Conference in Melbourne
24 October 2000

Image and reality of conflict
When the world hears of Indonesia now, it is often in the context of incidents of horizontal conflict. The latest one [as at October 2000] is Atambua, in which Indonesians stormed a UNHCR outpost and killed scores of people including three UN employees. The incident highlighted the recurring violence and intimidation among the people of East Timor who have been displaced and turned into refugees on a massive scale.

A massive refugee problem has also arisen from the violence in Maluku, which seems to be subsiding now.

The conflict in Aceh is of a more vertical nature driven by state oppression in the past continuing into the present day, against an independent people who have been deprived culturally, politically and economically.

Irian Jaya or West Papua is somewhat similar with different overtones. Now we see violence happening, neighbourhood against neighbourhood; tribe against tribe, as well as school rumbles that started during the Soeharto period.

Instances of street violence are becoming competitors for news headlines.

I am not an expert on these incidents of horizontal conflict, but I want to discuss how the ordinary people of Indonesia react to this alarming trend, and how they are dealing with it.

Perspective of ordinary people

The ordinary people of Indonesia have reacted to the conflict in different ways. As violence has become more of an everyday thing, many have become used to the conflict and resigned to it as a reality.

The positive reaction is the increase of awareness and sensitivity to this problem. This has brought about a sense of urgency, which is prerequisite to problem solution.

This is not an academic paper and I am not an academic. My formal education was in engineering, systems analysis and corporate finance. But we in Indonesia have been engulfed in tremendous political upheavals that are often ascribed to cultural and religious foundations. The study and understanding of the violent period in Indonesia from 1998 until the present requires massive research and scholarly analysis. This paper is just a contribution of impressions gained by the ordinary people of Indonesia in the face of the horizontal conflict.

We are using loose definitions, including that of ‘ordinary people’, which describes the majority of the people who are basically bystanders and victims, in a direct and indirect way, of the horizontal conflict. The ‘ordinary people’ are those who are neither heroes nor villains, who do not subscribe easily to theory and policies, who want to live a decent life, to be rich but not corrupt, to be a democratic society without having to die for it. This has been described by the word ‘globalutionaries’ by New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman in 1996.

The ordinary people, appearing in small numbers, had an impact on the 1998 overthrow of Soeharto by giving up the security of their professional lives to take a political stand for reform.

It is my contention that the horizontal conflict is not caused by the ordinary people, whether or not they are the beneficiaries of our varied religious and cultural experience. My suspicion is that most of the violence is politically encouraged in this time of regime change.

Mixed results in the process of change

After the fall of Soeharto in May 1998, Indonesia was expected to change in many areas: political, economic, social and cultural. Now in October 2000 almost two and a half years later, many things have changed but much has remained the same:

* Perceptions have changed. The press, public opinion, commentaries and opinion are now framed in a context to open democratic standards. While public behaviour is slow to change, public opinion is greatly influenced by the changing bias of the media and increasing critical faculties of public institutions. This includes the representative bodies as well as watchdog institutions, advocacy movements and groups with access to the public discourse.

* Stated objectives have changed, as well as expressed values. Programs and institutional behaviour have not changed. Government is constrained by great inertia, and it takes changes in systems, programs and executors to finally produce different output. But in the formal sense, most public institutions are attempting or being forced to apply new paradigms.

* Persons in leadership positions have changed, but the change has been mainly at the top levels (the presidential and parliamentary levels) and at the points where positions interface with direct popular choice such as legislatures and to some extent elected public officials, such as village heads, mayors, district heads and even governors. The bureaucracy is still mostly unchanged.

* The system has not changed, and where it has, there are not enough people to drive reform through the new systems. The process of organisational change has to be iterative with each cycle providing tangible results for the parties involved. Motivation is generated in this manner, and when the change causes frustration reactionary forces make further improvement difficult.

Because of the impasse of change, the crisis has deepened and broadened. Much is not subject to measure and could be misleading. In the economy, some of the indices are encouraging. Exports are up; foreign exchange reserves are being sustained. The shops are active, private construction increases slightly because consumption-driven demand is high. Trade finance and private savings fund production systems. But the banks are dilapidated and foreign investment is staying away; the currency and markets are weak.

Politically we are formally better off but the political culture is declining. Rivalries turn into animosities and instant reaction is more common, replacing policy deliberations. This is, of course, qualitatively better than the strict regimentation, which totally suppressed plurality of thought.

Horizontal conflict in the time of change

The continuing weakness of the economic and political systems has allowed corruption to go on and motivation to be low. Frustration is high and idleness provides powder kegs available for instant combustion into horizontal conflict. More often than not, the most convenient incendiary agents are religious and ethnic issues.

However, as bad as they are, the violent incidents happen at selected places and times, and often in the context of events that put pressure on the old regime. A statement like this would have to be substantiated by proof, but as an operational theory it serves to indicate that the intensity of religious and cultural conflict in Indonesia might have been exaggerated by the exploitation of latent pressures for purposes of special interests in destabilising the society.

The instances in Atambua, the bombing of the Jakarta Stock Exchange Building, violence in Irian, and earlier cases of terrorism and violence correspond to attempts to narrow the space for the old regime in escaping justice.

When violence occurs in Timor the people of Indonesia suffer the displeasure of the international world and the government is penalised for tolerating the suffering. Actually the government is guilty primarily of being weak. They are the victims, not the perpetrators of violence.

The ordinary people share the same abhorrence for violence with all civilised people in the world. Except for some fringe radicals who are mainly politically funded, there is nothing in our plural cultural and religious life that drives the violence. It is ironic and unjust if cultural and religious violence is attributed to the basic characteristics of Indonesian people.

The violence is provoked as part of a deliberate plan to prevent stability from establishing itself in our society. In the tradition of our daily lives which cover a greater part of our national experience, Indonesia has shown an enormous capacity for religious and cultural tolerance. We have a government, an intellectual elite and a host of informal leaders who are dedicated to a pluralistic and inclusive society. In fact religion and culture are integrating factors in the process of healing which we are desperately trying to promote.

However, religion and culture cannot do it by themselves. We are confident that centres of horizontal healing exist on a large scale in our nation. But time is running short, and the process of healing has to be accelerated.

Reconciliation is imperative in our agenda of change, but it cannot come unless justice in the classical ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ formula precedes it. This is a process, which has to be guided centrally, and joined by a broad range of stakeholders in the nation’s future.

To meet this challenge we need a stronger government at the centre of a viable political system. Assuming that the government desires change, the basic impediments have been the legal system, economic investments, military recalcitrance and institutional rust.

Bypassing the horizontal conflict

On the other side, the forces promoting horizontal conflict are quite strong. Obstructionism is prevalent in a political culture which breeds negativism. Ethnic and religious differences never cease to plant distrust when communication fails. Social discord releases frustration and vigilantism is the ugly side of social participation.

These factors will not disappear soon, creating a stalemate. To overcome the stalemate, the ordinary people are empowering themselves with more political consciousness, more awareness of specific issues, and the willingness to use whatever tools are necessary to multiply their impact on the process of change. This includes press activism, vocal expression, and lending a hand to the reform of the political system in the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Wimar WITOELAR is an Indonesian political analyst. This is the text of the plenary address he gave to the conference: Religion and Culture in Asia Pacific: Violence or Healing? in Melbourne, 24 October 2000.


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