Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

New forms of rural conflict

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Idyllic rural Java is rapidly becoming urban. As a result, peasants are now less in conflict with landlords than with the state. This radically changes the way we think about the best way to organise for change, according to JUNI THAMRIN andVEDI HADIZ.

The social and economic transformation of rural Java began during colonial times. It is best exemplified by the development of big plantations, which spurred the slow growth of wage labour in the nineteenth century and changed the social organisation of the village.

However, the capitalist penetration of rural Java during the New Order has had a far greater effect. It may be seen in today's pattern of land ownership (linked to the creation of wage labour), in the pervasiveness of more capital-intensive agricultural production, and in the steady urbanisation of much of rural Java.


Large parts of Java will in the near future become a collection of huge, sprawling megalopolises, as ricefields make way for new industrial estates or middle class residential development projects. Particularly in West Java, the major cities are already expanding and physically merging through a vast network of increasingly urbanised villages and a sophisticated labyrinth of highways. These changes will forever condemn lingering images of 'idyllic' rural Java into the realm of distant memory. (Arguably such images have for a long time been based on fantasy rather than reality anyway). A changing social and physical context is inevitably altering the way large numbers of people experience everyday life, as newer forms of social relations arise or are reinforced.

One aspect of the transformation is the gradual development of a distinct group of people that may be classified as wage labour. As traditional means of securing one's well-being via loose and varied cashless ties of obligation become less adequate, large numbers of people have been forced to migrate to town and work for wages. The family itself can no longer act as an adequate safety net for most people. Most migrants continue to eek out a living in the huge informal sectors of these urban formations. But an increasing number have found more or less permanent (though not necessarily stable) employment in the country's growing labour-intensive and export-oriented manufacturing sector.

The Dutch

Agrarian reforms were instituted by the colonial Dutch at the end of the nineteenth century. They changed the structure of society and the economy. For example, the first railway was inaugurated in Java in 1870 in order to transport sugar produced by private plantations to the port of Semarang. By 1894, a whole railway system had linked all the major cities on the island. At the same time, these cities themselves began to grow. In 1905 only Batavia (the colonial name for Jakarta), Surabaya, and Surakarta had populations of over 100,000. By 1930, Semarang, Yogyakarta, and Bandung had joined their ranks.

Another great change at the time, linked to urbanisation, was growing landlessness and the development of wage labour. Some scholars have attributed this growing landlessness to the development of large plantation enterprises, as well as to the spread of a money economy that tended to marginalise the peasantry.


Growing landlessness did not necessarily go together with the development of a distinct class of large landowners. Nevertheless, a distinction could be made between, on the one hand, a large numbers of landless and smallholding peasants and, on the other, village elites who owned larger parcels as well as those who controlled communal land.

The distinction between land haves and have-nots was to persist into the immediate post-colonial period after World War II, and helped shape later patterns of political mobilisation. The animosity it produced gave rise to the famous aksi sefihak campaign of the early 1960s, in which the communist party PKI encouraged poor peasants unilaterally to implement land reform laws. This in turn contributed to the bloodbath of 1965 and 1966.

Things did not change significantly in the early post-colonial period. In Java and Sumatra, capitalist production was still mainly represented by large plantation enterprises, later nationalised by the state. The manufacturing sector remained underdeveloped. For example, out of the 25,000 registered firms that operated in Indonesia in 1953, only 575 had over 500 employees, while 1500 had 100 to 500 employees. While more than one third of the plantation establishments had more than 500 employees, most industrial firms had fewer than 20. The vast bulk of these were small and family-oriented. Not surprisingly, most industrial workers were at the stage of handicraft rather than factory production.

The general stagnation of the economy during much of the period immediately after independence in 1945 meant there was little further meaningful capitalist incursion into rural Java. However, a class of rural dispossessed continued to develop, partly due to the growing population. Growing landlessness drove peasants to take over state-owned land, particularly belonging to the nationalised plantations then deteriorating due to neglect and bad management. In West Java, this occurred mainly in the areas around Bandung and Jakarta. Such take-overs provide the historical origins of many contemporary cases of land disputes pitting the peasantry against the state.


Yet there was little impetus for the development of a class of large landowners. Rather than a clear, unambiguous process of class polarisation between rich landowner and poor peasant, we can observe three distinct categories of peasants. There were the more affluent peasants with larger land holdings who employed other people's labour (mainly relatives), there were owners of smaller or medium sized lands, and those who were completely landless and dependent on selling their labour.

