Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Ethnic Conflicts in Indonesia: National Models, Critical Junctures, and the Timing of Violence

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Ethnic Conflicts in Indonesia: National Models, Critical Junctures, and the Timing of Violence

Article excerpt

Beginning in the mid-1990s, there was a sudden rise in violent ethnic conflict in Indonesia. Two aspects that require explanation are the timing and clustering of this type of conflict historically. Other studies have not adequately explained these aspects. Methodological and thematic choices have generated problems with identifying and explaining clustering. Microlevel studies fail to account for the broader changes occurring at a macrolevel. Some researchers have chosen to broaden the scope of analysis of violent events to provide explanations of violence more generally. After reviewing these other studies, I argue that a historical institutionalist approach remains best able to explain the clustering of conflicts and the following period of stability. Changing institutional contexts at critical junctures created rising anxieties as well as opportunities to renegotiate group inclusion and status in the Indonesian state.

KEYWORDS: Indonesia, conflict, ethnic violence, Maluku, Kalimantan, Dayak, Aceh, Papua, democratization

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Beginning in the mid-1990s, there was a sudden rise in violent ethnic conflict in Indonesia. In the years immediately preceding the downfall of Suharto's authoritarian regime, riots began to emerge in different parts of the country. The first major outbreak occurred in December 1996 between indigenous Dayaks and Madurese migrants in West Kalimantan. After the beginning of democratization, violent conflict escalated in several parts of the country, including most significantly in Central Kalimantan, Aceh, East Timor, Papua, Maluku, and Sulawesi. By the end of 2002, the violence had largely subsided in these areas, with the notable exception of Aceh.

Against the backdrop of several decades of sparse and isolated ethnic conflict, this sudden surge requires explanation. Furthermore, the clustering of violent ethnic conflict constitutes a crucial component of the puzzle, which should be addressed for understanding its nature and timing.

The wave of conflicts spurred the flourishing of academic publications devoted to explaining it. Yet, even more recent studies have not adequately addressed the question of clustering and timing. If violent ethnic conflict appeared to engulf the whole country, it remained nevertheless limited and, more importantly, declined about as rapidly as it had appeared. Moreover, in Indonesia's postindependence history, there were periods when several ethnic conflicts erupted within a relatively short time, followed by long periods with no violent ethnic conflict. The period 1995-2002 was such a time, suggesting against this broader historical trend that violent conflicts were not independent from each other, thereby rendering single-case or microlevel studies very limited.

Methodological and thematic choices have generated problems for identifying and explaining this clustering of violent ethnic conflict in Indonesia. Many studies that focus on microlevel factors fail to account for the broader changes occurring at a macrolevel that explain why violent conflicts occurred simultaneously. Others have chosen to broaden the scope of analysis of violent events to provide explanations of violence more generally. This has been the case with large datasets that have attempted to "map" violent conflict but, as a result, have diluted important explanatory factors linking specific subsets of conflicts, such as ethnic conflict. Some qualitative studies have included such diverse forms as state-perpetrated violence over time and involving criminal gangs or militias (Barker 2001; Kammen 2001), and killings perpetrated by masked "ninjas" against alleged sorcerers (Herriman 2006). Others have narrowed the focus of conflict to analyze a certain type, such as religious violence (Sidel 2006), or a particular local conflict, such as the Madurese-Dayak violence in Kalimantan (Peluso 2006). In many of these studies, crucial cases, such as Aceh and Papua, have been left out in the comparative frameworks that have been adopted and therefore could not identify the intensification of conflict in these regions that happened noncoincidentally with the rise of violent ethnic conflict in other parts of the country. …

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