In Rioting for Representation: Local Ethnic Mobilization in Democratizing Countries, Risa J. Toha argues that when demands are accommodated, groups no longer need to use violence as a strategy for making demands, so the violence dissipates. Conversely, the same logic implies that when demands are not accommodated, fighting continues, writes Wisnu Adihartono
Rioting for Representation: Local Ethnic Mobilization in Democratizing Countries begins with an introductory chapter that describes conflicts that intersect with ethnicity, such as the Arab Spring conflict, apartheid in South Africa, the 2010 revolution in Uzbekistan, and political transitions in Iraq, Burundi, Sudan, and Nigeria. However, the core of this book is the ethnic conflict in Indonesia which also defines political conflicts. Indonesia provides a good case study to look at the local dynamics of ethnic riots because such outbreaks are episodic, not routine (6). Risa J. Toha has divided three periods that controlled Indonesia’s politicization of ethnicity. The first is the early modern period, the second is Dutch rule and Japanese occupation (1856-1945) , and the third is Soekarno’s regime (1945-1966). In the early modern period, many rulers used a system where local enclaves were obliged to supply tributes at certain times of the year. In the Dutch rule, the same challenges were also faced by locals with limited manpower and the Dutch also created indirect rule. In Soekarno’s regime, as the nationalist gained independence, Indonesia’s founders’ suggested that Indonesia was a united, centralized, and multi-ethnic nation. However, whilst Indonesia can be seen as a multi-ethnic nation, the ethnic identity became an important means of politically organizing groups and at the same time ethnic-based violent mobilization could not be avoided.
During the post-Soekarno regime, namely during the Suharto era, many conflicts in the name of ethnicity occurred. Toha explained that after the assassination of seven generals, known as the September 30th movement, and the establishment of the government by Suharto (New Order regime), Suharto did many things to manipulate and depoliticise the Indonesian social and political system. The party of Golongan Karya (Golkar) had established a comprehensive local presence with the aid of the military and the civil service. Golkar could rely on civil servants, who began campaigning for Golkar well before the official period began, meanwhile for Partai Demokrasi Indonesia (PDI) and Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (PPP), these narrowed campaign periods impeded their ability to mobilize support in the villages. Since 1965, “becoming China” has become a problem. China is thought to have provided assistance to raise the communist party in Indonesia, and since the September 30 incident, which China is thought to have influenced, relations between Indonesia and China have not been strong. Many of those who are classified as Chinese change their names so that they are identified as native Indonesians even though their ethnicity is Chinese. Toha also explained that the involvement of the Golkar party also greatly influenced Indonesia’s political (and social) system. Toha demonstrated that every 1% increase in Golkar’s vote share in the district was associated with almost four times as much violence, after controlling for a variety of other factors. Furthermore, districts with uncompetitive elections were associated with more violence than those where the vote margin was not as wide (141).
The most interesting part of this book are the examples described by Toha. Toha clearly explains the conflicts that occurred in Ambon, Poso, Southeast Maluku, and Banggai where the ethnic conflict is mixed with religious conflict, namely between Islam and Christianity. For example, Toha describes the riots between Muslims and Christians in Poso and in Ambon. Muslim riots in Poso were among the most intense, bloodiest, and longest ethnic riots that occurred anywhere in Indonesia during the country’s democratic transition. From 1998 through 2012, according to NVMS data, at least 553 people died and 446 were injured. The clashes began in December 1998 and were not declared over until 2007 (161). The riot between Muslims and Christians in Poso was triggered by common events. Toha suggests that the case of Poso supports the argument that demands of local elites for political accommodation pushed the mobilisation of violence during the democratic transition in Indonesia. While in Ambon, the riot between Muslims and Christians was triggered by a brawl between Muslim and Christian youths in the late afternoon on January 19, 1999, which was Idul Fitri, a Muslim holiday (183). Almost no one in Ambon believed that the clashes were spontaneous. Regarding the commotion in Ambon, Toha heard from the Ambonese that the clashes were cultivated, mobilized, and sustained. Ambonese Muslims and Christians describe the conflict as a “holy war” (189) which was accompanied by religious symbolism. Muslim fighters shouted “Allahu Akbar” while Christian fighters wrote “Jesus” or “I love Jesus” on the wall to revivify Christian spirit. Seeing the conflict in Poso and Ambon at the time of the democratic transition, religion was already politicized. The PDI (the opposition party) also had a religious dimension in Poso and Ambon with the result that in Ambon during November and December 1998 the Muslims would be driven off the island to ensure that the PDI would win the 1999 election. Now Poso and Ambon no longer have writings on the walls that disturb those who embrace Islam or Christianity. Poso and Ambon are free from violence and mass riots. Within this framework, Toha theorized that once political exclusion has been ameliorated, violence should diminish (200). Why can this happen with the disappearance of violence and riots in Indonesia? According to Toha, the disappearance of violence and riots in Indonesia is due to the decentralization of power where each province in Indonesia is currently allowed to regulate itself by referring to the regulations of the central government. Through decentralisation, the central government granted autonomy over the provision of services such as education, health, and infrastructure to local governments, keeping only fiscal and monetary policies, foreign policies, and defence issues under its direct control. Another aspect of ongoing decentralisation is the election of local executive leaders. From 1999 through 2004, local executive leaders were selected by a vote of local council members. In conclusion, Toha explains that violence and riots are actually a normal process during a transitional period. Toha also gave an explanation about Kenya and Kyrgyzstan which experienced similar violence and riots as in Indonesia. For Indonesia, although independent since 1945, violence and riots are still common, especially since the fall of Soeharto in 1998.
This book has a very historical content, and is comprehensive and holistic in explaining what and how violence and riots occurred in Indonesia, especially in eastern Indonesia (Poso, Ambon, Southeast Maluku, and Binggai). Toha then ends with an explanation and perspective on the case in Kenya and Kyrgyzstan. This book also argues that violence and riots often occur in transitional countries, and this is a process that cannot be avoided.
* Banner photo front cover of Rioting for Representation: Local Ethnic Mobilization in Democratizing Countries, Risa J. Toha
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.