Riau Islands Province (acronym: Kepri) is the fastest growing province of Indonesia by population, consisting of the principal group of the Riau Archipelago, together with other island groups to the south, east and northeast. In Bahasa Indonesia language, Riau Islands and Riau Archipelago are synonymous and can only be distinguished by the word for province, "Provinsi".
Originally part of the Riau Province, the Riau Islands were split off as a separate province in July 2004.
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.
There have been various attempts at both independence and autonomy for this part of Indonesia since the founding of Indonesia in 1945.