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Is Indonesia’s national unity falling apart?

Is Indonesia’s national unity falling apart?

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 state.

The latest 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 locals.

Instead, 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.

Demographic 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.

This program 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.

In Lampung, 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.

The clashes 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.

The 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 Borneo.

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 intervenes.

Ironically, the 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.