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Causes of Conflict in Indonesia

Indonesia Map (

Indonesia Map (

Sidney Jones
Executive Director, Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

In terms of the communal violence and ethnic violence that we now see around Indonesia, I think I will just try to give you a survey of what some of the critical factors are involved in these conflicts and briefly go over what might be done to improve the situation. I will leave everything else for the question period.

Let me start with a general survey of the kind of violence around the country now. The conflict in the Malaccas where, in the past two years, about 4,000 people have been killed in Christian-Muslim fighting, and about 500,000 displaced, according to Indonesian Red Cross figures. That’s clearly the worst of the conflicts we are facing right now, but even there it is almost a misnomer to see it as arising from some long-seated religious dispute. There are actually a lot of historical, political and economic factors that are lying at the root of it.

We have also got the conflict in West Kalimantan, which is now somewhat quiescent, but in 1999 it broke out again with hundreds of people killed. And there was a previous episode in 1997 that produced large-scale deaths, and was largely between indigenous Dayaks and some indigenous Malays against the immigrant Madurese group. This issue of migrants against indigenous people is a major theme that runs through communal conflict in Indonesia.

There is a conflict going on in Poso in Sulawesi. Again the worst episode was this past spring when there were about 300 people killed. Again there was Christian-Muslim fighting but this conflict was based more on local elites struggling over power that ended up in communal conflict.

There are periodic eruptions of communal conflict in Lombok, Eastern Bali, in Kupang in West Timor, in Couchon Pandang in West and East Java, and at any one time the factors are present for this kind of conflict to erupt. And the ethnic Chinese of course are a perennial target any time social unrest breaks out.

Two faulty assumptions I would like to dismiss at the outset. The first is that this communal conflict is an outgrowth of the fall of Suharto. There was a huge number of outbreaks of communal violence not only during the Suharto period but also during the Sukarno period. The second false premise is that somehow this is the fault of the democratization process and that the communal violence is worse with democracy in multi-ethnic societies than it is with strong authoritarian governments that keep these kinds of conflicts under control. I would argue that what is going on right now is in many cases the legacy of an abusive past more than it is the result of a permissive present.

Nevertheless, there are factors in the political mix that are not making things any easier. There are a number of factors involved in the current conflicts. One is the historic colonial roots of the conflict. This I will not say much about but only let you know that some policies of the Dutch colonial government in Indonesia set the stage for many of these conflicts. This is particularly true with regard to how the Dutch related to the ethnic Chinese but it is also true of how the Dutch related to missionary work and the way they parceled out the country to different missionary groups.

In terms of demographics and population transfers, one of the things we see is how changing population balances among different ethnic and religious groups has led to certain kinds of tensions, often with one group feeling that it is under siege by another. In Ambon there was a fairly balanced proportion of Ambonese-Christians and Ambonese-Muslims with traditional cultural methods of conflict resolution. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was substantial migration to these areas of Muslims from Sulawesi and elsewhere. As a result, the population balance shifted, but jobs that had traditionally been the preserve of the Christian elite started going to some of the newcomers who happened to be Muslim and it led to a situation where Christians felt themselves threatened. That was a factor in determining how the Christians reacted the way they did to a number of episodes that occurred in 1998 and 1999.