Indonesia has long prided itself
on its remarkably cohesive identity as a nation comprised of many different
ethnic groups. But lately this sense of unity has been showing dangerous signs
of fatigue. The reason: Rising violence involving people resettled from the
overcrowded regions of Java and Bali to other islands in this vast archipelagic
conflict, a deadly
clash in the southern Sumatra province of
Lampung last weekend, was particularly disturbing because it happened in one of
the oldest of these settlement areas, where one would assume that second or
third-generation migrants from Bali would have better integrated with the
Lampung natives ran amok, attacking the migrants, razed their houses, and
chased them out of the area. Police said 14 people were killed, with casualties
on both sides. Some of the bodies were found inside their houses, others on
their farms. Nearly 2,000 people, mostly the elderly, women, and children from
among the Bali migrants, have been moved to makeshift shelters.
"Amok" is actually one of the few Malaysian contributions to
the English lexicon (along with "orangutan" and "ganja"). While the term has
wider uses today, it aptly describes what happened between the peoples in the
neighboring villages of Agom and Balinuraga during the past weekend: They
literally went on a "murderous frenzy," which is the original definition of the
word "amok," allegedly referring to a specific character trait of the Malay,
the dominant ethnic group in Indonesia.
The issue of
national unity has been a great concern for Indonesian leaders since the
republic was founded in 1945, binding together diverse ethnicities, cultures,
traditions, and religions. During the years of President Suharto (1967-1998),
unity was ensured by a heavy-handed military presence. Since then, as Indonesia
struggles to become a democratic and rule-based nation, there are signs that
this unity, too, is running amok.
pressures are not helping. Besides the rising population -- now reaching 240
million -- Indonesia also has uneven wealth distribution. The
state-sponsored inner-migration program dates back to the Dutch colonial era in
the early 20th century, but it continued long after Indonesia became an
independent nation. Javanese and Balinese settlers were sent to occupy cleared
land in Sumatra, the nearest and perhaps most fertile region next to their
original homes. Later settlers were sent to other islands such as Borneo,
Sulawesi, and Papua.
was not without challenges. One major problem has been assimilating or
integrating peoples of vastly different cultures and traditions. Tensions with
local inhabitants were inevitable: Generous government support for the settlers
became a source of envy for the locals, and the more enterprising migrant
groups also came to dominate local trade. As they settled on compounds set up
specifically for them, the migrants retained their customs, traditions, and
practices -- and thus their distinct cultural identities.
there is also the explosive issue of religion: The Balinese migrants are Hindu,
and the natives are Muslim. While the clashes have not amounted to a religious
war, their respective religions became a visible part of their identity.
last week were not an isolated case, as there have been similar conflicts
between migrants and locals in Aceh in the northern tip of Sumatra, and in
Papua. Tensions in Lampung have been brewing as both sides have felt an intense
economic rivalry over recent years. When reports circulated that two Lampung
women were harassed by Bali migrant men, the immediate reprisals were deadly.
government has spared no effort to quell the clashes, deploying 2,000 police
and troops to maintain order and keep the villagers apart. They are likely to
stay there awhile.
The governor of Bali had been
flown in to help pacify the restless Bali migrants. It will be a while before
life returns to normal for both communities, if ever. The Lampung natives have
said they would only sign a peace pact if the Bali villagers were resettled to far-away
Failure to resolve this
problem would set a bad precedent for other areas where migrants and locals are
also locked in fierce economic competition. In
Papua, the natives still adhere to a
traditional lifestyle and have little chance of surviving the economic
competition with the growing number of migrants unless the government
Lampung clash erupted on October 28, while the nation was commemorating the
Youth Oath, when in 1928, young men and women from all corners of the
archipelago converged in Jakarta, in defiance of the Dutch administration, and
pledged to work towards "One Nation, One Country and One Language: Indonesia."
The oath became a rallying cry for nationhood that culminated with the
declaration of an independent and united Indonesia in 1945.
Such a pledge
of unity is important for a nation made up of diverse ethnicities and
religions. The growing frequency of clashes between the different peoples,
particularly in the settlement areas, means the unity pledge must be sent back
to the drawing board. Indonesia still has to figure out how to build a
democratic nation out of this collection of diverse peoples.
Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images