MENTAWAI IN GLOBAL CONTEXT (2):Globalization, Regional Autonomy, and the Innervation of Local Political Process in the Mentawai Islands

Globalization, Regional Autonomy, and the Innervation of Local Political Process in the Mentawai Islands

This is a working paper put forward as an interim, initial, attempt to come to terms with some of the implications of Indonesia’s Regional Autonomy policy as it concerns the Mentawai Islands. As this is an issue set to play out over the next couple of years, this paper may be subject to some revision and addition over this period of time (a virtue of publishing in virtual reality). It follows on from Beaches, Travelers, and Vague Boundaries; each complements the other in attempting to provide an understanding that these islands are very much a part of the global system, which requires consideration of appropriate ways in which we can appreciate the dynamics of this ongoing mutual engagement. In what follows, then, I want to specifically shed some light upon recent political machinations in the political arena of the Kabupaten of Mentawai, the apparent surge of activism on the part of indigenous groups based on the Mentawai Islands or operating from the mainland, in the context of an overall argument contending that whilst local political process in this part of the world must be understood on its own terms as a production of local-level figures and groups, the maneuvering, accommodation and struggles that constitute such process must be viewed in terms of a productive and constitutive—and not merely a reactive—response to global process.

The news has recently been announced that China has been admitted to the World Trade Organization in line with the latter’s goal to remove those structures and institutions within nation states that inhibit trade and investment, meaning amongst other things that governmental interference in people’s lives will be lessened. It would seem that many provincial authorities will not be too happy with this, since they stand to lose access to revenue flows. What it generally means is that China will become much more integrated into global capital flows entailing at the least a loosening of central authority. In macro-sociological terms such an event adds credence to the identification of what informed commentators highlight as an important dimension of globalization, namely the weakening of the boundaries of the nation state enabling the assertion of regional powers and identities in a wide range of contexts.

In Indonesia the commencement of 2001 saw the official implementation of the policy of Regional Autonomy which can be arguably seen as a part of the same set of global processes that has led to Chinese entry to the WTO. Government administration in Indonesia was formerly hierarchically distributed between the Centre (Pusat) and regional governments starting with the Provinces down to the Desa level. The Regional Autonomy initiative, an extremely significant alteration to the administrative regime in Indonesia, not only enables but makes it necessary for regional governments (Pemda) to determine their own affairs and seek alternative sources of funding to Jakarta. Whilst the internal political climate that has allowed this to occur owes much to its own dynamics it is not unconnected with the unfolding of general themes within global process.

With the weakening of the link between the state and civil society in many nation states around the globe has come an increase in direct relations of various national civil societies to each other as well as to “supranational” agencies (corporations, NGOs, World Bank etc.) (Burawoy 2001). The end of the Cold War and the beginning of the final decade of the 20th century involved the rise of a global “neo-liberalism” or the spread of liberal democracy in concert with a desire to rethink the main approach to international development initiatives growing out of what were perceived to be the severe human costs of the harsh measures imposed in previous decades by the North in an effort to stabilize the dysfunctional economies that characterized the great majority of the nation states in the South. The rise of human rights considerations during this time also meant their insertion into the recasting of ‘top down’ developmental policy in more democratic and participatory terms (Molyneux 2001). At the same time, what has been termed the “Washington consensus” ushered in a new phase in the expansion of the global system. The Washington consensus refers to the belief—grounding the policies pursued by the world’s leading economic and financial institutes (IMF, World Bank etc.) and networks of leading bankers and finance personnel based in Washington, the “world’s de facto capital” —that
Victorian virtue in economic policy—free markets and sound money—is the key to economic development. Liberalize trade, privatize state enterprises, balance the budget, peg the exchange rate, and one will have laid the foundations for an economic takeoff; find a country that has done these things, and there one may confidently expect to realize high returns on investments. (Krugman 1995)

The way for developing countries was thus laid out. Largely unfettered capitalism would, in a reaffirmation of modernization theory, eventually bring benefits to all. That this belief turned out to be somewhat ill-founded is beside the point here. What is important is the expansion of global capital which amounted to a further stage in the steady unfolding of globalization that has been expanding apace since the mid 20th century, and the associated reduction in power of the nation state in concert with an emphasis upon bottom-up approaches to development. That the latter were often token in their practical incarnations only serves to re-emphasize the changes wrought by this phase in the expansion of the global system as it chipped away at national boundaries. Most relevant for our purposes here is what Molyneux (2001) argues is the related globalization of civil society. An, unintended, outcome of the expansion of global capital has been that civil societies are now much more interconnected, largely in disdain of the nation states in which they are located by means of the global media at their disposal and despite dispersed networks of individuals or groups which only serve to underline the importance of such global media technologies. It is against this global background that what can be thought of as the political innervation within civil society across the Mentawai Islands, as well as the national policy of Regional Autonomy (henceforth RA), can be understood.

