Success Story

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Harmaini, headman of the village of Padang Japang, is a political dinosaur. The calendar in his office is a year old and his pen and paper supply ran out weeks back. But the 63-year-old shows up everyday in a freshly-pressed safari suit, does some retirement planning and is actually eager to welcome his imminent replacement, a village chief elected in a whole new way. "I'm relieved," he says, "that we'll finally be going back to a system that truly suits our community."

Jakarta is voluntarily loosening its control of Indonesia's 361 regions, and that may be a factor in last week's gruesome troubles on Borneo. But in at least one part of the country, West Sumatra, decentralization is raising hopes of a more comfortable-and long-term-relationship with the central government. "Decentralization should be about taking power away from the government and handing it back to the people," says Alis Marajo, the head of Lima Puluh Kota district. "That's what we're doing in West Sumatra."

Former President Suharto believed in firm central control of the entire, far-flung archipelago. On Jan. 1, new legislation came into effect reversing his legacy. Jakarta controls foreign affairs, monetary policy and external defense, but all other government functions, including taxation, will be handled by locals. The autonomy experiment is less than three months old, and each province is different. Kalimantan, for example, has major problems with migrant communities, which have yet to surface in Sumatra.

For the 6 million inhabitants of West Sumatra, this means a return to a traditional system known as nagari (Sanskrit for country). The province's 3,612 villages, as carved up by Suharto, have been merged into 543 nagari areas. Election of nagari officials is already underway and should be completed this year.

This promises real representation and much more. Under nagari, disputes over land, water, theft, inheritance and livestock will be dealt with swiftly by a local council, unlike the thousands of cases that each year sink in the quagmire of Indonesia's Western-style legal system. "Of the dozens of cases I've handled recently, only three will have to go to court," says Evianto Datumbi, head of a local customary legal committee. "With nagari, you have to settle or else the two parties can never bring up another case."

West Sumatrans hope their success could lead to the resurrection of traditional systems that once existed in Aceh, the Maluku Islands, Bali and other places. "The key is not orders," says Anwar Zainal Abidin, a respected elder and former government official. "Things get done because of a collective spirit."

In the lush rice fields and farmlands of West Sumatra the experiment is looking extremely bright. Seventy-year-old Masrun, from the town of Sungai Kamuyang, tends to cassava, cloves and ginger. In 1968, the 130-hectare plot where he farms was transferred from local nagari leaders to a private company in a deal locals say was unfair. Masrun went from being a modest stakeholder to a day laborer earning, until recently, 15 a day. Several months ago, the revived nagari council decided to take back the land, and the private firm agreed to give it up. Masrun, with a toothless smile, says he's now free to sell whatever he harvests, and he's earning 10 times more than before. "Going back to nagari means going back to our roots and putting everything back in its rightful place." If autonomy brings a fraction of the justice Masrun has received, Indonesia may just yet hold together as a nation.