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Thursday, June 3, 1999 Published at 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK

Who owns Indonesia?

Malays and Dayaks are massacring the Madurese migrants

By Jakarta Correspondent Jonathan Head

Recent ethnic violence in Borneo highlights one of the most pressing questions facing the country - Who owns Indonesia?

Indonesia Flashpoints
The country held its first conference in the capital Jakarta this year to address a matter that many say lies at the heart of much of the ethnic tension.

More than 200 of Indonesia's indigenous leaders came to the capital to bear their grievances to the government.

The violence in Ambon, and the fighting in Borneo underlines how serious are the grievances felt by the peoples of Indonesia's outer islands, who for decades have seen their land exploited for its resources, with most of the revenue going to the capital Jakarta.

The leaders are demanding official recognition of their rights to the land and the rich resources it holds.

Abdon Nababan, one of the conference organisers, said: "We demand that the government sits down with these peoples, because these peoples are the owners of the land.

Sandra Moniaga, another organiser, said: "Under former president Suharto this conference would have been impossible. It's amazing, unbelievable that we can finally do this."

Land rights

Under Indonesia's constitution, all land is owned by the state, ignoring traditional land rights.

Suharto enforced this law ruthlessly, as companies connected to his family and friends exploited resources like timber, gold and oil.

Government departments then took some of the money back into the regions, and spent it on development projects to try to win the loyalty of the peoples there. It hasn't worked.

Tribal campaigns

Tom Beanal is a member of the Amungme tribe in Irian Jaya, and has long fought a campaign against the giant, American-owned Freeport gold and copper mine there.

"Listen to us, or the country will break apart," he warned.

[ image: Ethnic troubles have escalated recently in Ambon]
Ethnic troubles have escalated recently in Ambon
Already, there are active pro-independence movements in the provinces of Irian Jaya and Aceh, at Indonesia' eastern and western extremes, both fuelled by local anger over the way their rich resources are plundered by Jakarta.

Abdon Nababan believes Suharto completely misunderstood what really motivates the indigenous peoples of the country.

"He was wrong about what people want here. He thought that all that people in Indonesia needed was televisions, cars, money. But it was wrong. The most important thing for the people is their rights to be respected."

Another grievance expressed at the conference was the rough treatment meted out by the military to those who challenged Suharto's vision of national development.


The government has been considering much greater autonomy for the regions including a proposal that they control more of the revenue from their own resources.

Yet even this concession may not be enough to satisfy the increasingly restless people of Indonesia's mountains and forests.

Thirty years of enforced silence under Suharto have left much anger and bitterness that will not quickly die down.

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