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Resolving conflict in Indonesia

Resolving conflict in Indonesia

Michael Vatikiotis
July 30 2011

These days it’s so easy to look back at the past decade and marvel at Indonesia’s transition to democracy.

But there are lessons to be learned from the successes and the failures of the reform era. One of the stand-out successes has been the country’s ability to manage and resolve conflict.

The end of the authoritarian era under President Soeharto unleashed violent centrifugal forces that resulted in the deaths of thousands in places like West Kalimantan, Maluku and Poso in Central Sulawesi, and displaced more than a million people. The reform era also resulted in the ending of a long-running separatist conflict in Aceh.

There is much to be learned from the methods used to manage these conflicts. Although the case of Aceh is much trumpeted because international mediation was employed, there were homegrown political initiatives that ended the conflicts in Poso and Maluku, as well as significant but largely unsung contributions made by civil society.

Countries plagued by violence stemming from communal or separatist causes could learn from Indonesia’s experience. Equally, it is important that Indonesia reflects on its own experience in order to deal with contemporary conflict situations, such as Papua, as well as anticipating conflicts that may arise in the future.

One of the lessons is that ending the violence is only the start of a process of resolving conflict. In the case of both Poso and Maluku, successful mitigation of the conflict resulted in promises of compensation and resettlement that were not properly implemented, which has resulted in continued discontent. The proportionate and judicious use of force is a key variable that Indonesia hasn’t always managed well.

To this end, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue teamed up with Indonesian academic experts and civil society activists to examine three different conflicts with a view to distilling lessons from the approaches to their management and resolution.

One of the key lessons derived from this study is that Indonesia’s homegrown approach to conflict resolution has tended to be top down. Both the Malino I and Malino II agreements that ended violence in Poso and Maluku consecutively were not participatory processes in which local communities were involved, either in the planning or the implementation of the agreements.

Instead of identifying root causes and addressing the longer-term drivers of conflict they focused on physical recovery, reconstruction and the provision of emergency aid. This left them open to criticism as top down and short-lived efforts that ended the violence but left the legacy of violence — issues of displacement, compensation and justice — largely unaddressed. The danger is that leaves seeds of future conflict.

Civil society, and women in particular played important roles in informal reconciliation in Poso and Maluku, but these roles have been either missed or misunderstood. As a result formal peace processes in Indonesia have tended to marginalize civil society and the role of women in particular. For example, in negotiations that led to the Helsinki Agreement on Aceh, there was only one woman, and advisor to the Free Aceh Movement, involved in the process.

The under-estimation of the role of women, and the capacity of informal community organizations, means that preventing violent conflict at an early stage is more challenging.

There’s an irony here. Indonesia is proud of the resilience of its community networks and structures, grounded in cultural traditions of cooperation and tolerance, yet with something so critical to social harmony as conflict management, there is a tendency to defer to centralized imperatives and bureaucratic procedure — and all too easily resort to the use of force.

The conflict that poses the biggest threat to peace in Indonesia today is in Papua, where the indigenous Papuan community doesn’t just dream unrealistically of independence from Jakarta, but sees its own existence threatened by encroaching demographic and environmental pressures. One of the opportunities that stems from the past decade of conflict management in Indonesia is the chance to avoid repeating past mistakes.

Peace in Maluku and Poso is less secure than it could be because both the Malino I and Malino II agreements were elite arrangements made without public participation. In the case of Papua, the careful, dedicated work of Papuan Pastor Neles Tebay and researcher Muridan Widjoyo in Jakarta offer a corrective. Through intensive public consultation on the ground in Papua, they have persuaded restive Papuans to accept peaceful dialogue with Jakarta. In response, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has assented to a “constructive communication” to discuss political issues that fuel discontent in Papua.

Building on valuable lessons from the management of past conflicts, hopefully the conflict in Papua will be addressed through peaceful dialogue leading to a political solution that doesn’t need the glare of international publicity. As a maturing democratic country, Indonesia should be able to settle its own conflicts — and help others to resolve theirs.


Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia Regional Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. The report on the conflicts in Maluku, Poso and Papua can be downloaded at

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