The formation of Riau Islands as Indonesia's 32nd province in 2002 should be seen as part of a broader trend that saw the creation of new subnational government entities — seven provinces and 112 districts in total — throughout the country after the end of the New Order era (Tirtosudarmo 2008; Kimura 2013). This can be considered as a rational response from the peripheries against decades of centralization of wealth and power in Jakarta that culminated in the late 1990s (Emmerson 2000; Mietzner 2014; Malley 1999). At the same time, the desire to form a separate Riau Islands Province (henceforth RIP) should also be understood through local cultural and historical circumstances that are unique to the region. These include a shared history of being torchbearers of the great Malay maritime empires and civilization that dominated the local seas before the arrival of European explorers and colonizers (Trocki 2007; Killingray, Lincoln and Rigby 2004; Long 2013).
This combination of both rational interests and cultural sentiments was argued to have motivated numerous subnational separatist movements in South Asia, such as in Assam, Kashmir, and Punjab (Mitra 1995). In Indonesia, some subnational movements were indeed separatist in nature, as in the cases of Aceh, Papua, (mainland) Riau, and East Timor. In contrast to these, however, the goal of subnationalism in Riau Islands was not separatism but broad autonomy under the context of decentralization. Still, in line with Mitra's (1995) thesis, we argue that both rational interest and cultural sentiments were the main motivations for establishing RIP in 2002 and these are still relevant for understanding much of the political dynamics taking place in the province fifteen years later.
This Trends describes “state formation” in RIP. We acknowledge the definition of the state as adopted by Ruggie (1993), which is essentially that it is an institution with legitimacy to exercise power over territorial space. But in this case, we also refer to the state as an autonomous government entity that may not be necessarily independent, such as a state in a federal country, or a province in decentralized Indonesia. Following Costantini (2015, p. 24) we define state formation as “the process by which a state forms and evolves as a result of agents engaging in a struggle for power that leads to the creation and transformation of the sites of authority”.