Impact of the Asian crisis on minorities

26 Mar 1999
Liem Soei Liong, TAPOL

Delivered at the Conference on the Asian Crisis "A Chance for Democracy and Human Rights?", Berlin, 26 - 28 March 1999

Many journalists nowadays raise the burning question: Is Indonesia facing Balkanisation? If one follows recent events in Indonesia it is tempting to answer in the affirmative, but my answer is: I don’t think so. The danger facing Indonesia at present is much more one of social rather than territorial of disintegration

Any country hit by economic contraction of 15 per cent after years of 7 per cent growth, comparable to the global crisis of the thirties, will face gigantic social problems. The tragic scenes we see daily on the television screens about ethnic cleansing in West Kalimantan and religious conflicts in Ambon remind us of recent tragedies in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But these tragedies can be only partly be explained by the economic meltdown, the impact of which is indeed devastating, hitting large sections of the population, including the minorities.

Indonesia is today a classic example of what can happen to a country in the aftermath of political collapse and economic meltdown in the wake of the demise of a 32-year long dictatorship. Suharto’s dictatorship can be defined by one word : de-politicisation, a process that went on for more than three decades, causing severe damage at every level of society. It will take a few decades to undo this damage before a ‘normal’ civil society can be erected from the ashes.

Initially this talk was meant to focus on the plight of the Chinese minority in Indonesia. As a Sino-Indonesian myself, the topic is quite appealing. But recent events in Indonesia have compelled me to make a more general analysis. It is impossible to deal with post-Suharto Indonesia without touching all the horrific incidents in West Kalimantan, Ambon, Banyuwangi, Ketapang, Aceh and other places.

But I want to make a few remarks about the issue of the Chinese minority in Indonesia. The Indonesian government policies on the Chinese is blatantly racist. Chinese calligraphy is banned, Chinese-speaking schools banned, people were ‘invited’ to change their names into Indonesian names etc.

I do need to explain some basic facts about the Sino-Indonesians. The overall majority are peranakan Chinese in contrast with totok Chinese. The totok Chinese are usually defined as those who have recently arrived from mainland China. The influx of Chinese into Indonesia has basically stopped in the fifties. It means that the vast majority belong to the category of peranakan or baba Chinese. Take myself for example, from father’s side we have been living since ten generations in Indonesia - some 300 year, long before the birth of the Indonesian republic. From my mother’s side it is eight generations ago that my ancestors arrived in Java.

The waves of migration from mainland China came predominantly from the Southern provinces of Kwangtung and Fukien. They came as artisans, traders, harbour masters or as unskilled labourers. The Chinese identity was hardly there - their identity was basically shaped by the locality of origin. It could be argued that the colonialists were responsible of ‘creating’ the different ethnic groups by categorising the population into different ethnicities. I have no affinity at all with mainland China, politically, culturally or otherwise. Many still use the term overseas Chinese usually to indicate the intricate global network of Chinese outside mainland. Myself and many other peranakan Chinese feel misplaced by the term overseas Chinese.

Some analysts have explained the recent ethnic and religious conflicts, nowadays usually called horizontal conflicts, from a historical point of view, pointing for instance that conflicts between Ambonese Christians and Ambonese Muslims go back four centuries. I don’t share this view. It is the same approach as those who argue that the conflict between the different ethnic groups in the Balkan have their roots in feuds that go back hundreds of years. One could use the same analysis to argue that for hundreds of years things went well. This kind of analysis tends to ignore recent political and economic history of the region alongside the political ambitions and economic interests of certain groups and individuals.

One historic aspect important to mention centralism. Early this century the Dutch colonial administration designed this strategy of centralism. It became the genral strategy how to run affairs in a huge archipelago like the Dutch East Indies. It later became known in academic circles as the ‘Aceh school’, as it was first applied to the rebellious area of Aceh. The Dutch military commander General Van Heutz and the Dutch scholar and Muslim expert Dr. Snouck Hourgronje designed this strategy. The bottom line is very simple: it is simply impossible to keep a territorial army to safeguard the whole region.

The only way is to have a well trained force in the centre and whenever a revolt or disturbances emerge in a region, a military expedition is sent to give the rebels a lesson. Actually the successive Indonesian governments only continued this strategy. In the eighties Suharto streamlined the armed forces even more and designed two special armed forces divisions as a rapid deployment force. As we all know this kind of strategies simply don’t work. Instead of addressing the real grievances of the population, the population is punished by brutal military operations, which leads deep scars which will last for generations.

In this brief introduction, I want to try to explain why the social fabric in many parts of Indonesia is collapsing, why social disintegration is taking place on such wide scale.I should stress that there is no single explanation for why outbreaks of violence are erupting almost daily.

One of the basic ingredients which I have already mentioned is the economic crisis. Half of the population have now fallen below the poverty line and economic prospects for the rest of the year remains bleak - there is no light yet at the end of the tunnel.

