INDONESIA: The New Regional Autonomy Laws, Two Years Later

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

INDONESIA: The New Regional Autonomy Laws, Two Years Later


Gary F. Bell

I. INTRODUCTION

Indonesia is a fascinating amalgam of ethnicities, languages, cultures, and religions, united by history, by a common national language, by political will and sometimes by sheer force, and spread over thousands of separate, distinct, and often distant islands. That such a country would have a high degree of regional autonomy would seem to make sense but surprisingly the regions in Indonesia until recently did not have much autonomy and were administered mainly by the central government. This led to a lot of resentment towards the centre and particularly towards Java and the Javanese who dominate in politics and in the central government.

Addressing a call for more regional autonomy, the Habibie government passed new laws that promised the broadest autonomy to the regions and the Wahid government adopted regulations under the new laws. The laws and regulations came into force on 1 January 2001. This decentralization has been referred to by some as the "Big Bang" -- Indonesia moved from a government structure that was highly centralized to one of the most decentralized in the world (at least on paper) and did so in about 27 months from the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) decree opening up the regional governance reform in October 19981 until the coming into force of the laws on 1 January 2001. Many believe that no country has ever decentralized so much so suddenly.

This article will look at the provisions of the new regional autonomy laws. It will, in particular, examine the political context that led to their adoption, their contents including their shortcomings, the many difficult tasks faced during the implementation of the laws over the past two years, and the possibility of amending the laws. It will then look very briefly at the separate autonomy laws adopted for special regions.

I have elsewhere made a detailed legal analysis of the laws and regulations just before their coming into force2 and also written on the legal consequences of the regional autonomy laws on regional minorities in Indonesia.3 Jurists should refer to these other articles for a more detailed legal analysis. The purpose of this article will be to explain some of the legal difficulties generated by the law to non-lawyers and to give a more general overview of the law and its early implementation over the last two years -- though still from a jurist's point of view. Admittedly, a jurist's point of view is not the only way of looking at the regional autonomy laws and other points of view might shed a better, or at least a more complete light on the topic. Nonetheless the legal point of view must be taken into account in analysing many consequences of the regional autonomy laws.

II. THE NEW REGIONAL AUTONOMY LAWS

A. The Political Context that Led to their Adoption

Regional governments are not a new phenomenon in Indonesia. There were regional governments in the provinces (propinsi ), regencies (kabupaten ), and villages (desa ) (to name the main levels of government) and there were laws setting up and regulating these governments.4 In reality, however, these local governments were not democratic and were politically controlled by the central government. They behaved more like implementers of central orders than as autonomous governments. This led to recriminations in the regions and demands for autonomous and democratic regional governments. In particular, there was a sense that the regions, particularly resource-rich regions, were not making sufficient profits from their own resources and that the central government was unjustly exploiting them.

Following the fall of Soeharto in 1998, Vice-President Habibie, of the same Golkar Party, took over the presidency. He wanted to be seen as a reformist and did put in place many new laws. One of the reforms he promised was regional autonomy. At the time of this promise, Indonesia was in turmoil, and East Timor, Aceh, and Irian Jaya were fighting for independence. …

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