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From Our Correspondent: No Easy Questions -- or Answers
The violence in post-Suharto Indonesia has complex roots and reasons

July 7, 2000
Web posted at 5:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 5:00 a.m. EDT

In late 1998, in the western half of the remote island of Sumba, a few thousand men enacted a rite of clan war more in place in the last half of the past century than in this one. Some 2,000 men from the Wewewa tribe attacked villages owned by the Loli in and around the main town of Waikabubak. The recorded death toll was 26, reports David Mitchell, an Australian doctor who had spent seven years in Sumba. "These were not the neat and quick deaths produced by bullet wounds," he wrote last year. "All had been chopped to death with machetes, or sometimes speared. Six had limbs or the head hacked off."

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The proximate cause of the conflict was anger over insults hurled by Loli villagers against the regent, a Wewewa man. And the reason for those insults was the regent's ineffective response to complaints by some 30 university graduates who felt they had been cheated out of civil service positions by corruption. The Sumba case is not unique. Outbreaks of violence, with similar or even more horrible consequences, have struck nearly every corner of the far-flung Indonesian archipelago, from West Kalimantan to East Java to North Maluku to South Sulawesi. Many of these conflicts, like Sumba, have local roots, largely in local competition for positions or privileges.

Hence the constant preoccupation with "national" explanations for conflict in the regions is puzzling. Recently, President Abdurrahman Wahid blamed the ongoing violence in Maluku on parliamentarians and said he had asked the police to question and arrest some of them. He did not name any names. After a storm of criticism, he denied he had made such a statement. His defense minister, Juwono Sudarsono, meanwhile says that violence in the regions is the work of people loyal to ex-president Suharto. Numerous non-governmental organizations as well as analysts continue to believe that the blame must lie with the military, which they suspect of fomenting discord in order to discredit civilian rule and pave the way for the return of the army to power.

None of these interpretations seems based on fact. Rather, they appear to grow out of old habits and beliefs. During Suharto's New Order, when the military was in line behind its commanders and local officials took their orders from Jakarta, one could say that little happened in the country without some say-so from the capital. But the unraveling of central power has been swift. The military is riven with internal competition for positions. Could it have the will or the ability to muster a national campaign of destabilization? If indeed parliament members or Suharto are behind the violence, then why is it so difficult to find evidence of conspiracies on a national level?

Indonesia is changing faster than its leaders can understand it. The impending implementation of more regional autonomy, coupled with the relaxation of both central government and military control, has loosed all sorts of phenomena in the regions -- from demonstrations against village headmen and regents, to protests for independence, to ethnic and religious violence. Suharto loyalists and the military may be involved in some of the unrest, but the local elites and local conditions, too, have a large role. These conflicts do not appear from nowhere. They have their own histories, rooted in the economic, ethnic, geographic and political make-up of the area. And without a democratic framework to settle disputes, sometimes the competition between local officials, businessmen or religious leaders is being settled in the crudest ways imaginable.

The violence in Indonesia in the post-Suharto era has complex roots and reasons. And that is why it doesn't have the simple solution the leadership in Jakarta might wish, or find politically expedient.

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