Mon, 16 Oct 2000

The province of Banten

Without fanfare and practically unnoticed by many Indonesians, Banten, a former regency on Java's western tip, became this country's youngest province earlier this month.

That should have been reason for celebration. Instead, the elevation of Banten's status from regency to province has triggered a debate on who will actually benefit from the move.

Critics of the move argue that the step is a maneuver by local officials wanting to enrich themselves by gaining control over the area's resources.

Members of the local bureaucracy, on the other hand, argue that it will benefit the general population since with the expected granting of regional autonomy, the new province will be master of its own regional resources.

This argument would be difficult to refute if the area possessed more than enough resources to provide for its needs. On the other hand, if resources should prove to be insufficient or if they are inefficiently managed, economic and social problems could arise.

In itself, there is of course nothing wrong with an economically self-sufficient area becoming a province. Indonesia, after all, is not only huge in size, it is a country of staggering diversity. With regional autonomy in sight, elevating regencies into provinces could make the country easier to manage. Regions would have control over their resources so they can be better used for the benefit of the population.

One danger specific to Indonesia that such a policy could pose, though, is that it could encourage the already growing provincial sentiments in the regions and eventually lead toward disintegration.

In Banten's case, for instance, an argument raised in some quarters of the population was that the area deserved to be excluded from the province of West Java, of which it had been a part until this month, because it was different in terms of ethnic makeup, culture and language.

Whereas the rest of West Java (with the exclusion of Cirebon) is inhabited by ethnic Sundanese, Banten, like Cirebon, has a population that is related more to the Javanese in terms of culture, ethnicity and language. Obviously, to base the creation of autonomous areas -- provinces -- solely on such arguments would be senseless and can only stir up potentially divisive regional sentiments.

Even at present, the growth of such sentiments in a number of areas -- Riau, Bangka-Belitung, Maluku and Irian Jaya come to mind -- is presenting the government with more problems than it can effectively handle.

Not that regional pride or chauvinism is always a bad thing. As early as in the 1970s, then Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin campaigned to make Jakarta's mixed population more "Jakartan" in order to promote development. A sense of regional pride, he argued, was necessary to motivate people to take care of their region's interests.

The danger is in giving those sentiments too free a reign so as to endanger the cohesion and unity of the nation -- an important factor for the maintenance of stability in the country and the region.

The problem here seems to be that no clear criteria exist to define a province in this country. For example, should size of population be a consideration? Or land area, or annual revenue? And so forth.

The government and national legislature would be well advised to be careful in granting an area the status of province. If well planned and thought through, such a step could indeed raise the level of the people's welfare. Carelessly done, on the other hand, it could lead to mismanagement, increased poverty and problems that are as yet difficult to foresee.

Hopefully, in the case of Banten, it is truly the people who will reap the benefits of the area's new status as a province. Banten in the old days thrived as a trading center. It is at present an important center of industrial development as well as a producer of gold and other products. Hopefully, by becoming Indonesia's youngest province, Banten will regain some of its lost glory.