Indonesian police arrest dozens protesting China-backed project near Singapore

Nazarudin Latif and Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Indonesian police arrest dozens protesting China-backed project near Singapore Demonstrators clash with security officials while protesting against a plan to move all residents of Rempang island to make way for an economic hub, in Batam City, Riau Islands province, Indonesia, Sept. 7, 2023.
[Photo courtesy BP Batam office]

Police said Tuesday they had arrested 43 people for alleged violence while protesting a plan to move thousands of residents of a small island near Singapore to make way for a multibillion-dollar Chinese glass factory.

Some of the nearly 1,000 people who took part in Monday’s protest in Batam city threw rocks, bottles and other objects at security personnel, authorities said.

The protesters were demonstrating against a plan to relocate all 7,500 residents of Rempang island in order to clear space for the construction of the plant, which will be part of an economic hub. 

“We call on the public to calm down. Their demands and aspirations will be relayed directly to the relevant parties to find a solution,” Pandra Arsyad Zahwani, the spokesman for local police, said in a statement.

The protest turned violent when some demonstrators clashed with police and damaged public facilities outside the Batam Authority Office building, Pandra said. The office is in charge of the project to develop the economic hub, Rempang Eco-City, which is expected to turn the island into an industrial, commercial and tourism center.

Rempang, a small island adjacent to Batam island and connected by bridges, covers an area of about 165 square kms (64 square miles) and is part of the Batam municipality.

Rempang Eco-City is a joint venture between the Batam Authority and a local company, PT Makmur Elok Graha (MEG), which has partnered with China’s Xinyi International Investment Ltd., according to authority spokeswoman Ariastuty Sirait. The Chinese company is a subsidiary of the world’s largest glass and solar-panel maker, Xinyi Glass Holdings.

In July, Xinyi made a commitment to invest U.S. $11.6 billion in a glass and solar-panel manufacturing plant in Indonesia, which would be the world’s second largest such factory.

At the time, Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia said that if the plant came to fruition, it would create 35,000 jobs. And the entire eco-city project is expected to bring in 381 trillion rupiah ($26.6 billion) in investment by 2080, officials said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) chats with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo after the 29th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, Nov. 18, 2022. [Rungroj Yongrit/Pool/via AFP]

The dispute over the project has been simmering for some time. 

Last month, thousands of people staged a protest against Rempang Eco-City, outside the Batam Authority Office. 

On Thursday, a scuffle broke out when residents objected to a land measurement exercise for the project that officials conducted under heavy security. Police fired tear gas that caused some students to be hospitalized. 

The small island’s residents want to continue to stay in their village, which has been home to native Malay, Orang Laut and Orang Darat people since the 17th century, said Suardi, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Indigenous Communities of Rempang Island.

“This is a legacy that we cannot lose,” Suardi, who goes by one name, told a press conference in Jakarta on Tuesday.

He accused authorities of not giving them a chance to negotiate on Sept. 7, when thousands of personnel guarded the land measurement and demarcation process.

“We asked for mediation for five minutes only. But they refused to negotiate. They kept walking, the people resisted, and then there was a clash,” he said.

According to Ariastuty Sirait, the Batam Authority spokeswoman, not all the island’s residents oppose relocation. About 2,600 families would have to move for the project, she said.

“Some residents have started registering” to get permanent housing provided by the government as compensation, she told BenarNews.

Ariastuty said she regretted that there had been any clashes but insisted that the Batam Authority had given an opportunity for dialogue between the alliance representing the Rempang community and the government.

“We are determined to go ahead with the national strategic project as mandated by the government,” she said.

‘Bad communication’

On Tuesday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said the clashes had occurred because information was not made fully available to Rempang’s residents.

“It was a case of bad communication,” he said while on a visit to Banten, a province in Java.

“There was actually an agreement that the residents would be given 500 meters of land and a house, but this was not communicated well so there was a problem.”

Xinyi’s mammoth investment was announced during a visit by Jokowi to China in July. While meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping then, Jokowi invited more Chinese investment in renewable energy, health, and food security as well as the construction of a new Indonesian capital city in Borneo.

Indonesia has a potential resource of 25 billion tons of quartz sand, the main raw material for making glass and solar panels, according to official data. And China is the world’s main producer of solar panels, with a 70% market share.

By building its plant in Indonesia, Xinyi would help Indonesia to enhance the value of its natural resources through domestic processing, officials said


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