Indonesia: Out Of Africa - Colonial Roots Of Ethnic Conflicts


Dr Gerry van Klinken

Political scientists often compared Indonesia's New Order to Latin American countries like Brazil or Chile. The buzzword 'state corporatism' referred to an orderly politics in which interest groups made deals weighted in favour of the state. However, such orderliness made the disorder that followed seem to come from nowhere. Now some observers are looking to Africa. The chaotic way in which Suharto departed in 1998 reminded them more of an African dictator than of a technocratic Latin American general. The dictator relates with interest groups not in corporatist ways but by means of patronage ('neo-patrimonialism'). In the absence of proper institutions to manage competition, ethnic conflict breaks out when rival elites mobilise followers along ethnic or religious lines. We are now also seeing this common African pattern in Indonesia.

However, overly simplistic comparisons ignore variety and history. The Africanist Mahmood Mamdani does better with his suggestion that there are actually two Africas, moreover each shaped by its own history. Using apartheid-era South Africa as his model, he portrays one, democratic, Africa that traces its history to 'direct' colonial rule, and another, authoritarian, Africa once ruled 'indirectly'.

The strength of Mamdani's analysis is that he refuses to place politicised ethnicity in some pre-colonial tribal past. Ethnicity is not a remnant being mopped up by modernisation. Instead, it was locked into the very shape of today's state by the European colonial powers who created that state.

Mamdani's ideas are relevant to Indonesia. The system of indirect rule was invented in Asia. The Netherlands Indies, later Indonesia, was a highly developed example. Its essence was deliberately to avoid building a democratic modern state, with all the citizenship rights that implied, but rather to build a distorted state, which would produce revenue but not empower the people.

The key was to coopt and greatly increase the power of 'traditional' indigenous aristocrats. Like aristocrats in Europe before the French Revolution, these people were often interested in myths of ethnicity to help preserve their rule. Indeed they learned much about racism from nineteenth century European conservative thought. Not only the Dutch relied on these aristocrats - so did the Japanese, and the Republic of Indonesia, especially in rural areas and especially outside Java. These are today the areas of continued Golkar dominance as well as of ethnic conflict.

According to Mamdani, the job for democratisers, as in apartheid South Africa, is to challenge this 'bifurcated state'. This is good advice for Indonesia too. Alliances must be built between urban democracy movements and those living in the rural despotisms of Maluku, Kalimantan, Poso, and even (especially!) in 'separatist' areas like Aceh and Papua.

WATCHPOINT: Indonesian democracy will be condemned to failure if it fails to challenge the 'bifurcated state'.


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