Wed, 21 May 2003

Tabrani, Riau's political maverick

Haidir Anwar Tanjung, The Jakarta Post, Pekanbaru, Riau

He is Riau's outspoken -- and probably most quoted -- figure for his blunt and controversial political views.

Over the years, Dr. Tabrani Rab has irked Jakarta for openly demanding independence for oil-rich Riau. His supporters see him as the voice of Riau people who want a fair share in its huge, natural resources.

Tabrani argues that most of the huge income from Riau's natural wealth goes to the central government and the resource- rich province remains poor.

Tabrani hails from eastern Sumatra's shanty coastal town of Bagansiapiapi, the capital of Rokan Hilir regency, Riau, and the country's largest fish producer.

Also affectionately called Pak Ongah, the father of four born on Sept. 30, 1941, took his cause to the international forum during Soeharto's New Order regime, which tumbled in 1998.

Tabrani objected to the central government policy that allowed the exploitation of Riau's resources by apportioning communal land between companies.

When the Soeharto government granted forest concessions and issued permits for oilpalm estate land reclamation as well as PT Caltex Pacific Indonesia's oil drilling expansion in Riau, he firmly resisted.

As thousands of hectares of land owned by the Sakai tribe, one of Riau's indigenous ethnic groups mostly still in poverty, were claimed by Caltex without compensation, he flew to Geneva with a tribe leader in 1997 to explain the case to the Swiss parliament.

In October 1997, the Riau University professor met with Finnish MPs in Finland to share concern about forced acquisition of 1,750 hectares of customary land by PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), a subsidiary of Raja Garuda Mas group controlled by tycoon Sukanto Tanoto, which wanted to build Southeast Asia's largest pulp plant. One of Raja Garuda Mas group's shareholders is PT UMP Kemmney, owned by Finns.

His mission succeeded. PT RAPP offered compensation as the Sakai had demanded.

"But upon returning from Finland I became a target of assassination by Jakarta's intelligence agency. Luckily, my colleagues in Jakarta came to the rescue," he told The Jakarta Post.

The owner of the Rab Hospital again came to the spotlight when he publicly stated his wish to establish a Free Riau state in 1999, the year following Soeharto's fall.

On the day he vowed to proclaim Riau's independence, local and foreign journalists flocked to Riau to see if he would live up to his daring move. But to his supporters' dismay, he did not proclaim Riau's independence and, instead, only demanded "greater sovereignty" for the province.

The change of heart left his supporters and observers wondering why Tabrani, who has been a widower for over 10 years, suddenly changed his stance.

At that time Tabrani refused to comment, beyond saying that a "sovereign Riau" would become a movement to press for justice from the central government.

Only recently has he been prepared to divulge what had happened behind the change of mind.

"To be frank, I received a threat from (the local) Wirabima 031 Military Command. I would have been killed if I had declared a free Riau," Tabrani said.

He insisted that although he succumbed to military pressure, he was not a coward.

He argued, "Politically, the Free Riau aspiration was meant to promote the living standards of the local population, of which 40 percent remained below the poverty line. In his view, it should not be necessary to gain freedom via a bloodbath."

"There are many other ways. It seems the Riau community is not prepared to take up arms," he added.

He cited the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) as an example, which has not succeeded in making Aceh an independent state, despite the loss of life of many of citizens, GAM members, soldiers and police officers.

Tabrani, a grandfather and author of seven numerous books and essays on politics, claimed that he had met GAM leader Hasan Tiro in Switzerland in 2001. Tiro, he said, had offered him money and arms to help form a free Riau movement.

"But I rejected the offer. Though we both want freedom, we have different ways to achieve it. GAM has chosen armed struggle, while we prefer the peaceful path. He could understand and we still maintain good ties," he said.

Tabrani, a member of the Regional Autonomy Advisory Council from Riau suspected involvement of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) in the formation of Riau Islands province as a tactic to weaken the movement for an independent Riau.

The lung cancer specialist also said that House of Representatives endorsement for splitting Riau province was based on this motive.

Tabrani said he has been flooded with accusations that his campaign for free Riau has been financially motivated. "They accused me of accepting rewards but the truth is that I have spent over Rp 1 billion on this pursuit," he said.

Apart from all the controversy over his political views, Tabrani has been seen in Riau as a personality fighting for the oppressed.

"I accept the controversy -- it's a fact of life," he said.