Race and Politics: Indonesia's Ethnic Conflicts

— Malik Miah

IF YOU READ only the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, or watched CNN, your view of the fourth most populous country in the world, Indonesia with its 210 million people, would be of Muslims (ninety percent of the population) and Christians killing each other, as well as pogroms against ethnic Chinese, Dayaks attacking migrants and the people of the "Spice Islands" engaging in communal violence.

What explains the chaos?  Is communalism the way it is, has been, and will always be?

Behind the Ethnic Violence

There is ethnic-based violence in Indonesia.  But it is not tribalism gone mad. There are underlying issues of political and economic power.

The fact that the army (known as ABRI) high command still holds real power behind the new president, B.J. Habibie, former President Suharto's prot<130>g<130>, makes it possible for the old elites to use ethnic and religious differences to divide and rule the population.  Much of the chaos is in truth army-inspired if not organized.

Every conflict involving ethnic and religious groups since the fall of Suharto in May, 1998 does have a historical context.  But the history only amplifies what is going on today: power struggles between the newly awakened masses and the old elites in the government, military and big business.

Communalism is a weapon in this deadly battle over power.  Unless the ethnic issues are resolved democratically (equality in a unified state, autonomy or independence for those peoples demanding it), the divide and rule tactics of the old elites will win out.

Issues of ethnic rights and religious tolerance are essential components of the battle to win full democracy, along with fair elections, economic justice, and freedom for all political prisoners and recognition of the right of self-determination.  The stakes are high, as a review of several ongoing civil conflicts show.

East Timor

Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975 soon after the former colonial ruler, Portugal, withdrew and the people declared an independent republic in November.  The East Timorese people had never been a colony of Dutch Indonesia and did not speak the national language or share a common culture.

Washington opposed the independence leadership and supported Suharto's invasion and occupation.  Both Jakarta and Washington assumed that a country of less than one million people would easily be defeated.

The policy of annexation, however, failed.  Resistance, even in the face of massacres, expanded-and despite a general media blackout East Timor became a rallying cry of democrats around the world.  And since Suharto's downfall, organized activity inside the country has widened including mass rallies in Dili, the capital.

In response to the resistance and its international isolation, the Habibie regime has shifted course by declaring support for a referendum on autonomy but not independence.  The United Nations is set to carry out the vote in July.

The regime has also released some political prisoners.  The fakery of this maneuver, however, has been exposed by the army's decision to beef up occupation forces and organize "pro-integration" paramilitary thugs to terrorize the population before the vote. In early April the army-backed gangs shot into a church killing dozens of civilians.

The resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, who remains under house arrest in Jakarta, had supported negotiations and compromise to move toward self-determination.  Following the latest killings, Xanana is now urging his people to resume the war for independence.

"The population," he said in a statement charging the army's generals with organizing the armed militias, "[must] undertake a general popular insurrection."

Ambon Island

The dirty hand of Jakarta is quite evident in the highly publicized Christian-Muslim violence on Ambon Island.

According to the Far Eastern Economic Review (March 25), much of the unrest between Muslims and Christians on Ambon is a direct result of government policies of ethnic migration and provocation.

"Ambon Governor Saleh Latuconsina sees these incidents [of communal violence between migrants from Sulawesi who are mostly Muslims and Christian natives of Ambon] as evidence that provocateurs are behind the violence, he told FEER. `They want the trouble to spread to other areas,' he says."

"The riots in Ambon," the article continues, "have strengthened the widely held conviction that the communal clashes erupting around the country are the work of either Suharto and his family and supporters, or disgruntled officers loyal to Lt.-Gen.  Prabowo [Suharto's son-in-law, who was dismissed from the army after last year's rioting].  All of these parties have denied the charges."

Kalimantan, Aceh, West Papua

In West Kalimantan (on Borneo Island) clashes between the native Dayaks and Madurese migrants has a similar smell of provocation.  The settlers have generally received better treatment than the Dayaks, who are fighting for land and cultural rights.

The people of West Papua (Irian Jaya), likewise, are fighting ABRI occupation forces on their land. Forcibly integrated into Indonesia in the 1960s, the Free West Papua Movement is demanding self-determination.

