Seminar on “How Tolerant is Indonesia’s Democracy?”

Mr Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, gave a talk on the issue of tolerance and democracy in Indonesia. In his talk, Mr Harsono shared his travelogue concerning some ethnic and religious violence from Aceh to Papua.


Tuesday, 24 September 2019 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute invited journalist and human rights activist Mr Andreas Harsono to give a talk on the issue of tolerance and democracy in Indonesia. In his talk, Mr Harsono shared his travelogue concerning some ethnic and religious violence from Aceh to Papua. Mr Made Supriatma, Visiting Fellow at ISEAS Indonesia Studies Programme, moderated the talk.

Mr Andreas Harsono (right), Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, shared his travelogue concerning ethnic and religious violence from Aceh to Papua. Mr Made Supriatma (left) moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Harsono prefaced the talk by introducing his newly-launched book titled Race, Islam, and Power: Ethnic and Religious Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia. This book records his experience of travelling in 90 locations all over the archipelago for five years. The journey started after the fall of President Suharto in May 1998.

His journey started in Aceh, where Mr Harsono sensed a strong local nationalism which triggered a war for independence since 1976. In 1998, Aceh nationalists managed to occupy important positions within the government. Mr Harsono argued that the 2004 tsunami disaster was the key factor that ended the war and made the 2005 Helsinki agreement possible. Since then, Aceh became an autonomous province, which introduced Islamic Sharia law. The implementation of the law triggered discrimination for non-Muslim, non-Sunni minorities, women, and LGBT groups.

Mr Harsono then discussed the West Kalimantan communal violence, first in 1997 when the ethnic Dayak attacked the Madurese migrants, and second in 1999 when the ethnic Malay also rioted against the Madurese. The Muslim Madurese had been settling in Kalimantan since the Dutch Indies era. In the post-Suharto era, both Dayak and Malay, two native ethnic groups in West Kalimantan, were competing for government jobs and contracts. They were not attacking each other, but instead, took on the smaller ethnic minority, i.e. the Madurese. From 1997 to 2001, about 6,500 Madurese were killed in communal violence in Kalimantan.

Mr Harsono outlined the pattern of intolerance in Indonesia. The country is very diverse. There are communities that are minorities nationally but a majority in a region. The island of Sulawesi was discussed by Mr Harsono as a place where a national minority can be a regional majority. In North Sulawesi, the Christian Minahasan is a majority among the various ethnic minorities in the island.

He also discussed how majority and minority arrangements could spark conflicts and violence in Indonesian society. In Central Sulawesi, for example, the conflicts turned to religious violence between Muslims and Christians. Hundreds were killed in sectarian violence around Lake Poso which started in 1999. Sectarian violence also erupted in the island of Maluku. Muslim-Christians violence there took around 25,000 lives.

Another major conflict occurred in East Timor from 1975 to 1999. The conflicts have killed 102,800 people, mostly during the military operation. The conflict ended with a referendum that resulted in the independence of East Timor from Indonesia.

Mr Harsono compared East Timor with the latest situation in West Papua. He identified four principal causes of West Papua problems: 1) marginalisation of ethnic Papuans, driven by a rapid demographic change, dislocation, and displacement; 2) no proper government handling of cases of human rights abuses, 3) environmental degradation due to mining operations, which in turn damaged the people’s livelihood, and 4) restriction on independent journalism to enter West Papua. Mr Harsono explained how racism against Papuans persist since West Papua integrated with Indonesia.

Mr Harsono also discussed the case of Java, the most populated island in the country. He focused on five cities, i.e. Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Blitar, and Surabaya. He pointed out that the idea of implementing Islamic sharia has re-emerged after the fall of Suharto. He showed some intolerant actions, such as the 2002 Bali bombing by Jemaah Islamiyah, discriminatory regulations, including mandatory hijab for female Muslim, blasphemy law, and discrimination against non-Sunni minorities, such as Ahmadiyah and Shia. In this matter, Mr Harsono particularly highlighted the problematic 2006 “religious harmony” law which is used to prompt the closure of more than 2,300 churches in Indonesia.

Aside from the issue of violent conflicts, Mr Harsono also added that 20 years after the decentralisation was started, it has also brought changes to the outer island. This is evidenced by the wave of students’ movement on 23-24 September 2019, which happened not only in Java but also outside Java.

To conclude, Mr Harsono argued that Indonesia has become less tolerant in the post-Suharto era. The element of “political Islam” has become more important, boosted by the implementation of Islamic sharia law. Moreover, the past human rights abuses have not been properly addressed. This contributes to the culture of impunity and violent movement. Minorities are widely discriminated against.

The presentation has brought audiences’ attention to a deeper discussion on Indonesia’s democracy and tolerance. Among 46 attendees, some of them asked questions about current issues, such as Talibanism in Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the government’s commitment to Papua, as well as the haze issue. The forum also discussed the Buddhist minorities in Magelang and the position of Javanese minority, who practices Kejawen.

The audience engaged the speaker in a discussion on a wide variety of topics, including Talibanism and the haze issue, amongst other things. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)