Published: Jan 22, 2009


Graeme Hugo

Eastern Indonesia is a long way from Jakarta, not only physically, but also economically and politically. Economically, eastern Indonesia has faced huge obstacles, such as its peripheral location, limited resources, and neglect by national administrations. Eastern Indonesia scores below the national average on most economic indicators. The heaviest concentration of poor provinces are in eastern Indonesia, and only Papua has above average regional gross domestic product.

Politically, eastern Indonesia has always been on the periphery. Since 1998 the region has faced upheaval and insecurity, complicated by rapid economic and social change. There have been several years of conflict in Maluku, the independence of Timor Leste with post-referendum violence, conflict in Central Sulawesi, and continuing tension and a separatist movement in Papua. Conflicts have led to huge flows of refugees within eastern Indonesia, which presents huge challenges.

A political entity?

Alfred Russel Wallace was not the only one to differentiate between eastern and western Indonesia (see box). In 1930, the Dutch divided the outer islands of Indonesia into three new governments. One, the ‘Groote Oost’, comprised the area now called eastern Indonesia. The Japanese, during their World War II occupation, also separated the east, as an area of naval administration. After the war the Dutch took the initiative to proclaim the Nation of Eastern Indonesia (NIT). This was their attempt to contain the power and influence of the Indonesian independence movement to western Indonesia. But conflict within the eastern regions led to the collapse of the NIT by 1950.

The Groote Oost, NIT and the more recent idea of ‘eastern Indonesia’ have one thing in common: they were all formulated by central government policy makers. These attempts have failed partly because the region has a great deal of internal diversity, which has not permitted the emergence of a stable unified political entity.

A diverse population on the move

Eastern Indonesia has 75 per cent of the land area of the nation, but only 12 per cent of the total Indonesian population — or 25.5 million people at the time of the 2000 census. Although its population is sparse, eastern Indonesia is one of the most diverse regions in a very diverse nation — much more diverse than the islands west of the Wallace Line. In the east the Bugis are the largest single group, but they account for less than 16 per cent of the population, whereas in the west the Javanese make up almost half.

The population has tended to be very mobile in eastern Indonesia. This has been both a cause and a consequence of the rapid changes in the region. Transmigrants have entered the region in large numbers, as have government officials and private sector employees transferred for work. Those leaving eastern Indonesia tend to go to Jakarta and other major cities in Java. But even more migration occurs within eastern Indonesia — and a great deal of that movement is circular and temporary. Rather than permanently settling in another destination, many migrants go back and forth between a home village and one or more work locations.

The most mobile groups in the region are the BBM (Bugis, Buton, Makassar) — people from South and Southeast Sulawesi. Their movement has a long history, but since 1945 they have been migrating in greater numbers than ever. The BBM migrate both temporarily and permanently in eastern Indonesia. Only 65 per cent of Bugis live in their heartland of South Sulawesi — 25 per cent live elsewhere in eastern Indonesia and 10 per cent in western Indonesia. They often engage in fishing, and farming, and especially small scale business all over the archipelago. Their success in business has led to some resentment among some of the local populations. Ethnic resentment was an important element in the recent Maluku and Poso conflicts, as well as in many other small scale violent incidents.

Other groups also engage in a great deal of temporary, circular migration within eastern Indonesia, but this tends to be on a smaller scale and within more restricted areas, such as people going from rural areas to towns for work.

Unfortunately, another type of mobility is extremely common in eastern Indonesia today. Recent conflicts in East Timor (as it was then known), Maluku, and Poso have led to huge flows of internally displaced persons (IDPs). More broadly, this has been a symptom of the instability in Indonesia following the financial crisis which began in 1997, and the collapse of the long serving Suharto regime. Indonesian IDPs are heavily concentrated in eastern Indonesia. In 2002, there were over 100,000 IDPs in each of the provinces of Maluku, North Maluku, East Nusa Tenggara, and Southeast Sulawesi. This has brought unemployment, political unrest, and disputes over land, and necessitated aid projects which are ongoing.

Beyond marginalisation?

Eastern Indonesia has been marginalised, neglected and exploited through much of its history. The region is ecologically fragile and primary production is only sustainable at low levels. The region must face the daunting challenges of high mobility, poverty, resource exploitation, and conflict. This new era of democratisation and decentralisation of power, if it succeeds in bringing greater local control over resources, presents an opportunity for eastern Indonesia to harness the potential of its people and resources.

Graeme Hugo (graeme.hugo@adelaide.edu.au) is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow at the University of Adelaide.


Inside Indonesia 82: Apr-Jun 2005