Killings and terror by the army have failed to stop the movement.  The carrot hasn't worked either.  While some political prisoners have been freed and the army has promised to reduce its numbers, repression continues.

The Free Aceh Movement is growing in this region on the island of Sumatra.  As with East Timor, the army has talked about granting more autonomy and ending its occupation.

Aceh is a big problem for Jakarta since its rebellion dates back to the independence war against the Dutch.  Radical Muslims demanded then that Indonesia become an Islamic Republic.  Once that was rejected, they pressed for their own independent state.

Aceh poses a greater threat to Jakarta's rule precisely because the issue of religion gets to the heart of whether Indonesia can remain a secular country.  Islam up to now has always served a secondary role to Indonesian nationalism (defined as "Pancasila.")

The people of Aceh are more orthodox Muslims but not of the dominant Javanese ethnic group.  In Aceh, rich in natural gas and other resources, corporations such as Mobil Oil have worked hand and glove with the Suharto family and army generals to profit off the backs of the local people.

The list of abuses includes land seizures with minimum compensation, explosions which have destroyed farmland and villagers' homes, and water and noise pollution.

Ethnic Chinese Indonesians

While hundreds of ordinary Chinese Indonesians were raped and killed during the May 1998 uprising that eventually led to Suharto's downfall-atrocities widely attributed, again, to the military-the main violence was directed at ethnic Chinese tied to the elites.

Many of the political parties (104 are officially registered and 48 will field candidates in the June parliamentary elections) have members who are Indonesian of Chinese origins.

Some ethnic Chinese do hold major economic positions, and control many of the food distribution networks.  But their place in Indonesian society has always been precarious.

They have served as political tools of the native Indonesian rulers.  Anti-Chinese racism was prevalent under Sukarno and deepened under Suharto.  Suharto's regime, for example, had leading ethnic Chinese as his financial partners while banning the use of Chinese names and celebrations in public.

The ethnic Chinese had special identification on their passports and had little independent political power because of their small size (less than three percent of the population).

(Discrimination against ethnic Chinese is common in Southeast Asia. They are often targets of demagogues and blamed for deeper political and economic problems.  That most Chinese are third and fourth generation citizens and many don't speak Chinese is considered irrelevant.  They are still viewed as foreigners.)

Indonesia Update

What next?  Can the Habibie regime, backed by ABRI, maintain social and political stability?

Washington and the International Monetary Fund hope so. It's why Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid him a visit in March and the Pentagon continues to support ABRI. The IMF has continued its financial bailout without which, the Western powers fear, Indonesia's pro-U.S. politicians would not be able to control the mass expectations for change.

The old elites including Suharto himself, his family and cronies are still active behind the scenes.  It shows the weakness of the mass movement despite demands for his arrest and prosecution.  Habibie and Wiranto are still strong enough to protect him.

While the Suharto dictatorship is not likely to be resurrected, his weakened institutions are still in place.  The new parliament, for example, will be elected based on modified electoral laws written by Suharto's old Assembly.  The new body will include thirty-eight army appointees (down from seventy-five) and have other restrictions to limit the number of people's representatives.

While many political prisoners have been released, Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the East Timor resistance, and the chairman of the People's Democratic Party (PRD), Budiman Sujatmiko, are still detained.  Budiman is demanding freedom without conditions.  At the same time, the PRD has been legalized and will field candidates.

Seven PRD prisoners, including Budiman, ended a hunger strike on April 13.  They began the strike April 6 to demand fair elections and the release of PRD activists.

The political situation is fluid and no one knows how it will unfold.  While the currency has stabilized somewhat more than half the population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment is growing and many Indonesians are without food.

The conservative opposition is hoping a coalition government will be formed out of the elections, sidelining the more radical parties like the PRD. Habibie is hopeful the old party apparatus will be strong enough to keep him in office.  The army high command likewise taking steps to keep its powers no matter what the outcome of the elections.

It is in this context of political and economic turmoil that ethnic and to a lesser degree religious-based violence can be understood.  Who wields the power-in Jakarta, East Timor, Aceh, West Papua, the other islands?  That's the question that is yet to be decided.


Malik Miah is a Bay area activist and members of Solidarity's Anti-Racist Commission.

ATC 80, May-June 1999