The idea of RA is not a new one in Indonesia’s colonial and postcolonial history. However this particular version is the most far-reaching. As legislation RA had its immediate origins in mid 1999 with the Habibie administration that came to power following the ousting of the long serving former President Suharto in mid 1998.As Sofyat (2001 argue it was enacted not only in anticipation of increased calls from the regions to change the policy of central extraction of resources from the regions and in some cases to sever ties altogether from the Republic (eg.Aceh, Irian Jaya, and Riau), but also as a strategy to deal with a globally competitive environment. Law 22/1999 concerned the administrative dimension of RA; Law 25/1999 addressed the reforming of financial responsibilities of the regions in relation to the Centre (Pusat).

With regard to the former, under the Suharto “New Order” regime (as opposed to the current “Reform Era”[Zaman Reformasi]),regional government (Pemda) commenced with the Provincial level (Pemda level I) which contains several Regencies (Kabupaten; Pemda level II), which in turn contains several Districts (Kecamatan), which in turn contains a number of Sub-Districts (Desa/Kelurahan). The Regency level is mirrored by a number of Municipalities or Kotamadya. Under RA the Kabupaten and the Kota(madya) (Regency and Major Town) become the key units of government authority in some 25 areas formerly administered by the Centre and include trade and industry, investment, health, education, labour, tourism, agriculture, transport, forestry, and maritime affairs. The Centre continues to oversee foreign affairs, national defense and security, monetary and fiscal policy, religious affairs, justice, and prosecutions.

The key issue is that there is no longer to be a hierarchical relationship between the Province and the Kabupaten/Kota, the latter also being relatively independent of central authority in all but the above matters. Generally power is considered to have been “decentralized” from the centre to the Kabupaten/Kota, and “deconcentrated” to the Provincial level where the Governor takes over powers no longer administered by the centre whilst still being subject to central jurisdiction. Out of the three models of decentralization canvassed, Centrist (Unitary State), Radical Regionalism (micro-autonomy), and Provincialism (Federalism), it is the second, in which autonomy represents “a form of atomization of government function and authority”, that has prevailed (Hull 1999:6) and implemented as Regional Autonomy.

The second dimension of RA enacted under Law 25/1999 concerns the balance of finances between the centre and the regions. In the past poor provinces have obtained subsidies from the centre, receiving back from Jakarta more than they remit. That is set to change with the power to seek out income generating opportunities resting with Kabupaten authorities, particularly the respective Bupatis. Provinces rich in natural resources such as Riau stand to gain much. Others such as West Sumatra, within which is located the Kabupaten of the Mentawai Islands, stand to lose. For example the 2000 financial year for West Sumatra saw expenditure of Rp. 212 billion compared with a regional domestic product of only Rp.50 billion meaning that any trimming of central subsidies would bring great hardship and hence lead to a scramble by Kabupaten authorities to supplement incomes. Padang might have its cement production operation and Sawahlunto its coal mine. However these alone do not generate the sorts of revenues that would see West Sumatra competing on the same playing field as neighboring Riau which has been described as having “gold above the ground” (Oil Palm plantations) and “gold below the ground” (Crude Oil).

West Sumatra’s governor, Zainal Bakar, has been quoted as saying that RA thus means the careful examination and assessment of the province’s potential. The Head of the Coordinating Body for Regional Investment (BKPMD) Syahrial Syarif opines that there are several sectors that can be developed in the future: agriculture including plantations, tourism, and maritime resources (Imanullah &Nauli 2001). The fear of many since RA was first promulgated, and one which remains is that Kabupaten Heads (Bupati) and their Township counterparts would set themselves up as “petty kings”, since they have an unprecedented degree of autonomy from the centre, but in particular from the Province to which they were formerly subordinate as they sought to seek opportunities for the development of these resources. What these changes amount to overall, then, is the decentralization of executive, legislative and financial power from the centre mainly to the Kabupaten/Kota. A significance consequence is that it sets up an arena in which a struggle for resources is virtually guaranteed. In a society where state hierarchies have not been dismantled as much as displaced then the forces of civil society are likely to play a greater role than in the past.

