The early Reformation period was a period of much uncertainty for Indonesians. Political power was decentralized to the regions which meant that struggles for local power emerged. The Asian Financial Crisis had caused poverty, unemployment and uncertainty about the future in many Indonesian households. Ethnic and religious sentiments, previously suppressed by Suharto's 'SARA-policy' (meaning a ban on the public discussion on the topic of ethnic group, religion, race and group-based interest as these might endanger public order), flared up.

Ethnic Violence in Indonesia

Ethnic violence in Indonesia has more-or-less ceased after 2002. Prior to this year there had occurred a worrying amount of violence in Jakarta, Medan (Sumatra), Kalimantan, Poso (Sulawesi) and the Moluccas, resulting in many casualties between the years 1996 and 2002. It is, however, not correct to mark the above cases simply as 'ethnic violence' only. Violence purely because of ethnic differences is rare as in each above-mentioned case other aspects played an influential role.

For example, violence against the Chinese Indonesians, which emerged around the time of Suharto's resignation, has a lot to do with the country's economic context (or better: people's perceptions of Indonesia's economic context). The Chinese Indonesians have always been resented in modern Indonesian history because they own a relative big portion of Indonesia's business cake, despite forming just a tiny minority in Indonesia's population (and in fact rich Chinese Indonesians are only a very small proportion of the total number of Chinese Indonesians in Indonesia). In times of political and economic turmoil it is not hard to instigate anti-Chinese feelings that results in violence.

The regional violence that happened in Kalimantan, Sulawesi and the Moluccas between 1996 and 2002 are more likely examples of local power struggles within a power vacuum around the fall of Suharto. Religious and ethnic sentiments were incited by certain sides that thought such sentiments and subsequent chaos could benefit their position. Meanwhile, the Indonesian army were reluctant to interfere. Now, nearly 20 years after the change from an authoritarian regime to a decentralized democracy, Indonesia's democratic fundamentals are much stronger and clear. Therefore, regional violence (such as we saw in Kalimantan, Sulawesi and the Moluccas between 1996 and 2002) has disappeared.

Religious Violence in Indonesia

Religious intolerance in Indonesia (sometimes culminating in violence), however, is on the rise. The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, an Indonesia-based research and advocacy group, counted 216 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2010, 244 cases in 2011 and 264 cases in 2012. The institute recorded 236 violent incidents in 2015, up from 177 incidents of violence in the preceding year. The Setara Institute added that most of the violent incidents are conducted by local administrations, hence implying that the government is actually the main actor in perpetuating religious intolerance and therefore it urges the central government to punish those local governments that fail to protect religious freedom.

Targets of these attacks are often Shia communities, Ahmadiyah communities, and Christians as well as their places of worship and churches. Usually it involves the demolition of holy places, sometimes the beating up of people, but rarely does it involve the killing of people. Perpetrators behind these attacks are usually members of radical Muslim groups such as Front Pembela Islam and the Islamic Mass Organization Alliance.

Perhaps the most horrific (recent) act of religious violence was the slaughter of three Ahmadis by a mob of hundreds of people in February 2011 in Cikeusik, West Java. It received much international attention and human right watchers have urged the Indonesian government to respect religious freedom and to protect its people. The reaction of Indonesia's government towards this rising religious intolerance has been rather weak (possibly because there still exists the SARA-mentality, meaning that it is better to remain silent on these matters). After the Ahmadiyah slaughter, there was a slow reaction of condemnation by the government, and this became subject of much criticism. More criticism followed as the killers of the Ahmadis were given short prison sentences by the Indonesian court, even though footage clearly showed them killing the victims.

Although most Indonesians are highly supportive of a religious pluralist society, Indonesians tend to be rather apathetic towards these forms of violence, as if it is better not to make a fuzz about it, and instead forget that it ever happened.

Last update: 23 December 2016