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Causes of Conflict in Indonesia

Indonesia Map (

Indonesia Map (

You also begin throughout Indonesia to get real resentment of local indigenous populations to the transmigration policies of the Suharto government, which often meant moving Muslim Javanese into areas where another ethnic group was dominant and this led to competition for land, resources, and eventually for power.

The second major factor is that of the development policies. Not only were there transmigration policies but there were also areas where logging, mining and extraction of natural resources in particular took place. This led to resentment over the government coming in and dispossessing the indigenous people of their land. This in turn took on an ethnic component when the dominant ethnic group represented by the government happened to be in conflict with the local indigenous population.

Rapid economic changes clearly produced changes as well including additional resentment against the ethnic Chinese. The Chinese seemed to have benefited from economic policies more than others and during the Asian economic crisis it was the Chinese shopkeepers who were accused of hoarding goods. Now there is an additional factor, particularly in Java, where some Muslims groups have attacked prostitution and gambling centers, which in some cases are owned by the Chinese. Without any information to the contrary, you get this Muslim-Chinese balance being set up with the Chinese responsible for all social vice and the Muslims wanting to combat it.

Local power configurations and struggles over power have been a key factor. Colleagues in West Kalimantan and Ambon, where the conflict has broken out in a major way, say that the change in Indonesian law from 1974 made the situation far worse. The law in question essentially turned local traditional village heads into the lowest rung of the Indonesian bureaucratic administration. So once the conflict broke out, it could not be controlled because the traditional authority of local figures had gradually been sapped and they then constituted the lowest rung of the bureaucracy. Traditional village heads then had much less influence over their followers.

There has also been a lot of co-optation of traditional elites both in Papua and West Kalimantan, where religious leaders or local customary leaders were bought out by the ruling party, by the Golkar elite.

There are law and order questions involved in some of these communal violence issues. In April 1999, in Indonesia, a long-awaited move began to separate the police from the armed forces. The police had traditionally been a part of the armed forces but as clashes broke out and the army stood by and let the police handle it, it gradually became clear that the police were not up to the job. Indeed they were the poorest trained and poorest paid of any part of the security forces, and were thus not effective as law enforcers. It had traditionally been the case that if violence broke out, the army would come and suppress it in no uncertain terms. If it were left to the police, it was clear that they were not up to the job. In some places, as in Ambon, the police were seen to be from one side of the conflict, so that there were allegations that the police were supporting the Christians and the army was supporting the Muslims. And obviously once you have the security forces acting in a non-neutral way in a communal conflict, things get much worse. Third, police-army relations were extremely poor and had gotten worse over the last two years, meaning that you have an outbreak of police-army violence in a way that exacerbates the conflict.

Another factor that has been very important to Indonesia has been the communications revolution, particularly with e-mail and cellular phones. It means virtually no conflict is local any longer. It instantly becomes a national conflict or at least there is the possibility of drawing in your co-religionists or the co-members of your ethnic group from other parts of the country in ways that transform conflicts from being local to being national. This means, for example in the Malakkas, both the Christians and the Muslims are mobilizing supporters from way outside Ambon and the Malakkas itself in a way that only exacerbates the conflict.

Finally there is the issue of provocation. In addition to all these factors there have been instances where the conflict has been deliberately provoked. There is lots of talk now about the Suharto family being involved in funding outbreaks but in fact the efforts of provocation only work when you have got the kindling ready to blow up; there have been places where the provocation has been tried as in Monado in North Sulawesi and it has not worked because these other factors have not been in place.