In October 1999 the Mentawai Islands became a Kabupaten in their own right, a change that had been heralded for at least a decade, but which came to be guaranteed by the RA initiative. The centre of administration moved to Tuapejat on the Northwest coast of Sipora. The Islands had formerly been incorporated within the Kabupaten of Padang-Pariaman, with the centre of administration located in Pariaman, to the north of Padang. With the official devolution of power to the Kabupaten level officially in 2001, the issue of the composition of the People’s Regional Representative Assembly moved to the fore of local politics.

The main vehicle for articulating a political position is the LSM (Lembaga Swadaya Masyarakat which can be glossed as “NGO” although this is not the literal meaning), a number of which have come to prominence over the course of the 1990s. They include:
1. Foundation for the Development of Mentawai Society (Yayasan Pembinaan Masyarakat Mentawai) 2. Yayasan Citra Mandiri (“Vision for Autonomy” Foundation)-YCM 3. Deliberative Body for the Mentawai Community (Badan Musyawarah Masyarakat Mentawai-B3M)) 4. North and South Pagai Adat Community (Masyarakat Adat Pagai Utara Selatan-MAPUS) 5. Pioneer Association for the Supervision of Development in Mentawai)-Hipunan Perintis Pengawasan Pembangunan Mentawai-HP3M 6. Mentawai Indigenous Association (Yayasan Suku Mentawai) 7. Lembaga Pengkajian Pengawasan Pembangunan Mentawai 8. Laggai Simaeru’ 9. Yayasan Bhinekka Tunggal Ika 10. Islamic Association of Pioneering Mentawai University Students (Himpunan Pelopor Mahasiswa Islam Mentawai). 11. Yayasan Uma Mentawai 12. Forum Kommunikasi Masyarakat Sumatera Barat 13. Gerakan Mahasiswa Mentawai.

This probably does not exhaust the list. But it does give an indication of the number of active groups pushing various agendas. The key personnel of these groups are mostly tertiary educated. Some of them such as the founder of Yayasan Uma Mentawai have interests in, or even serve in official positions in these other organizations. An important point to note is the diversity of views as to both the immediate and the long-term path that development, understood in the broadest sense, should take. Or in other words what sort of ‘modernity’ or vision of the future should the Mentawai community aspire to. That there is a marked diversity of views on this is brought partly into relief in respect to a political struggle that occurred towards the end of 2000 the reverberations of which echoed well into 2001.

The inauguration of the Regional Peoples Representative Assembly, the membership of which had been decided upon through the deliberations of the Commission for the Filling of Positions in the Regional People’s Assembly (PPK DPRD), came to be postponed in late November 2000. The chairman of MAPUS , Kurnia Sakerebau publicly expressed his extreme displeasure at this, not least since the issue had to be settled before RA for the Mentawai Kabupaten could begin to be considered. “We the people of Mentawai”, he said to the Padang Ekspres, “have a great need for our own Kabupaten, and to be in control of our own fate, in conformity with the implementation of RA. Let’s consider this. With the postponement of the inauguration of the RPRA, it automatically means that any debate with regard to, and the finalizing of, the Budget cannot go ahead.” Kortanius Sabeleake, at the time the Chairman of Yayasan Citra Mandiri (now leading the recently formed Yayasan Uma Mentawai), was more to the point advising that “let it not come to pass that the holy days for Muslims and Christians be besmirched by the policies of the Governor [of West Sumatra]. If this situation is not immediately resolved addressed by the Governor, it will intensify other problems. We ask that the Governor not exacerbate the problem…We are unable to guarantee that undesirable events will not transpire” an opinion backed up by a local community leader Marulli Selelubaja.

Kortanius went on to cast doubts on the commitment of the Governor to democratic process and “reformation”, the self-characterization of public political discourse in the post Suharto era, remarking that his actions were more in keeping with the practices of the authoritarian Suharto state. The standing threat was that in the absence of a reply from the Governor, there would be a protest by some 2000 locals from across the Mentawai islands that would leave the Governor in no doubt as to the right course of action. Two days previously Yudas Sabagalet, originally from South Siberut, along with Marulli Selelubaja and a group of 20, had presented themselves at the Governor’s office to ask him directly the reason for the postponement. Since they were only met by the Head of the RA section for West Sumatra, they proceeded to make their case to the Padang Ekspres, so refining an already keen, one readily identifiable for the Euroamerican observer, sense of using the media in pursuit of political ends, an avenue that has only recently become available in this form to the political process in Indonesia, ie. post-Suharto.

