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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Class struggle

Can economic progress solve the recent ethnic and religious unrest?

By Sangwon Suh and Keith Loveard / Jakarta


GUESTS ATTENDING THE DEC. 27 function at the Jakarta Convention Center were shocked. In front of such eminent figures as President Suharto and Vice-President Try Sutrisno, the minister for administrative reform, T.B. Silalahi, had the audacity to suggest that all was not rosy with the state of Indonesia. He praised the state ideology of Pancasila (“Five Principles”), which guarantees freedom of religion. But, he said, while the principle was noble, the practice of tolerance remained lacking. The brief but blunt public criticism from a cabinet member was a major departure from the official assumption that all is well among the religions and among the country’s roughly 200 ethnic groups.

Silalahi had good reason to complain. Over the previous year or so, the country had seen an unprecedented spate of ethnic and religious conflicts (see map below), the most recent of which was the anti-Chinese and anti-Christian riot that had broken out in the West Java town of Tasikmalaya the previous day. And there was more to come. Just three days after Silalahi’s noteworthy speech, violence erupted in the West Kalimantan district of Sanggau Ledo. There, rampaging Dayak tribesmen razed shops and houses belonging to Madurese immigrants from Java.

Until recently, Indonesia’s media had steered clear of reporting ethnic and religious unrest. Talking about such disturbances, the government line went, would encourage more dissension. Editors knew that dealing with conflicts related to “SARA” (for suku, agama, ras, antar-golongan -- tribe, religion, race, inter-group) was akin to professional suicide, with the likelihood of publishing licenses being revoked. Yet so many major incidents have occurred in the past 16 months that the government has been forced to accept that the problem can no longer be swept under the carpet. “We cannot realistically tell editors not to report these stories,” admits a senior official at the Department of Information. “We are trying to get them to be sensitive in their treatment, since with the elections approaching, we don’t want to see any more trouble.”

The official’s wish notwithstanding, there may be more trouble ahead -- and it will probably be due to more fundamental factors than how “sensitively” the press covers outbreaks of violence. Juwono Sudarsono, vice-governor of the National Defense Institute, predicts a decade of instability as “the inevitable consequence of industrial change.” Like most analysts, Juwono believes that the root of the problem is not religious tension but the rich-poor gap. Because the regime is fervently anti-communist, it is dangerous for anyone to make protests along class lines. Frustrations generated by jealousy of the rich are, therefore, often manifested in religious and racial terms.

Even the Tasikmalaya riots of Dec. 26, while overtly religious in nature, had class underpinnings. The troubles were sparked by allegations that three Muslim leaders had been beaten by police after the son of an officer was disciplined at his Islamic school. What started as a peaceful protest quickly turned violent, leading to the deaths of several people and property damage of some $34 million.

Military authorities and the National Commission on Human Rights both say that an unidentified “third party” spurred on the crowd. That could range from anybody with a grudge to settle to even elements of the army itself. Ilyas Rukhiyat, a leader of the Muslim Nahdlatul Ulama organization, agrees that the mob’s anger was fanned by irresponsible elements, but also to blame, he says, was the encroachment of supermarkets and other large retail outlets that squeezed out many local small traders. “The results of development are not equally shared,” says Rukhiyat. “This is what makes people angry.”

Often conspicuous examples of the moneyed class, ethnic Chinese Indonesians -- who represent just 3% of the nearly 200 million population but who are said to control about 70% of the economy -- have traditionally been on the receiving end of violence. But other ethnic groups are also beginning to share the weight of retribution from the have-nots. In Irian Jaya last March, it was immigrants from Sulawesi who came under attack. The newcomers were resented by the Irianese, who see them as monopolizing the local economy.

Similar sentiments prevailed in the Sanggau Ledo incident. While the nearby town of Singkawang is the center of a large Chinese population that has long dominated trade in the area, the taking up by Madurese of even low-level jobs appears to have sent the indigenous Dayaks beyond their limits of tolerance. As knife-wielding Dayaks destroyed Madurese properties, several thousand Madurese refugees streamed into Singkawang and other neighboring areas. The death toll stands at five.

These manifestations of income disparity were clearly on Suharto’s mind when he made his budget address Jan. 6. Acknowledging the existence of “shortcomings and gaps,” he noted that special programs to reduce the incidence of poverty were beginning to bear fruit. Between 1993 and 1996, he said, the number of Indonesians living in poverty had come down from nearly 26 million to 22 million. The government would continue to concentrate on alleviating poverty, one of the measures being an additional 2% tax on those individuals or companies with an annual after-tax income of at least Rph 100 million (about $42,800).

According to Juwono, such programs are fine, but what is equally important is ensuring they are not subsumed by the culture of corruption and abuse of power. He calls for greater accountability on the part of institutions such as the police and poverty-eradication foundations. “People don’t give these programs much credence, because they’re not sure the money is being spent properly,” he says. “And the numbers of the poor are just too many and too hard to satisfy. It is a race against time.”

Also racing against time is the economy. As long as it continues to grow, more jobs will be created and the chances of social unrest will decrease. But the pace of development is largely determined by foreign investment -- which may dry up if investors are scared away by the riots. Says academic Christianto Wibosono: “With the government curbing spending, the private sector is becoming more important. If investment falls, people are going to be squeezed even more.” A government minister agrees: “We can control the situation for now, but if the economy doesn’t keep moving forward, the social tensions are likely to get out of hand.”

Juwono hopes that the future outbursts of violence he has predicted will not be so damaging as to keep the economy from advancing. So far it remains on track. GDP growth for this year is forecast to be around 8%. “By 2010, we hope that the middle-class base will expand from 8% of the population to 25%,” says Juwono. “If we can get 25% of the people earning at least $3,000 a year, the dynamics between the super-rich and the super-poor will have stabilized.” Until then, though, don’t put away the riot gear.


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