Digest 86

Towards a mapping of 'at risk' ethnic, religious and political groups in Indonesia.

25 September, 1999


As central government authority has weakened in Indonesia over the last three to four years, life has become more precarious for many people around this archipelago of 210 million. This paper attempts to sketch a preliminary map of vulnerability as it affects ethnic, religious and political minorities around the country.

Indonesia is a multi-ethnic nation. Since it declared independence in 1945, its ruling elites have worked hard at the project of 'nation-building'. Educational programs emphasised the Indonesian language and the tolerant ideology of Pancasila rather than a particular language or religion. Divisive issues not permitted to be aired in public were encapsulated in the Indonesian acronym SARA - tribalism, religion, race (ie. Chineseness), and class conflict.

However, as President Suharto began to age and his regime began to weaken in the mid-1990s, increasingly anxious elites around him began to form rival cliques that sometimes looked to religion as the 'glue' to hold them together. ICMI, the Islamic Intellectuals Association, was the first of these in 1993. Other religious groups followed. The birth of ICMI broke with the elite consensus until that moment to keep religion out of politics.

The economic crisis beginning in late 1997 combined with the political uncertainty following President Suharto's resignation on 21 May 1998 to markedly increase social tensions. Even if they are of a class nature, these tensions are often expressed in religious, ethnic, or separatist terms. They have been exacerbated by the frequently demonstrated inability of the security forces to avoid taking sides in internal conflicts.

At least some recent incidents of inter-communal violence can be attributed to rivalry within the ruling elite that has taken on religious forms. This is the most satisfying explanation in the case of Ambon. Ethnic and religious mobilisation by rival elites also played a role in the scapegoating of the Chinese minority in Jakarta in mid-1998. In a poorly educated, economically depressed, and long depoliticised society, governed by an elite driven largely by fears for its own survival, ethnicity and religion are easy, if dangerous, levers to pull. Rwanda and the fomer Yugoslavia spring to mind as possible parallels.

We can identify three types of vulnerable minorities in the on-going conflicts around the archipelago. Together they make up a map of ethnic, religious and political minorities at risk. They are: (1) non-local transmigrants caught up in local conflicts (Aceh, West Kalimantan, Ambon); (2) entire local populations regarded as politically hostile by the government (Aceh, and especially East Timor); (3) Chinese shopkeepers and business entrepreneurs in towns across the country, especially in Java, as the objects of resentment.

1. Non-local transmigrants

Often overlooked in the Aceh conflict is the plight of transmigrants from other parts of Indonesia such as Java and South Sulawesi. Local newspaper accounts estimate 15,000 of these have left Aceh since the outbreak of the latest round of violence in mid-1999. They fled as a result of threats made against them by the Free Aceh Movement, which identifies the Indonesian government as 'Javanese colonialists'. Some have been murdered, more had their houses burned down. The government has done little for them except offer help to relocate elsewhere.

Further east, Dayak tribesmen in early 1997 attacked Madurese migrant farmers in West Kalimantan. Most of the Madurese had arrived in West Kalimantan in the 1970s, but some had been there much longer. Another outbreak occurred in March and April 1999, in which indigenous Malays also joined in. Five hundred may have been killed in the first round, approximately 200 in the second round, the majority of them Madurese. No one has been convicted for murder.

From 20,000 to 40,000 Madurese were displaced from their homes. Indigenous community leaders for months refused to allow them to resettle. West Kalimantan is the first place in Indonesia where the government has cooperated with ethnic cleansing, in this case by not allowing the Madurese to return to their homes. They are now being resettled with government assistance in a special reservation at Tebang Kacang near Pontianak, but the area is too small for the large number of families involved.

Further east again, fighting between Christians and Muslims on Ambon broke out on 19 January and has so far produced about 53,000 largely Muslim refugees. Forty thousand have gone to the island of Buton, off South Sulawesi, whence their ancestors came. Another 13,000 have become refugees in remote Tual, southeast Maluku. Many Christians have also become refugees in Maluku province, for example in the majority Muslim island of Banda, where there are now practically no Christians left. More refugees are sure to follow, as the conflict smolders on.

The government sent in troops to quell the Ambon violence, but there have been credible reports of them taking sides in the conflict, as well as of them using unnecessarily lethal force leading to many extra deaths. The government has been unable to offer any solution to the conflict beyond appealing to the rival communities to reconcile. Suggestions that the multi-religious city of Ambon should be formally segregated into Christian and Muslim sectors have been given a disconcerting amount of serious consideration.

Transmigration has long been an important part of the government's strategy not merely to relieve over-population in Java but also to 'integrate' Indonesia's population by ethnically diluting peripheral communities with newcomers. Yet the government has done nothing for them other than attempt to provide an alternative area for resettlement when they have come under threat.

