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Indonesia: Managing Decentralisation and Conflict in South Sulawesi


What has been the impact of Indonesia’s radical decentralisation program, launched on 1 January 2001, on conflict prevention and management? This case study of the district of Luwu in South Sulawesi finds results that have thus far been positive. But it remains an open question whether these results are sustainable – and whether Luwu’s success is transferable to other parts of the country.

Indonesia devolved a wide array of powers to districts and cities – the second tier of local government after provinces – accompanied by substantial fiscal transfers from the centre. The legislation on which this decentralisation was based also allowed for the creation of new regions by dividing or merging existing administrative units. In practice, this process known as pemekaran has meant not mergers but administrative fragmentation and the creation of several new provinces and close to 100 new districts.

With some of those districts drawn along ethnic lines and vastly increased economic stakes for local political office, there have been fears of new conflicts over land, resources, or boundaries and of local politicians manipulating tensions for personal political gain. The decentralisation process, however, has also raised the prospect of better conflict prevention and management through the emergence of more accountable local government.

To examine how these hopes and fears might play out, ICG put under the microscope of intensive field study an area prone to conflict which underwent administrative division. Luwu, in South Sulawesi, was chosen for two reasons. First, it was one district in 1999, divided into four by 2003. Secondly, it shared many characteristics of areas that erupted in violence in the post-Soeharto era: tensions between migrants and indigenous groups; competition over resources, particularly land and mineral wealth; and significant communal violence. It became the focus of national attention in 1998 when protracted inter-village violence was brought on by land disputes, social and economic frustrations (peaking in 1998 when cacao prices hit a record high), and the general climate of lawlessness then prevailing.

In Luwu, at least, pemekaran has had a mostly positive impact, in large part because it allowed an effective district head to emerge. Luwu also benefited from the fact that ethnic identity there was too fragmented to be a significant basis for political mobilisation by unscrupulous local politicians. What also helped prevent conflict emerging was the common resentment, among members of the Luwu elite, of the South Sulawesi provincial elite, and a common desire to break away from South Sulawesi to form the new province of Luwu.

Beyond these local factors, however, several more general conclusions about decentralisation and conflict may be drawn:

  • Lack of clarity in the laws governing decentralisation, together with the reluctance of agencies of the central government to give up power, inhibits the ability of local governments to prevent or manage conflict effectively.
  • The success of a new district in preventing or limiting conflict depends in large part on the capacity, commitment, and connections of the district head (bupati) concerned.
  • There is a fundamental contradiction between the retention by the central government of control over police and other security functions and the responsibility for law and order of district heads under the decentralisation laws. Police can only be deployed effectively to address conflict if they are accountable to and funded by local government.
  • Effective management of land disputes is critical to conflict prevention.
  • Strengthening the criminal justice system is key to establishing and maintaining peace between parties to a conflict. “Peacemaking” through traditional ceremonies is not enough.


To The Indonesian Government:

Concerning Decentralisation Legislation

  1. Keep authority to manage and administer land affairs at the district level and ensure that local government has the capacity and the mechanisms for regularising extra-legal land ownership and resolving land disputes.
  1. Amend Ministry of Home Affairs Decree 64/1999 to enable autonomous village government to formulate development strategies that can prevent tensions and conflict.
  1. Ensure that regulations passed at the district or provincial level are scrutinised by the central government to protect migrants from outside the region from discrimination.

Concerning Security Arrangements

  1. Improve intelligence and criminal investigation capacity at the district level and increase personnel and resources available to the sub-district police, particularly in conflict areas.
  1. Devolve authority over policing from the centre to the provinces or districts in return for local budgetary support so that accountability of the police can be increased.
  1. Establish a regional ombudsman who will work with the district council to oversee the local police and punish unprofessional, incompetent or criminal conduct within the police force.
  1. Incorporate burden sharing arrangements between the central government, national police and local government into all relevant legislation such as the National Police Law (Law 2/2002) and Decentralisation Law (Law 22/1999), with a clear delineation of responsibility and liability to make them binding.
  1. Train community liaison police officers with a particular view toward preventing gang violence.

Concerning Legal Reform

  1. Ensure prompt processing of cases and appropriate sentencing in the regional courts when outbreaks of communal conflict occur.
  1. Provide legal aid assistance to villagers in land disputes, including paralegal advice at the village or sub-district level on the status of land claims with the assistance of legal aid non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
  1. Ensure that out-of-court dispute resolution by village or sub-district heads of land disputes involving individuals is witnessed by community and adat (traditional, often ethnic- or clan-based) leaders to prevent subsequent challenges.
  1. Encourage more out-of-court settlements brokered by local government and community leaders as long as compensation awards are fair and the settlements are acknowledged.

Concerning Pemekaran

  1. Ease the burden of the pemekaran process on the host region by not requiring it to support the new region in all cases, formalising revenue-sharing agreements between both regions during the transition and imposing sanctions if they are broken.
  1. Re-examine and tighten pemekaran criteria with more weighting given to the economic viability of both host and breakaway regions as well as security considerations.

Jakarta/Brussels, 18 July 2003


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