Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Strife of the Soil? Unsettling Transmigrant Conflicts in Indonesia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Strife of the Soil? Unsettling Transmigrant Conflicts in Indonesia

Article excerpt

State-led initiatives to resettle dominant ethnic groups in ethnically distinct peripheries are at the heart of many conflicts. State-organised migrants, sometimes called transmigrants, often receive preferential support from the state, gaining access to land at the expense of native (1) populations, who may perceive migration as internal colonialism. In response, natives may take up arms to protect what they feel is theirs and push out migrants, who may themselves utilise violence to defend or expand their claims. The result is 'Sons of the Soil' (SoS) conflicts, which are said to comprise over one-third of all ethnic conflicts, including secessionist, terrorist, or communal violence. (2) While the importance of state-sponsored migration as a root cause of armed conflict around the world is clear, how, when and why such dynamics play out is more opaque. There is a tendency to over-predict the link between transmigration and violence.

Asia is home to a range of transmigrant conflicts where the state's relocation of the country's dominant ethnic group sparks native resistance. This characterisation is largely accurate in the cases of western China, eastern Bangladesh, southern Thailand, southern Vietnam, and the southern Philippines. This article suggests that despite conventional wisdom, no Indonesian conflict clearly conform to this model. Home to what is arguably the world's most extensive organised population movements and a range of violent ethnic conflicts, experts routinely cite transmigration as the heart of such upheavals. However, there is no clear link between state-led Javanese transmigration and ethnic conflict in Indonesia.

Based on primary fieldwork (3) and secondary sources, this article hopes to challenge and clarify the link between transmigration and conflict in Indonesia. We first provide some definitions and discuss the logic of transmigrant conflicts, surveying examples from Asia. Second, we provide some background on transmigration in Indonesia, a programme that continued for over a century under a variety of regimes. Third, we make the bold contention that Indonesia has not had any transmigrant conflicts, showing that most recipient areas have remained peaceful. We examine cases where rebels and activists have wrongly invoked transmigration and show that it is spontaneous migration from nearby areas that has led to most conflicts in the archipelago. We conclude by looking at some implications of these findings. While rejecting arguments that transmigration is responsible for significant violence, this article should not be seen as a defence of transmigration. Indonesian transmigration has contributed to environmental degradation, a loss of indigenous lands, and corruption, with few obvious benefits. If transmigration has not clearly led to armed conflict, this suggests a need to rethink the types of migration that may generate violence, as well as the role of the state in trying to prevent such an outcome.

Transmigration and violence in Asia

Nations have long expanded through state support for resettling populations in sparsely inhabited ethnic peripheries. This was true of Rome's military colonies right through to the 'settler colonies' of Canada, the United States, southern Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Meanwhile, 'internal colonialism' refers to state-organised population movements within recognised borders in an effort to consolidate national identity. (4) Settler societies and internal colonies share common features and challenges pertaining to the coexistence of core/periphery and of diverse indigenous and migrant collectivities. (5)

Transmigration, then, should be seen in this light, as an age-old form of expansion and consolidation. Transmigration refers to the movement of state-sponsored migrants from populous regions into sparsely populated, ethnically distinct peripheries within territorial borders. (6) States make land available to settlers at the expense of native communities, providing money, supplies, and land to encourage the settlement of what they see as more loyal, economically productive peoples. …

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