to a tangible enhancement in the standard of living of the community.

A land dispute set off violent clashes last week between local people on Rempang Island near Batam in the province of Riau Islands and security forces who strived to facilitate the implementation of what the central government has classified as national strategic projects to develop huge glass and photovoltaic panel factories in the area. The fracas not only left several people injured and damaged houses but also halted learning activities for almost 4,300 elementary and junior high school pupils.

The state has neglected its duty to ensure the protection and basic rights of its citizens, especially children, to live a healthy life and to receive a proper education. The forced entry by combined police and military and the use of tear gas at the schools in several areas on the island have left severe psychological scars. Furthermore, this incident has the potential to transform what was originally an administrative land issue into a human rights crisis.

It cannot be denied that land humans are two entities that are interrelated. Therefore, it is not easy to separate individuals from the land they have long de facto occupied. Moreover, Government Regulation No. 24 of 1997 recognizes those who have de facto occupied a piece of land for 20 years as possessing it in good faith. The regulation states that those individuals are prioritized in the distribution of land rights by the state.

True, economic growth plays a crucial role in improving the living standards of a society. This rationale is the foundation of the national strategic projects in Rempang. The central government and local administration assume that the development of the projects will contribute to the advancement of the local economy. Rempang is considered strategic as it is part of the Batam exclusive economic zone, which is very close to Singapore and Malaysia.

But the real issue does not lie in the lofty goal associated with the projects. Rather, when the projects are assessed only from the aspect of macroeconomic development alone, they pose a significant risk of exacerbating inequality and injustice as large scale development projects could be pushed forward even at the expanse of people who are evicted from their land. From the outset, the local community in Rempang was not involved in the planning and execution of this development endeavor.

In the modern state, the principle of free, prior and informed consent is recognized, which asserts that communities have the right to make informed decisions about matters affecting their traditions and way of life. Consequently, development must not encroach upon the living space of the local community. If relocation becomes necessary, the replacement must be better or at the very least equivalent. Equally important is the preservation of cultural identity in the face of the project’s impacts.

Furthermore, efforts also should be made to ensure that development programs contribute to enhancing the skills of the local population, enabling them to become part of the development related to the projects. This implies that the objectives of the development should encompass not only macroeconomic growth but also micro-level welfare growth, leading to a tangible enhancement in the standard of living of the community. Welfare growth is not solely tied to property acquisition but also extends to improved health care, a favorable environment, education and the sustainability of long-held cultural identities.

What has occurred within the community on Rempang Islands serves as an exemplar of a case where the granting of the right to develop to investors or companies was made unilaterally without any regard for de facto land tenure. The government awarded permits even though many generations of the local people had been residing in the area long before Indonesia’s independence in 1945. Consequently, this led to the eruption of conflict between the holders of de jure land rights and the de facto land possessors.

Instead of ensuring protection for its citizens, the state has stigmatized the people as squatters who occupied the land without legal entitlement. Thus, the measure is termed a “land clearance” rather than “eviction”. Regardless of the debates of the land rights claims, it is evident that both “clearance” and “eviction” equally dispossess the community of access to the land that has hitherto been crucial for their livelihoods.

The deployment las week of a joint force comprising military, police and pubic order units to enforce the relocation of the people represents an outdated and conventional action that should no longer be employed in modern-day Indonesia. Post the enactment of the Job Creation Law, the land-acquisition process for development has undergone significant reforms. In reality, this law provides a more inclusive framework for addressing land-acquisition issues for development purpose, including for national strategic projects.

Regarding compensation for development-related losses, for instance, the Job Creation Law stipulates that compensation may take forms other than just monetary compensation, land or resettlement. It can also encompass share ownership and other forms agreed upon by both parties, the project investor and the stakeholders, as well as the affected community. The share ownership, as defined by the Job Creation Law, involves the provision of shares in development and/or management activities based on mutual agreements.

Rather than promoting a repressive approach, the Job Creation Law calls for an expanded space for dialog within the land acquisition process. Furthermore, it explicitly mandates a collaborative approach among investing companies, the state and the affected community. Unfortunately, there is currently no legal framework that clearly prohibits state authorities from engaging in repressive actions during the land acquisition process for development. Nonetheless, the state must consistently uphold the laws it has enacted, ensuring that land acquisition does not neglect humanitarian aspects.


*Artikel ini pernah terbit di edisi Kamis tanggal 14 September 2023 dengan judul “Rempang riot: Between landacquisition and human rights