‘Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.’ J.K. Galbraith (1969)[i]

In 1998, following over 40 years of authoritarian rule, Indonesia officially returned to democracy. Political activists in Aceh, East Timor and Papua seized their opportunity to renegotiate their positions within the Indonesian nation state. Several armed groups re-launched their campaigns for independence.[ii] At the same time, in some of the most diverse ethnic and religious regions in the East of the country, collective violence exploded. Riots, massacres and ethno-religious cleansings led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, and the deaths of thousands more.[iii] The state temporarily appeared incapable of controlling these waves of mass violence. International commentators predicted the Balkanisation of Indonesia.

One year later, however, only the province of East Timor had claimed independence. The military clamped down on secessionism in Aceh and Papua. The intense period of collective violence in Eastern Indonesia ended, for the most part, within a few years. A decade on, the majority of incidents of mass violence were over. While violence was ongoing in Papua, even the long running Aceh conflict had been resolved. Outside the main flashpoints of conflict, the majority of the country remained relatively peaceful.

The Indonesian government had managed, largely without international assistance, to negotiate an enormous political transition without state break-up. The mass violence frequently associated with regime change in large multi-ethnic states was brought under control relatively quickly: a feat very rare on the international stage. Even more interestingly, excluding the Aceh peace process of 2005, the Indonesian government negotiated the transition and secured peace via variations on an illiberal peacebuilding model. It is that model – and its associated costs and benefits – that is of interest here.

In this essay I present some of the core ideas behind my analysis of the Indonesian government’s responses to ending mass violence and establishing peace during democratic transition. I discuss here the government’s response to mass violence in Eastern Indonesia, and particularly in North Maluku, the site of one of the most violent conflicts in Indonesia’s recent history. Here, peace was established by largely illiberal means. Contrary to expectations, this peace has endured for over a decade, but few have explored the mechanisms behind the process, its benefits or its costs. This essay is grounded in a new comparative study of the effectiveness of peacebuilding projects in Indonesia, which I return to at the end.

Between the unpalatable and the disastrous

In a cautionary letter to President Kennedy, J.K. Galbraith describes the limited choices open to the US government to respond to the Indochina conflict in 1962. Faced with unpalatable negotiations with the communist forces, Kennedy chose to increase American military intervention – a policy Galbraith, then US Ambassador to India, viewed as disastrous. In the face of mass violence during national regime change, the Indonesian government was similarly constrained by a set of unpalatable or potentially disastrous policy options.

Incoming reformers legislated for increased regional and local government autonomy as a means to reduce secessionist pressures and to peaceably manage minority demands; hardliners pushed to retain central government control and increase military action in conflict areas. Neither group sought to undermine national integrity: they found common ground in their aim to avoid further secession. The loss of East Timor in 1999 was, to both reformers and hardliners, an aberration. The key issue became how to reduce violence, secure peace, continue on the pathway to democratic reform, but retain Indonesia’s existing national boundaries and state framework in the process.


From 2001, under the influence of the reformers, the new government launched a radical programme of decentralisation – known as “Big Bang” decentralisation”.[iv] The aim of this radical set of governance reforms was to rapidly reform the detrimental economic and political effects of over 40 years of highly centralised rule. The central idea was to reduce the risks of secession from minority and marginalised populations, while also improving the quality of governance at the local level, which had long been a source of protest. The plan was to bring public service delivery, control of local resources and government bureaucracy closer to the population, thereby increasing popular connections to and support for the central government.

For the most part, despite the rapidity and radical extent of the reforms, decentralisation was a largely peaceful process. In some regions, however, the neo-liberal reform package enabled widespread social and political dissent but without any simultaneous improvement in the local government’s ability to manage all the conflicts associated with a massive reorganisation of local economic and political power. Mass violence followed (or, in some cases, preceded – in anticipation of -) government reform in several parts of Eastern Indonesia.[v] The human, economic and social costs of the violence rapidly escalated.

For the conflict affected regions of Eastern Indonesia, the reformers had no alternative solution: their own policies to reduce the scope for mass violence had ended up contributing to it. The temporary restoration of illiberal government practices – well practiced during the New Order regime – began to look like a more viable means to restore security and re-establish government control. Such policies included restoring central control of local government, re-establishing a firm military presence, rolling back bureaucratic reforms, halting elections, re-appointing (rather than electing) local elites into power, and – perhaps most importantly – buying off restive local elites with off-budget expenses.