One should also consider the kind of economy created during the Suharto period: an economic system based on injustice, nepotism and corruption. Economic activity increasingly went along ethnic lines, favouring the Chinese in Java and the Buginese in many parts of Eastern Indonesia. The few sources of income such as forestry products and palmoil in West Kalimantan and cloves in Ambon fell under the control of monopolies held by members of the Suharto clique. I have never understood why the World Bank and IMF year after year wrote such glowing reports about the performance of the Suharto economy while such things were going on. Inequality was structural and ethnic tensions became increasingly explosive.

Depoliticisation has also contributed to the chaos and outbreak of violence. The stability of the Suharto regime was iron-fist stability, law and order was maintained by brutal means. Suharto’s rule was based on fear. During the last two years of the Suharto regime the tide began to turn and stability became an illusion. The Suharto regime was bankrupt in every sense and it finally collapsed in May 1998.

The Habibie regime still faces this huge dilemma: destabilisation and the lack of legitimacy. Habibie has probably come to realise gradually that as a figure in a period of transition he will end up in the dustbin of history. Suharto never allowed religious and ethnic differences to be resolved in a civilised way. Everything was frozen in a strait-jacketed unity, held together by a repressive military apparatus. With the collapse of Suharto, the genie has been released from the bottle.

A country with more than 200 ethnic groups has all the ingredients for turmoil. The breakdown of authority is filled by the different entities. Many pro-democracy groups continue with their struggle to establish political and economic reforms in the country. At the same time other groups use the opportunity to settle old scores: pent -up frustrations and a deep sense of injustice are often channelled in chaos and rioting.

Civil society has been battered in the last thirty years. Right down to the village level, military rule together with a corrupt bureaucracy have savaged the social fabric of society. Decisions have been imposed from the top down and nepotism has been rampant. The role of informal leaders both secular and religious has been seriously eroded. They were often forced to comply with the wishes of the authorities, thereby losing the trust of the villagers. The tragedies in Ambon and West Kalimantan have revealed that most informal leaders have lost their influence on the population.

Population policies of the Suharto era have also contributed to the present chaos. In West Kalimantan the ethnic composition was severely disrupted by the massive influx of Madurese transmigrants. The newcomers were given rights to clear away forests and make way for palm-oil cultivation. The local Dayaks were continuously marginalised and their indigenous way of life and agriculture was trampled upon with total disregard for their traditions and culture.

But the erosion of civil society is not the only factor. To this we must add a critical political factor, deliberate destabilisation, in a word: provocation. It is a fact of life that Suharto and his cronies have lost out. It is widely accepted that there is no way back for Suharto. But the Suharto group are still involved behind the scenes, waging their own political and economic power game.

Their prime strategy is destabilisation by creating chaos. The ten months of the post Suharto period has been a period of constant turmoil and the scale of the disturbances is intensifying.

The agents of provocation behind most of the disturbances are people we call preman, the term used for political thugs and para-militaries. In periods of relative stability, the preman make their living extorting businesses and shop-keepers. After the economic meltdown, the preman were forced to look for newways of earning a living which led them into the arena of sinister political games. It is widelt acknowledged that Suharto is in close contact with Pemuda Pancasila, the leading preman organisation in Indonesia.

Some factions in ABRI, the Indonesian armed forces, are also known to be fostering groups of premans, though things are much more ambiguous. Some senior army officers are clearly involved in recruiting para-militaries and stage-managing conflicts though it is still difficult to substantiate these connections. Ambon is a case in point, where provocation played an important role in turning religious animosities into a full-blown religious conflict. Preman from both sides, Christian and Muslim, fought their first battles in Jakarta, followed later by Ambon. Pamphlets produced by the military intelligence were circulated within the two communities, causing the conflict to escalate.

The eruption of many horizontal conflicts is worrying. While the earlier conflicts, the killing of scores of soothsayers and religious teachers in East Java, a brutal assault on Christian premans in Jakarta and conflicts in several regions were localised and of brief duration, the more recent conflicts, in particular in Ambon and West Kalimantan, have lasted for weeks with the ominous potential of erupting into national conflicts.

Many friends within the reform movement have warned of a nightmare scenario. This scenario means there will be many horizontal conflicts with the situation becoming uncontrollable. This might cause the Habibie government to declare a civil emergency and subsequently be replaced by a transitional military government. The elections would be cancelled which would be a serious setback for the reform movement.

But let me end on an optimistic note. A period following the collapse of a dictatorship is bound to be marked by chaos on one hand and reform on the other. This has happened in Indonesia. A plural political system is gradually emerging and people’s participation at the village level is becoming a reality in many regions. With international support, the reform movement will be able to reduce opportunities for the dark forces to do their evil work.

Liem Soei Liong, TAPOL