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Riau Islands Region of Sumatra

Riau (click to visit the official site) is a province of Indonesia, located in the center of Sumatra along the Strait of Malacca. The provincial capital and largest city is Pekanbaru. Other major cities includes Dumai, Selat Panjang, Bagansiapiapi, Bengkalis, Bangkinang, Rengat and Siak Sri Indrapura.

Indonesian was based on the Riau version of Malay language. Riau is currently one of the richest provinces in Indonesia. This province is rich with natural resources, particularly petroleum, natural gas, rubber, palm oil and fiber plantations. However extensive logging lead to massive decline of forest cover from 78% in 1982 to only 33% in 2005.

The Riau Islands were part of Riau province until 2004, when they were made a separate province.

Since 1970s, the majority of Indonesia has been experiencing declining population growth rates. Riau has been a significant exception, with increasing rates every decade since 1970 to 4.35 percent annual rise for the 1990s. The provincial population is 5,543,031 (As of the 2010 census).


The islands of the Tudjuh Archipelago, located between mainland Malaysia and Borneo, were attached to the new province, although they were not geographically part of the Riau Archipelago. The major island groups are the Riau Archipelago south of Singapore, the Lingga Islands extending southward of the Riau Arch., parallel the Sumatran Coast, and the Tudjuh Archipelago.

Batam has a majority of the province's population. Other populated major islands include Bintan and Karimun. Sizewise, however, the sparsely populated Natuna Islands are larger. There are around 3,200 islands in the province.

Since Batam is part of a booming special economic region, it has experienced high population growth rates. The province's population is at 1,685,698 as of 2010, with more than 2/3 of the population under 30.


The official language of the Riau Islands is Riau. The Riau Islands are considered the birthplace of the modern Malay language. It is the official standard for Malay, as agreed upon by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.


From Srivijayan times until the 16th century, Riau was a natural part of greater Malay kingdoms or sultanates, in the heart of what is often called the Malay World, which stretches from eastern Sumatra to Borneo. The Malay-related Orang Laut tribes inhabited the islands and formed the backbone of most Malay kingdoms from Srivijaya to the Sultanate of Johor for the control of trade routes going through the straits.

After the fall of Melaka in 1511, the Riau islands became the center of political power of the mighty Sultanate of Johor or Johor-Riau, based on Bintan island, and were for long considered the center of Malay culture.

But history changed the fate of Riau as a political, cultural or economic center when European powers struggled to control the regional trade routes and took advantage of political weaknesses within the sultanate. Singapore island, that had been for centuries part of the same greater Malay kingdoms and sultanates, and under direct control of the Sultan of Johor, came under control of the British.

The creation of a European-controlled territory in the heart of the Johor-Riau natural boundaries broke the sultanate into two parts, destroying the cultural and political unity that had existed for centuries. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 consolidated this separation, with the British controlling all territories north of the Singapore strait and the Dutch controlling territories from Riau to Java.

After the European powers withdrew from the region, the new independent governments had to reorganize and find balance after inheriting 100 years of colonial boundaries. Before finding their current status, the territories of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Borneo struggled and even came into military conflict against each other, and the Riau islands once again found themselves in the middle of a regional struggle.

The strong cultural unity of the region with Riau in the heart of this region never returned, and the line drawn by the British in 1819 remained, dividing the area into three new countries in 1965: Singapore, the Malaysian federation in the north, and Indonesia in the south.

Some level of unity returned in the Riau region for the first time after 150 years, with the creation of the Sijori Growth Triangle in 1989. But while bringing back some economical wealth to Riau, the Sijori Growth Triangle somewhat further broke the cultural unity within the islands. With Batam island receiving most of the industrial investments and dramatically developing into a regional industrial center, it attracted hundreds of thousands of non-Malay Indonesian migrants, changing forever the demographic balance in the archipelago.

Today the name of Riau merely refers to this administrative region of Indonesia, a free trade zone heavily supported by Indonesian, Singaporean and international investments.

There have been various attempts at both independence and autonomy for this part of Indonesia since the founding of Indonesia in 1945.

Click the map to the right for larger version »


July 4th, 2011 by Staff

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