In 1990 the Swedish scholar Tornquist suggested what was then a novel idea. The main type of conflict in contemporary rural Java, he wrote, was not between landlords and tenants. Nor was it between what he called semi-capitalist farmers and agricultural workers. The main type of conflict he identified was one between 'petty propertied' villagers and the state. He noted that it was mainly propertied peasants, rather than the completely landless, who have been engaged in protests against the expansion of plantations, and against the building of dams and factories on agricultural land.

With some modifications, Tornquist's observations remain valid. This is important to note, because they contradict once pervasive political strategies, for example of the PKI, which assumed that class polarisation in rural areas was increasing.

Working class

An unambiguous process of class polarisation still has not taken place in rural Java. However, this does not mean that the rural social structure has remained intact. As mentioned earlier, a great process of transformation has taken place with the expansion of capitalism under the New Order. In the last thirty years, the face of Indonesia's economy has been unrecognisably altered. Industrial capitalism has been firmly established, based first on import substitution industries and then on the export of light manufactured products.

Indeed, a new industrial working class has emerged from within the manufacturing sector, which now contributes a quarter of Indonesia's GDP and half of its exports. In 1971 there were a mere 2.7 million people employed in manufacturing, constituting 6.5 % of the labour force. In 1980, the number of workers in manufacturing had grown to 4.4 million, representing 8.5% of the total workforce. By 1990, there were 8.2 million people working there, representing 11.6% of Indonesia's labour force, indicating a slow but steady growth. In 1991, three million of these were employed in approximately 16,500 establishments classified as medium and large-scale.

Such an expansion of capitalism has transformed the rural sector. Peasant households have been displaced as large tracts of land are converted into industrial production centres, development projects, hotels, recreation facilities, middle class residential areas, etc.

The liberalisation of the Indonesian economy since the mid-1980s has encouraged private capital to make incursions into rural society, thereby displacing propertied peasants. Thus, the peasant-versus-state conflict described by Tornquist can be modified to include increasing numbers of disputes in which the peasant also confronts capital, not necessarily agriculture-related capital at that. A vast majority of these conflicts are over inadequate compensation or over the ownership status of land. At the same time, there remains little conflict among the different strata of the local peasantry that might have been the result of more pronounced internal rural class differentiation.

Landlessness has increased during the New Order, mostly due to continuing population growth. The 1993 census shows that 43% of the peasantry in Indonesia (not just Java) were landless or owned less than 0.10 ha of land. Some studies have suggested a tendency toward concentration of land ownership in some areas. But it is unlikely that this is providing a sufficient social base for greater conflict among different strata of rural producers. Disputes involving peasants will more likely continue to pit them against the interests of the state and, perhaps increasingly, against the forces of capital making further incursions.


An option available to the poor peasant is to work as an agricultural wage labourer. However, wages in the agricultural sector remain low and the labour market is unfavourable. This has created a greater incentive to choose another option, namely migrating to town. Recent research indicates that young, first-generation industrial labourers tend to stay on in the city. In spite of the harsh conditions of urban life, workers see their futures there, as the village no longer represents a viable place of refuge or retreat.

The widely reported rise in industrial action in Indonesia in the 1990s can usefully be viewed within such a framework. Workers now feel that they have more of a stake in the outcome of struggles that take place in the cities and factories. This contrasts quite starkly with their predecessors of about twenty years ago, who were less adamant about staying. Thus, there is now a greater incentive for workers to organise, albeit in the context of a difficult political terrain.

The process of rural transformation is inextricably connected to the overall process of capitalist expansion in Indonesia. It is creating a social base for some rise in rural conflict. However, conflict will not be mainly between peasants and landlords, nor between agricultural workers and rural capitalists, but between the smallholder peasant and the state apparatus. Increasingly, these conflicts will involve representatives of industrial or service-based capital making incursions into agricultural lands currently under the control of smallholders.


Till now the rural proletariat has had a marginal role in peasant disputes. It is when the rural proletariat becomes an urban one, through migration and settlement, that the completely dispossessed encounter a milieu within which organisation becomes more possible. Thus, the more likely stage for proletarian action in contemporary Indonesia seems to be the cities and the factories rather than the villages and the ricefields.

If these observations have any validity, they suggest implications for the development of strategies of rural as well as urban organising within the context of Indonesia's fledging pro-democracy movement.

Juni Thamrin is the Director of Yayasan Akatiga, a research institute in Bandung; Vedi R. Hadiz is a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia.

Inside Indonesia 49: Jan-Mar 1997

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