Will violent history repeat itself?

  • It's Just Politics
  • Sunday, 22 Sep 2019

Changing landscape: An aerial view of Sepaku district in East Kalimantan which will be part of the new administrative capital of Indonesia. — Reuters

A veteran journalist believes it could happen if Indonesians politicians don’t learn from past episodes of communal violence.

In the 2000s, when Indonesian journalist Andreas Harsono was researching the Kalimantan chapter of his book Race, Islam And Power, there were already talk that Indonesia might relocate its capital from Jakarta to Borneo.

At that time, speculation placed a new capital in Palangka Raya in Central Kalimantan and not East Kalimantan, which Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recently identified as a possible site.

“I knew that this move would create more or less similar problems to what I wrote in the Kalimantan chapter of my book – that there are going to be ethnic rivalries, ” he said, referring to Race, Islam And Power, which was published in May.

“In times of crisis, some leaders might use ethnic or religious sentiments to grab power. Indonesian history has shown that these efforts often end up in huge violence, ” said the veteran journalist in a recent interview.Andreas believes the demography of East Kalimantan will drastically change once the new Indonesian capital relocates there.Andreas believes the demography of East Kalimantan will drastically change once the new Indonesian capital relocates there.

Andreas has seen this happen in Kalimantan.

In 1997, there was the killing of Madurese originally from Madura Island off Java. In 1999, a bigger massacre took place in the Sambas Regency with local Malays killing around 3,500 Madurese settlers. In 2001, the racism spread to Sampit, in central Kalimantan, with ethnic Dayak killing around 2,500 Madurese settlers.

But it’s 2019, is that type of violence that happened almost two decades ago still a concern? History, said the journalist, will repeat itself if Indonesia does not learn from past mistakes.

“In Indonesia, it was pretty common to blame ethnic Chinese and accuse them of being greedy newcomers. That kind of narrative is frequently used in Indonesia.

“What Indonesia did not learn is that this kind of argument can be used against the Madurese in Kalimantan, against the Javanese in Sumatra, against the Bugis and Butun on the Moluccas Islands, ” he said.

“The notion is that you are a newcomer, you have fewer rights than the so-called son of the soil, or putra daerah, which you in Malaysia call bumiputra. So that kind of racism against ethnic Chinese should be stopped because it can be used against anyone.

“Unfortunately, until now, Indonesia does not want to learn from the past. That’s why I’m afraid this kind of violence might be repeated.”

Andreas realised in 2008 that if there is a move to relocate the Indonesian capital to Kalimantan, and if it’s done clumsily like transmigration was in the 1970s, the problem of ethnic violence would repeat itself.

In his book, Andreas wrote that in the 1970s the Suharto government, with the help of the World Bank, introduced a transmigration programme to ease the situation on Indonesia’s “overpopulated islands” – especially Java, Madura and Bali – while providing cheap labour for less-populated regions such as Kalimantan and Papua. The programme provided each transmigrant family with farm land plus another plot for a house. It also financially supported the transmigrants for two years.

Predictably, the programme created tensions with local people.

“Jakarta thought Indonesia was a final product, thinking that each citizen, especially those who are considered pribumi, might share their land peacefully with their pribumi compatriots. It was an artificial dream. Anger predictably appeared along racial and religious lines, ” Andreas said.

“In Kalimantan, the programme created great tension with the Dayaks, who traditionally relied on slash-and-burn agriculture and foraging in their forests to survive, ” he wrote in Race, Islam And Power.

Andreas got the idea to write the book after The Star sent him to cover the Aceh war in June 2003.

“I brought several books along and went to Banda Aceh, travelling to guerrilla war zones and interviewing dozens of Acehnese. I wrote a 15,000-word report. It got quite a response. It prompted me to look further into the question of ethnic and religious violence in the post-President Suharto era, ” he wrote in the book’s introduction.

I’ve known Andreas since we covered the Indonesian army’s “shock and awe” attack on breakaway Aceh in 2003 for The Star together and decided to get his thoughts on this latest decision to move the Indonesian capital.

It is difficult to analyse, he said, as there is not much government data or studies available. “The problem with the relocation idea is that Indonesia suffers from what I call ABS, or asal bapak senang (as long as the “sir” or important person, is happy). The ABS mentality is the one that drives Jokowi to decide without enough studies and data, ” he said.

The only general explanation that the government has provided so far is the need to redistribute wealth and economic growth from Java to Kalimantan. The other official reason are the traffic jams and air pollution in Jakarta. The unspoken explanation is, the Indonesian capital is sinking.

“There are no explanations of what will happen to the Dayak people living in the area. What will happen to biodiversity in the area? What kind of transportation system? What kind of housing system? And how do you move 1.5 million civil servants to the new capital?” asked Andreas, who has covered Indonesia for Human Rights Watch since 2008.

“There are questions on who will finance the capital. The government said it would be mostly from the private sector. But there is no free lunch. What will these companies get?”

What’s for sure, according to Andreas, is the demography of East Kalimantan will change drastically. There are going to be many people from Java going into East Kalimantan and other parts of the Indonesian side of Borneo.

“Unfortunately, with all this messiness in Indonesia with land rights and land certifications, the indigenous people will lose access to land and water, and lose their culture, their language and their way of life. All of them will be lost. The jungle will be displaced for obvious reasons. Don’t talk about orangutans and biodiversity – they will be swept away by the new capital.”

On how those living in Kalimantan would react, Andreas thinks that out of the five Kalimantan provinces, East Kalimantan is the second that is most Muslim dominated after South Kalimantan.

“To some extent, this decision is OK because the Javanese Muslim settlers will make it easier (for outsiders) to adapt to the local population. It would have been different if the capital were moved to West Kalimantan, where the Dayaks and Christians are dominant, ” he said.

Should Indonesia’s neighbours, Sabah and Sarawak, be worried about this move?

“The answer is very complex. The economic growth in Kalimantan will be much bigger. There will be more money being pumped into Kalimantan; some will benefit Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei but environmental problems, forest fires and social tension will also grow, ” he said.

Malaysians – especially those living on Borneo Island – are watching with envy and anxiety whether the new Indonesian capital will change their lives.

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