It may only be the poverty of these displaced transmigrants that prevents them from calling on Australia's generosity towards refugees.

2. Entire local populations

In Aceh, a previous wave of violence between 1989 and about 1992 resulted from an extremely harsh response by the Indonesian armed forces to a militant resurgence of the Free Aceh Movement and. It left perhaps 2000 dead. The army announced it had adopted 'shock therapy' to terrorise the local population into withdrawing support for separatist guerrillas.

In May 1999 the Free Aceh Movement launched a fresh campaign and drew a violent response from the Indonesian army. Some hundreds are thought to have died. Approximately 80,000 Acehnese have been displaced from their rural villages in the three most conflict prone districts (Pidie, North Aceh, and East Aceh).

There have been no human rights prosecutions, and Jakarta has so far responded dismissively to political proposals from local government and religious leaders in Aceh.

In East Timor, the scorched earth policy conducted by the Indonesian military after the population voted overwhelmingly to separate from Indonesia has created an IDP problem on a massive scale. Approximately 150,000 East Timorese have been moved to West Timor, often against their will, and more are still arriving. Of those remaining inside, the vast majority have been displaced from their homes.

The complete failure of the Indonesian government to honour its pledges to guarantee the safety of the population shocked the world community into sending in a multinational peacekeeping force with extraordinary Chapter VII powers. The UN Commission on Human Rights is campaigning at the UN Security Council to establish a special tribunal to try those responsible for genocide.

Such open warfare on an entire population for its political beliefs is an indication of what is possible anywhere in the archipelago where people may be tempted to support separatism, and is no doubt intended as precisely such a warning. It is a chilling indication of the outer limits of what the most powerful sections within the Indonesian government are capable of under extreme circumstances. It has done irreparable harm to the credibility of any 'guarantees' that anyone in Jakarta's current government may care to offer in regard to any vulnerable section of the population.

3. Chinese

Chinese Indonesians have often been the target of communal anger during the sporadic rioting that has broken out in so many towns of Indonesia since late in 1996. Among the most infamous of these riots were those in Situbondo, East Java (10 October 1996), and Tasikmalaya, West Java (26 December 1996). The sudden food price rises of early 1998 triggered a rash of riots against Chinese shopkeepers and business entrepreneurs. The typical pattern of these riots is of a day-long outburst of violence confined to one town or a region. Usually property damage occurs but not killing. On the whole there is little evidence of coordination or planning. The anger appears to be directed at the 'haves' in town, with anti-Christian sentiment a kind of incidental overlay expressed through graffiti.

The glaring exception was Situbondo, in which literally every single church in the town was destroyed, killing a number of Chinese church workers in one of them. Almost no businesses were damaged in this attack. However, by no means all the churches destroyed were Chinese - some had predominantly Javanese or eastern Indonesian memberships. No satisfactory report on this event has yet appeared in English.

Anti-Chinese racism within Indonesian society came to its most gruesome recent expression in the riots that shook Jakarta 13-15 May 1998. Many hundreds of people died in these riots, the vast majority of them not Chinese but indigenous Indonesian young men trapped in burning supermarkets. Many of the businesses destroyed were owned, as everywhere else, by Chinese.

The aspect that caused the most international outrage were credible reports of widespread rapes against ethnic Chinese women. Yet government ministers in August 1998 began to sound unanimous in their denial that any such rapes had occurred. My analysis of the government's refusal to treat the rapes reports seriously is that the government, which was new and weak because of its close links with the discredited Suharto government, could not afford to alienate its Islamic constituency by speaking out on behalf of an unpopular minority.

This refusal in principle exposes all women of Chinese descent to rape with impunity anywhere in the country. However, it does not mean that abuse of Chinese women is equally likely anywhere in the country. For that, a judgment on local conditions is perhaps as important as the central government's stated policy or lack thereof. In Minahasa, for example, anti-Chinese violence is less likely than in the towns of Java.


At the moment, the prospects for a return to the apparent stability and elite consensus of the Suharto years appear dim. The election of a new president is the main agenda item for the newly elected super-parliament MPR, due to do its work in November 1999. None of the major candidates - Megawati, Habibie, or Wiranto - enjoy unchallenged support. One reason is that all three are in fact Suharto-era figures who do not envisage a clear break with the past. The temptation to abandon politics and resort to a security approach is strong but would probably only exacerbate tensions. The best scenario is that a political approach will prevail, but this will come at the cost, for a few years at least, of protracted negotiation and more of the kind of volatile mobilisation described in this paper.

[Slightly edited version of expert testimony to the Refugee Review Tribunal, Melbourne, 23 September 1999]

Gerry van Klinken, editor, 'Inside Indonesia' magazine.