Fri, 18 May 2001

The problem with autonomy

Less than five months after its induction last Jan. 1, some serious flaws in Indonesia's law on regional autonomy are beginning to show. Apparently Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri had some of these flaws in mind when this week she strongly criticized the law -- known officially as Law No.22/1999 -- as being against the principles of Indonesia as a unitary state as is laid down in the 1945 Constitution.

In an opening speech at a workshop at the Ministry of Home Affairs attended by provincial governors from all over the country, Megawati underlined this principle of unitarianism, saying the government would never acknowledge the existence of "states within the (Indonesian) state".

Many excesses have been noticeable in the practice of regional autonomy since the law was decreed on Jan. 1 "because Law No.22/1999 does not share the same principles with the 1945 Constitution, on which the law should have been based". One article of the law, for instance, states that provinces are not superior to kabupaten (regencies) thereby breaking the established hierarchical relationship between the two levels. "Now we are already seeing signs of 'rebellion' by regencies toward provincial governments which should have authority over the regencies," Megawati said.

To be sure, the need for granting autonomy to the various areas that are scattered throughout this country is a principle that was well accepted by the central government in Jakarta ever since the early days of independence in the 1950s. Obviously, the central government cannot possibly control how its policies are executed in all regions throughout this vast archipelago -- not to mention the different needs and conditions in those regions.

The main problem was that natural and economic resources in this country were far from evenly distributed across all regions, and that Jakarta needed to balance incomes and expenditures to ensure that poorer regions were not neglected. Of course, Jakarta also needed money to finance the central government's expenditure, such as for the purposes of security and defense, and foreign policy.

The need for granting autonomy to the regions, however, became especially pressing after the fall of the New Order regime in 1998 and a law was hastily drafted. The result, as can be expected, is a legislative product that is often confusing and falls short of expectations. Investors wanting to participate in mining, trade or in forestry, for example, have no clear guidelines as to whom they should turn to for the necessary papers. Several regions have issued their own regulations without guidance from Jakarta.

These, however, are shortcomings that can and will be corrected in time. Of a more serious nature is the rise of what is known as ethno-nationalism. The violent protest of the Dayak population in some areas of Kalimantan against newcomers from the island of Madura, for example, provided a dramatic example of how ugly a form this kind of nationalism could take. Considering the smoldering resentment that exists against newcomers in some other regions of Indonesia, one should not be surprised to see a repeat of the Kalimantan unrest elsewhere in the archipelago -- unless, that is, some real measures are taken to forestall that from happening.

These are current developments that Indonesians could hardly have foreseen even a decade ago, when ethnic sentiments were deeply buried in the name of national cohesion and stability. We strongly suggest, though, that revised Law No. 22/1999 -- which the government is now reportedly working on -- give due recognition to this most important issue. In the final analysis, Indonesia's strength is to be found in its very diversity, and not in any kind of uniformity imposed from above.