At first glance this spat appears merely as a case of the interests of local RA struggling against autocratic inertia in the system. Whilst that is certainly an important dimension, the affair was generated by a party-political struggle over the composition of the RPRA towards securing adequate representation of party fractions. In respect of this a group representing most of the various fractions had gone to Jakarta to talk directly with Akbar Tanjung, the Head of the Golkar fraction (formerly the ruling party in Suharto’s Indonesia) and Chair of the National Parliament, putting forward the standard argument, through which such formal negotiations are articulated where informal channels cannot be relied upon, that the process had not been carried out according to the prevailing laws (Undang-Undang). The official reason offered was that the administration was still “unprepared” in terms of infrastructure and logistics: some members had just not got their act together. Marulli Selelubaja, a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (the Party with the greatest representative in the national parliament) upped the stakes further in this with the declaration that Mentawai was quite prepared to split from the province of West Sumatra and “stand alone” as their own Province because “from the very start the West Sumatran authorities have been playing games with us” a sentiment also supported by Edison Saleleubaja. “They are not willing to accommodate the wishes of the community,” he continued.

It seemed that the affair began with the Muslim PPP (United Development Party) and PAN (National Mandate Party) fractions who had complained about the RPRA’s compositon to the PPK. Indeed the Head of HIPMIM, Ngena Ibara Samanyang (from Sipora) along with Cahyono Sakubow (from South Siberut), and Asrul Sani (North Siberut) declared their outright rejection of the sentiment expressed by Marulli’s statement of preparedness for Mentawai to secede from West Sumatra, also mentioning that there was no solution to be found, moreover, in solidarity with Israel, something that had been floated in the public arena by certain players in the Mentawai political scene.

Ngena stressed that this wish to secede was merely what Marulli wished to occur and that they had no desire for this to transpire. Asrul Sani suggested that those expressing their frustration at not being inaugurated were actually people not particularly liked by the community and people with little or no profile or standing in the community. He remarked that they are “two faced”: away from Mentawai they do not acknowledge that they are from Mentawai. But when the need arose for new leaders then they appeared as genuine indigenes. “I have seen among them those that are into the exploitation of natural resources in Mentawai. Because of this we have doubts about their desire to take a leadership role, and whether they serve the development of Mentawai or are expediting its ruin.” Extending the debate, Masoed Abidin, an Islamic cleric who has spent much time from the late 1960s fostering the development of the Islam on the islands, and a non-partisan figure very much aligned with local community interests, made the somewhat radical suggestion that the hierarchical structure of government be replaced with one based upon the consultative ideals of the lagai, where no particular individual held sway. In his view the functioning of mainstream politics contradicts the ideals of dialogue in pursuit of a generally acceptable lagai-based consensus.

Other forces supporting the postponement of the inauguration such as the Head of YPMM , M.Bakri and Cornelius Sabailati, the Coordinator of the B3M , also declared the need to go beyond party political circles saying that “The government needs to enter into dialogue with non-Party members of the community. If they do not, don’t be surprised should the Mentawai community has a cool attitude towards them.” Regional government authorities should, furthermore, refrain from making any comments about these events, since it may well foster the emergence of divisions within the Mentawai community and hence have a potential impact back upon West Sumatra. It is through a wide consultation with the community that government authorities would come to know what the desires of the community are in respect of this.

Cornelius also commented that there were many members of the DPRD whom were not from Mentawai. “We are not hillbillies. We also have quality people who can contribute to the nation’s development.” From a Pagai-centric viewpoint he also suggested that the designation “Mentawai” might even be discarded in favour of “Paghailata”, which he defined as “(along) with us” conveying a sense of community, of participatory solidarity. He observed that from an historical viewpoint the term “Mentawai” had never existed on the islands. Only the name “Pagai” had been mentioned on, initially, the VOC maps and later European maps. He also noted that such a move would not contravene Law 22/1999 concerning RA. Discussing this with a local from Katurei, South Siberut, I was struck by the vehement, unequivocal rejection of this by my interlocutor. He was appalled that the region might cease to be known as Mentawai, indicating a good degree of personal investment in what still functions as a powerful symbol in local articulations of identity.

