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Tensions on Flores: Local Symptoms of National Problems


Maumere, a town of some 40,000 people on the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia, is to all appearances the model of tranquillity, noted primarily for its poverty and Catholicism. But since July 2002, three incidents that are symptomatic of many problems facing Indonesia more generally have shaken the town. On 14 July, a riot erupted after a crew member of a visiting ship committed what locals considered sacrilege during a Catholic mass. The perpetrator happened to be a Protestant, but the mob marched on the local mosque, and serious violence was only narrowly averted. At the end of the month, a well-known public official with ties to the local government and army went on trial for smuggling wood. On 18 August 2002, a fight broke out between the police and military that revealed the hostility between the two agencies, the depth of local animosity towards the police; and the ongoing impact of the East Timor conflict on Flores. The July and August eruptions have left the business community, mostly ethnic Chinese, frightened and uncertain of its future, although no Chinese was targeted.

The unrest on Flores raises questions that every corner of Indonesia is facing:

  • how to reduce the influence of the military over local politics when the military’s territorial structure allows scope for extensive political and economic involvement at a very local level;

  • how to reduce predatory practices of both the military and the police;

  • how to upgrade police capacity at the local level and reduce the rationale for military involvement in quelling social and political conflict;

  • how to use the decentralisation process to strengthen local capacity to reduce the potential for conflict before it breaks out; and

  • how to prevent communal conflict elsewhere in Indonesia from worsening communal tensions locally.

Flores must additionally manage the unaddressed problem of demobilisation of troops who served in East Timor.

The incidents described in this briefing have taken place against the backdrop of a decentralisation policy that is transforming the political landscape of Indonesia. That policy, which devolves substantial economic and political authority from the central government down to the district level, has raised the stakes of local political contests, particularly for the position of bupati or district head. Maumere is the seat of Sikka district, whose bupati, Paulus Moa, has strong links to the military. His term ends in 2003, and manoeuvring to extend or replace him is already well underway. This could well exacerbate existing military-police rivalry, lead to new promises to the military of economic returns from projects licensed by the central government, or give different parties an incentive to play on existing frictions.

Decentralisation has also resulted in a process of administrative fragmentation known as pemekaran, literally “blossoming”, by which new and smaller provinces and districts are carved out of larger ones, supposedly based on criteria set by the Ministry of Home Affairs but often based on how much those in favour of the new units are able to pay in bribes.

A campaign is underway to make the island of Flores, together with the nearby island of Lembata, a separate province that would be carved out of the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT). There are strong arguments for and against. Administrative services would be within easier reach. The provincial capital of NTT is Kupang, in West Timor; if Flores became a province in its own right, the town of Maumere would be a strong contender to become the capital. This would facilitate local recruitment of police, for example, since at present, anyone wishing to take the recruitment exam has to travel to Kupang. (Until recently, the exam was only held in Denpasar, Bali, with the result that many of the police in Flores are Balinese.)

Land values in Maumere would likely skyrocket, benefiting the local elite but also perhaps generating more land speculation and disputes. More trade would be directed to Makassar, in South Sulawesi, instead of Kupang. The Maumere-Makassar route makes far more geographic and economic sense, but it could result in an increase in migration to Flores by ethnic Bugis traders and a heightening of communal tensions. Establishing the province of Flores could also lead to an increased military presence, for reasons discussed below.

The problems that produced the July and August outbreaks in Maumere are unlikely to be solved at a local level alone, in part because most of the parties are tainted. Members of the Catholic clergy in Flores are growing weary of being called on to prevent conflict and are in any case concerned that their ability to do so is waning. The communal tensions on Flores, and in particular the suspicions of the Catholic majority about the intentions of the tiny Muslim minority, have less to do with reality on the ground and much more with national developments as played out in the print and broadcast media. “If Laskar Jihad [a militant Muslim militia now operating in several conflict areas] comes to Flores, we’re ready for them”, one parishioner told a local priest grimly.

All this underscores the fact that the problem of managing conflict in Indonesia is not simply one of crafting better policies for Aceh, Maluku, Poso, Papua and other hotspots. The potential for violence exists throughout much of the country. The solutions go back in many cases to police and military reform. An analysis of the three incidents in Flores is followed by a concluding section drawing together some of the wider lessons to be learned from them.

Jakarta/Brussels, 10 October 2002


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