By Michael Vatikiotis
Violence is increasing at an alarming rate in Indonesia. In the first four months of this year, a World Bank-sponsored monitoring system in Jakarta recorded more than 2,400 incidents that resulted in more than 300 deaths. Much of the violence is occurring in communities where local conflicts break out, often over petty issues. But instead of relying on law enforcement to settle them, people take matters into their own hands.
October was a particularly lethal month. Fourteen people died in an outbreak of violence in South Lampung province in Sumatra on Oct. 28 after two teenage girls from one village were injured while riding a motorcycle through a nearby village. The girls said they crashed their motorcycle because young men from the village were teasing them. The incident quickly escalated as members of both villages exchanged ethnic slurs. The village the girls were riding through is a Balinese Hindu migrant enclave in a predominantly Muslim region of Sumatra.
Also in the past month, violent incidents were reported at the community level in East Flores, West Nusa Tenggara, Central Sulawesi and North Sumatra. In addition, security forces uncovered a new network of Islamic radicals planning to mount violent attacks, whilst in far-flung Papua, ethnic tensions continued to simmer.
For all the progress that has been made in terms of advancing democratic freedoms and extending local autonomy, Indonesians are readily resorting to violent means to assert their views and defend their rights. Whether it is a quarrel over land ownership, rights to mineral wealth, local elections, or simply whether a rock band comes to play, there seems to be no capacity to adjudicate disputes. Where the state is missing, the mob takes matters into its own hands, often with law enforcement standing mutely aside.It would be naïve, of course, to consider that in a country of 240 million people with widely varying levels of education and socio-economic well being, there could be absolute peace and harmony. But Indonesians of various creeds and religions have, for centuries, peacefully co-existed, and perhaps the biggest danger is when this violence starts to test the boundaries of ethnic and religious tolerance.
For instance in February 2011, Indonesians were shocked when half a dozen followers of the Islamic reformist Ahmadiyya Sect were lynched and killed in the West Java province of Banten. The police mostly stood by videoing the incident and the government failed to press for any prosecution of the perpetrators, arguing instead that the Ahmadis should convert to mainstream Islam.
More recently this year, there has been a rise in attacks on Shiite believers in East Java. “The worrying thing about Indonesia today is the rising intolerance,” said prominent poet and journalist Goenawan Muhammad recently. “There is rising violence in the name of religion and trying to, among others, suppress different opinions.”
So why is the state either absent or missing? After the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, a strong centralized government vanished, as sweeping local autonomy was granted down to the district level. The military, which had secured control of the country through a vast network of village-level posts, also withdrew, leaving security to the poorly equipped and poorly trained police. As a result, local contestation over a whole range of issues, from mineral exploitation rights to the implementation of Islamic Shariah law has become decentralized.
Poorly developed legal norms and ethics are also to blame. Indonesia was in such a hurry to lift the yoke of paternalistic, heavy-handed central rule that it didn’t invest time and resources in building institutions. Without a strong foundation for regulating local democracy, provincial and district politicians consider the election process a free for all.
Back in the dark ages of Suharto’s rule, election campaigns were about national development, national unity and national discipline. Today, they are about promises to enforce Shariah law or deliver new mineral wealth into the pockets of local communities. Allegations of corruption are on the rise.
The missing ingredient may be leadership. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s second and last term winds down in less than two years, and yet he’s unwilling to spend political capital to ensure that constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms are protected. There’s no question that he has the power and the popular support to enforce laws and uphold the constitution – yet Yudhoyono has demonstrated a baffling sensitivity to the vocal Islamic fringe that has whipped up sentiment against threatened minorities like the Ahmadis and the Shiites.
It’s true that Indonesians are profoundly nationalistic and ready to lay aside differences in the interests of the national good. This impulse has been evident at various stages of the country’s turbulent history, and has kept the nation from disintegrating. But at the same time, when leadership is wanting, the threats to social order—especially pluralism—are palpable.
If left unattended for too long, religious intolerance begets dangerous radical movements, such as those re-appearing under different names in central Sulawesi and across Java. And quarrels over the distribution of natural resources can become the seeds of separatist sentiment, as was the case in Aceh 40 years ago. The violence across Indonesia experienced in October should serve as a wake-up call.
Mr. Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Singapore. This post first appeared in the Asia Wall Street Journal. Re-posted with permission of the author.