June 21, 2024

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Rempang, Indonesia – Demonstrations have rocked Indonesia’s Riau province as residents of Rempang Island protest against government plans to evict thousands of people to make way for a multibillion-dollar Chinese-owned glass factory and ‘Eco-City’.

The dispute over the evictions has been heating up for months, after the government announced that Rempang’s 7,500 residents would have to move inland, some 60km (37 miles) away from their coastal homes. Many make a living from the sea, selling locally caught fish, crabs, shrimp and other seafood.

But with residents now being told they have until the end of this month to leave, protests have escalated.

In recent days, demonstrators have faced off against the police and the military at a number of locations in Riau, including Rempang and Batam, the largest city in the island chain, which lies just south of Singapore.

Police, who have deployed water cannons and tear gas, have been accused of using excessive force. Dozens have been arrested.

A large crowd of protesters showing their opposition to an 'eco-city' project on Indonesia's Rempang island
Authorities said that 43 people were arrested after protests earlier this week turned violent [Al Jazeera]

Last week, footage emerged on social media showing police using tear gas to disperse a crowd at one of the Rempang protests. The demonstration was near two local schools, and videos showed people, including children in uniform, running for cover.

Lilis, a 57-year-old grandmother of four, said the protest was peaceful before the tear gas was fired.

“The authorities didn’t say anything to warn us. They just said, ‘One, two, three, fire,’” she told Al Jazeera. “I immediately thought of my grandson at school just down the road, and I ran there to make sure he was safe.”

Her grandson, 12-year-old Wisnu, recalled he was in an English class when he heard the sound of shots being fired, and that the students and teachers had immediately fled out of the back of the school and huddled in the surrounding jungle.

“I thought that the police were going to come to the school and shoot us,” he said. “I thought they were using real bullets. Some of my classmates fainted because of the tear gas, and it was hard to breathe.”

He said the experience had left him traumatised.

“I am scared to go to school now in case they come back,” he told Al Jazeera.

People as obstacles

The catalyst for the protests is a plan to build a Chinese glass factory to meet the world’s growing demand for solar panels.

The plant has been pitched as the centrepiece of an economic hub dubbed Rempang Eco-City – a joint project between the Batam Indonesia Free Zone Authority (BP Batam) and a local company, PT Makmur Elok Graha (MEG), which is working in partnership with China’s Xinyi Glass, the world’s largest glass and solar-panel maker.

Xinyi has pledged some $11.6bn to the glass and solar panel manufacturing factory, which is projected to be the second largest of its kind in the world.

Indonesia’s Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia has championed the project, saying it will create some 35,000 jobs and pull in some $26.6bn of investments by 2080.

Ian Wilson, a lecturer in politics and security studies at Murdoch University in Perth who has studied forced evictions in Indonesia, said that the situation in Rempang was part of “an unfortunately common practice of seeing local populations as an impediment to development”.

“It is a structurally violent way of managing people,” he added.

A rempang resident looking out over the water. There is a wooden house behind her, built on stilts over the water
Local residents who live on the water do not want to move inland away from their way of life and livelihoods [Al Jazeera]

While plans to develop Rempang have been in the works for nearly 20 years, local residents told Al Jazeera they were only informed early in September that they would need to move out of their villages before the end of the month.

The sudden announcement shocked many residents and unleashed a new wave of protests, including last week’s rally in Rempang.

After the videos went viral, local authorities said they had not fired directly at the secondary school or a neighbouring primary school, but that the tear gas had been carried by the wind.

Siti, a teacher at the primary school, said that after the authorities began to fire the tear gas, parents rushed to the schools to collect their children.

“We could hear the explosions getting louder, and the children started shaking and running, trying to hide and protect themselves,” she said. “Everyone was screaming.”

Siti said she needed oxygen at a local clinic as a result of inhaling the tear gas, which she said caused stomach cramps and chest pain and made it difficult to breathe.

‘Understand the community’

On Monday, residents of Rempang and members of Malay Indigenous groups from across Indonesia clashed with authorities in Batam as they protested against the project outside the BP Batam building. Some 43 people were arrested as police once again fired tear gas at protesters.

Siti, a primary school teacher in Rempang. She is wearing a pink headscarf and carrying a child. She is also wearing a face mask.
Local teacher Siti inhaled tear gas and had to seek medical treatment [Al Jazeera]

One of the key speakers at the demonstration, Raja Zainudin, the head of Malay Culture of the Riau Islands, said that Malay Indigenous groups had joined the protests because they had been in the region for centuries, making a living from the surrounding land and sea.

“Those who want to develop the island need to understand the history,” he said. “Learn about the history, learn about the culture, and learn about the way of life of the local community.”

Speaking at the Presidential Palace on Monday, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD said that the situation required “careful handling”.

He added that the security forces should have communicated clearly with the public regarding the local government’s plan to build homes in Batam for the relocated families after an agreement was reached between the local government, developers and the Regional House of Representatives (DPRD) on September 6.

However, Murdoch University’s Wilson said that relocating people from strategically important land to places far from their livelihoods misunderstands the nature of Indigenous communities.

“All it does is entrench disadvantage and poverty, and the breaking up of complex social relationships, which is fundamentally disruptive in ways the government is unable to comprehend,” he said.

“In the process of building, they are destroying people’s lives.”

A view of Rempang island's wooden houses from a boat on the water.
Rempang Island is a traditional fishing community and many residents make their living from the sea [Al Jazeera]

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