Whilst these circumstances were brought to a point where all parties could more or less live with the outcome for the time being thus avoiding the enactment of any severe outcomes that were hinted at on the part of some of the political actors, subsequent events in May 2001 were to demonstrate the potential virulence of political processes. A general critique of RA that has been continually recycled in the public domain is the likelihood that the Kabupaten Heads, the Bupati, would be able to set themselves up us “petty kings” and do pretty much what they liked particularly in regard to revenue raising which in the context of RA becomes a central concern given the legislative changes to fiscal policy under Law 25/1999. Despite continued political instability in the wake of the RPRA affair, stemming from the need to elect a “definitive” Bupati, since the present incumbent was operating in a caretaker role until the RPRA could sit and elect his permanent replacement, the caretaker (originally Badril Bakar a non-indigenous official from the mainland who was replaced by Antonius Samangilailai from Sipora early in 2001) facilitated moves in relation to extracting natural resources in the form of timber from North Siberut

With the establishment of the Siberut National Park in the early 1990s logging concessions, which had operated over the course of 20 years, were revoked by Presidential decree. Logging ceased until the passing of RA laws in 1999 where it recommenced on a limited basis during 2000. By early 2001 a large concession had been granted for “research” purposes to the Andalas Madani Cooperative in conjunction with the logging company Sinar Minang Sejahtera. 54% of profits would go to the latter with the remainder shared by AMC and Andalas University as a whole. A group consisting of people from the Rereiketand Maileppet districts in South Siberut proceeded to Subeleng just to the north of the mid-central coastal village of Saibi where heavy machinery had been unloaded in preparation for logging to commence. The ensuing confrontation between the locals and the loggers saw the machinery repatriated to Padang and the recently established loggers camp burned. Within the same timeframe a group of locals including members of several NGOs demonstrated loudly at the Andalas campus. The result was the temporary halt of development of the concession until local interests could be accommodated.

In conclusion, these specific events can be considered to be partly constitutive of, or even an ongoing creation of, a civil society the like of which has not yet been seen in this part of the world. This sphere is not, of course, simply confined to party-politics, but is also energized by a number of cross-cutting interests involving indigenous NGOs along with other interests. In the era of political decentralization and dilution of state power that both characterizes and constitutes a key dimension of abstract global process in the present, a vibrant set of conversations, or fields of action, have commenced between a diverse range of participants, who articulate their positions within the various Foundations, Institutions and state instrumentalities in which they have membership and which provide a firm platform from which they are able to pursue their interests. We might even say that the lagai, as per Masoed Abidin’s suggestion, is already operative or continues to operate, if not in substance then in principle, in the form of these small cooperative units that resemble once again in principle those other vehicles for articulating intra- and intervillage political concerns, the various uma and suku that make up the dozens of village communities across the islands. Additionally these fields, understood as a complex assemblages of disparate elements, defy simple characterizations of them in standard binary terms, such as modern versus traditional, world religions (Christianity;Islam) versus secular practices, state versus civilian, and especially global versus local. They contain elements of these in various degrees and forms that provide them with a good measure of their productive efficacy: the warp and woof of contemporary society across the Mentawai Islands continues to be imbricated with the warp and woof of beliefs and practices of the world beyond its beaches across which the tides of modern historical and political processes continually sweep.

*Several newspaper articles for which bibliographical details are not available.
*Conversations with local people.
Burawoy, M. (2001) “Manufacturing the global”. Ethnography 2(2):147-159.
Hull, T. (1999) “Striking a Most Delicate Balance: The Implications of Otonomi Daerah for the Planning and Implementation of Development Cooperation Projects.” Demography Program, RSSS, ANU.
Imanullah, F and I.S. Nauli (2001) “Hasrat Lama yang Bakal Terwujud”. Forum Keadilan. No.40, 7 January 2001.
Krugman, P. (1995) “Dutch Tulips and Emerging Markets.” Foreign Affairs. New York.
Molyneux, M. (2001) “Ethnography and Global Process.” Ethnography 2(2):273-282.
Sofyat, R., L.Ysniar, & R.Widodo (2001) “Kado Otonomi di Milenium Ketiga”. Forum Keadilan, No.40. January 2001.

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