A critical juncture

In several parts of Eastern Indonesia, democratic and neo-liberal reforms had produced what Bertrand (2004) describes as a “critical juncture”. At the moment of transition it became possible for local elites to re-negotiate their representation within, and their claims on, the Indonesian nation state. In this way, instead of lessening the prospects for violence, the scope for greater regional autonomy triggered intense conflicts between different ethnic and religious groups at the local level. Each group sought to reorganise their claims to political and economic resources. Some minority groups sought to redress previous socio-economic exclusions, while other groups hoped to reorganise resource allocations in their interest. As local elites battled over the reorganisation of local political and economic resources, there were not solid governance institutions in place to manage these conflicts. In this fluid institutional environment, the contests between groups grew increasingly furious.[vi]

The trouble for Indonesia at the time of transition was that the old regime’s method of handling such conflicts – government buy-offs, military repression, heavy-handed central government control mechanisms – had already been rolled back by the massive government reforms. But in many of the more remote and underdeveloped regions, local government lacked a clear democratic institutional framework to manage these local tensions in non-violent ways. The situation was ripe for exploitation by entrepreneurial local elites, who saw their chance to claim greater power. Indonesia at this juncture was no exception to the dual dilemma of democratisation – of increased pressures between groups over renegotiated resources, but without the democratic institutions to manage these peaceably –a situation widely explored by Mansfield and Snyder (1995, 2005) and Snyder (2000) in their seminal works.

In such fragile transitional environments, violence quickly escalates from small scale riots, to inter-communal massacres, to widespread ethno-religious conflicts. In several Eastern Indonesian provinces – North Maluku, Maluku and Central Sulawesi – this is exactly what happened.  Ethnically defined conflicts between contesting groups merged into religious conflicts, drawing resources and groups from further afield into the violence.[vii] Elsewhere, in West and Central Kalimantan, other ethnic groups were caught up in similar riots, massacres and episodes of ethnic cleansing.[viii]

As a result of escalating tensions, between 1999 and 2001 at least six large scale incidents of mass violence raged either concurrently or simultaneously in Indonesia. While the Indonesian nation state remained largely peaceful as a whole, the range and extent of mass violence on the periphery threatened the central government’s sense of control. The central government came under great pressure to re-establish order and government control, from foreign and domestic investors, national civil society organisations and the international community.

From the perspective of central government officials, local governance reforms had destabilised the nation state in these Eastern regions, exacerbating, rather than relieving, the risk of conflict. In some of these conflicts, branches of the security forces stood to gain economically and politically from the violence – via extortion from internally displaced communities, illegal weapons sales, increased leverage over central government elites, and so on.[ix] The central government also had to tackle these rogue elements with the military and police forces. A return to Suharto-style highly centralised rule as a means for managing regional instability was one of few viable alternatives to the dangers of secession and ongoing violence.[x]

In mid-2000, President Wahid placed the most violence-affected regions in Eastern Indonesia under emergency legislation. These orders put decentralisation and other local political reforms on hold, restoring central government control to the conflict regions. Proxy provincial level government figures were installed as governors, backed up by regional military commanders, and with large emergency budgets under their direct control.

Where democratisation fails, can patronage and security succeed?

Many large transitional developing countries, populated by multiple ethnic and religious groups, and with weak democratic institutions in place, struggle to end the violence triggered by regime change. The ongoing violence in Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan bears witness to this dilemma. It is now over a decade since mass violence ended in most Eastern provinces of Indonesia (outside Papua). This restoration of formal security and stable government was no small achievement for a new democratic state, but it did not come via the internationally prescribed liberal peacebuilding model.

Under the emergency legislation in Indonesia, regional branches of the Indonesian military were authorised to impose order, restricting local population and trade movements. In the most conflict-affected cities, including Ambon, Ternate, Tobelo and Poso, ethno-religious groups were physically separated by military blockades in several locations. In some areas, these restrictions lasted over a year.

The blockades and battalions were highly visible to the local population, bringing with them huge socio-economic frustrations. Gardens could not be tended, trading prospects were cut, families could not be visited and businesses were forced to close. On top of the widespread infrastructure damage wrought by the violence, whereby houses, public buildings, roads, bridges and harbours were destroyed, local economies fell into crisis.[xi] The emergency legislation also created large emergency aid budgets for the conflict affected regions. Almost overnight, formerly low-level bureaucrats became the controllers of significant government budgets in economic disaster zones.

The central government’s emergency aid packages for Eastern Indonesia’s conflict zones were allocated to Emergency Provincial Commissions. These were headed by the senior provincial bureaucrats already appointed by the central government to manage the crises. To enable rapid disbursement, these emergency aid packages were run “off budget”. Management of the aid budget was therefore at the discretion of the provincial government.

In one quick piece of legislation to deal with the recovery from mass violence, the pre-reform largesse of local bureaucratic elites was vastly expanded. Temporary provincial governors suddenly controlled large and discretionary aid budgets, with the explicit back-up of regional military commanders, and the blessing of the central government. The moment of governance reform had been replaced by a restored version of the old regime, only with greater economic and political powers concentrated in the provincial bureaucratic elite.[xii]

Once security was re-established, the government reforms already applied to the rest of Indonesia could be gradually reintroduced. Ten years on, most conflict-affected areas of Indonesia had stabilised and were opening up to democratic reforms. For the most part, the Indonesian government’s model of peacebuilding – based on a combination of security and patronage – appears to have worked. This model also carried with it certain costs. The experiences of the Eastern province of North Maluku illustrate the costs and benefits of the illiberal peacebuilding model to a transitional region emerging from mass violence.[xiii]

This is part one of Claire Smith’s essay. Part two can be found here.

[i] This essay outlines the ideas behind the author’s new comparative study on endings to mass violence in Indonesia. Thanks to Bridget Conley-Zilkic, Robert Cribb, Alex De Waal, Nicholas Sambanis, Benjamin Valentino and Gerry Van Klinken for comments on an earlier draft. For more details, please see http://www.york.ac.uk/politics/centres/prdu/our-people/claire-smith/

[ii] Papua here refers to the province of Papua, established in 2003. Independence activists refer to the whole of Indonesian Papua as “West Papua”; a separate Indonesian province – also established in 2003 – is also known as West Papua. The region was collectively known as Irian Jaya under the Suharto regime. For a brief overview of Papuan politics, see Smith (2008); for a longer review, see Braithwaite et al (2010), Chauvel (2010) and Heidbuchel (2007).

[iii] See Varshney (2008) for an overview of estimated deaths from collective violence in Indonesia.  

[iv] See Hofman and Kaiser (2004) on “big bang decentralisation” in Indonesia.

[v] See Bertrand (2004) and Van Klinken (2007) on the links between government reform and violence in Indonesia.

[vi] On group inequalities and their relationship to violence, see Stewart (2010).

[vii] On ethno-religious violence in Maluku, North Maluku and Central Sulawesi, see Van Klinken (2007). I define ethnic and religious violence separately, contra to Horowtiz’s (1985) classic and more inclusive definition of ethnic violence. In these Indonesian conflicts, as elsewhere, once the conflicts took on a religious dimension, they shifted in scale, intensity and resources. 

[viii] Authors such as Varshney (2008) explore why these conflicts took place in some regions, but not others, with similar ethno-religious dynamics. My focus here is on endings to violence where it has taken place.

[ix] See Aditjondro (2001) and Tomagola (2000) for further details.

[x] In confidential interviews, central government officials – many of whom were reformers – involved in authorising the subsequent emergency aid packages expressed this view. For further details, see Smith (2012) and Smith (2009).

[xi] Smith (2009) for details on the impacts of conflict and post-conflict security measures on the local economy.

[xii] See Smith (2012) and Smith (2009) for further details.

[xiii]  The following section is drawn from Smith (2012) and Smith (2009).

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2 Responses to Part 1: Understanding Illiberal Peacebuilding Models: Government Responses to Ending Mass Violence in Indonesia

  1. This year many changes taking place in Indonesia. The greatest moment in the year 2014 that the presidential selection

  2. Indonesia adalah negara dari berbagai etnis, dan indonesia patut dicontoh negara-negara lainnya karena bisa hidup rukun dan damai berdampingan satu sama lain

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