May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Public works and ethnic conflict

Public works and ethnic conflict

Tarakan’s riots illustrate the risks of collusive public contracting and the continued weakness of local security responses


Chris Wilson

Tidung men during the riot

For several days in late September 2010 a riot paralysed the island municipality of Tarakan in northeast East Kalimantan. The official death toll from the fighting was seven, but locals, including police officers and newspaper journalists, claim the number was under-reported to avoid further retaliation. More were injured, several houses badly damaged and 40,000 people temporarily displaced by the violence.

As occurred during the major ethno-religious conflicts in Indonesia a decade ago, a small, violent incident triggered the rioting. Abdullah, a Tidung community and religious leader in rural northern Tarakan, was stabbed and killed after retaliating against youths who had beaten his son. The youths were Bugis Letta, a sub-ethnic group of the Bugis, originating primarily from South Sulawesi’s Pinrang district. In response, a Tidung mob ransacked local Bugis homes.

The following day, a large crowd of Tidung, Dayak, Berau and other indigenous groups gathered in the city in front of the office of the United Indigenous Peoples of Kalimantan Organisation (PUSAKA). Led by PUSAKA representatives – including the organisation’s war commander, Panglima Kumbang, who had flown in from Central Kalimantan – the mob proceeded to the municipality police station. The crowd’s anger was directed primarily at the Letta, a large group of whom had gathered to guard the house of the community’s main leader, Haji Sani.

But having met the mayor and a young man who had been arrested for the murder, PUSAKA’s leaders instructed the crowd to disperse and for several hours it appeared the tension had been defused. But that evening a crowd of young Tidung men returned to the street without PUSAKA’s leaders and attacked the Letta. Letta reinforcements rushed in from the northern part of the city, and running battles raged until the following morning.

The local police and military seemed unable to contain the violence and unwilling to try, largely watching the fighting unfold and protecting those displaced in military and police compounds. According to a local police officer, the police chief gave no order for police to separate, subdue or arrest the rioters. In contrast, the national government responded quickly. President Yudhoyono publicly requested an effective security response and reinforcements arrived from the Jakarta police special operations force unit (Brimob) within 36 hours. The arrival of this unit brought the fighting to a halt. Importantly, it prevented (mostly Tidung and Dayak) reinforcements coming into Tarakan by boat.

This conflict was very similar to those that occurred during Indonesia’s political transition from 1997 to 2001, when some minor skirmish would prompt frustrated members of indigenous communities, sometimes mobilised by ethnic organisations to demand action against migrants.. But there are also notable differences, most obviously in the scale of the incident. So what was it that prevented this conflict from spreading and intensifying as it had in Sambas, Sampit and elsewhere in Kalimantan a decade ago?

Patronage and intimidation

The initial response to the murder was led by ethnic organisations, particularly PUSAKA, in the same way politicisation of indigenous Dayak by ethnic organisations preceded the 1997 conflict in West Kalimantan. Yet the actual attack was initiated by unaffiliated members of the Tidung community. A large show of force appeared to suffice for PUSAKA’s leaders, who returned home after viewing the prisoner. So why did PUSAKA take Tarakan to the brink of violence and then pull back? And why did the Tidung community launch an attack anyway, leading to perhaps the most serious ethnic rioting in Kalimantan for a decade?

The answers to these questions partly lie in the sense of political and economic disempowerment felt by many Tidung. Locals pointed out that the highest position in the local government held by a Tidung is Third Assistant to the Government (held by the chair of PUSAKA, Masdar Zemi). The mayor, his deputy and most members of the local parliament and bureaucracy are migrants from Sulawesi and Java. Tidung also claim they find it difficult to obtain employment in the private sector and have lost their customary land to migrants through expropriation or by hasty sale. Many Tidung say there has been frequent and increasing violent attacks against them, most often committed by Bugis - often while they worked in the island’s shrimp ponds and fishing areas. . Above all, many Tidung are frustrated at a lack of government policies to assist them, despite their claimed indigenous status.

PUSAKA and other ethnic organisations claim to be working to address this marginalisation. PUSAKA’s leaders say they run a broad range of programs to assist local communities, including making and selling indigenous crafts and training in budgeting. Yet they could not produce any documentation to verify these activities and Tidung living in Tarakan cannot recall any such programs, only the occasional traditional ceremonies held by the organisation. What then is the main purpose of these organisations? Examining this can help us understand the September riots.

The main goal of ethnic organisations claiming to represent the indigenous community is to force their way into the various sources of patronage in the city. For PUSAKA, the main focus is the lucrative contracts for the construction of public infrastructure awarded by the Public Works Department. While PUSAKA is not a recognised construction firm, this is no hindrance. Although the process of awarding these contracts appears competitive and transparent, several respondents, including a Public Works staff member, suggest the reality is very different. Members of Parliament instruct Public Works officials to award a contract to a particular contractor and both receive payments from the contract amount. Those contractors who submit unsuccessful bids are also paid a cut, although occasionally intimidation or the promise of a future contract is required to ensure their silence. These bribes mean that there are significantly less funds for the actual project, hence the poor quality of roads, bridges and other public infrastructure.

PUSAKA has attempted to show local power holders in Tarakan that it has the potential to cause disturbances if it is excluded from this patronage system. Because it appears able to mobilise an entire indigenous community, particularly one aggrieved at its position in the local political economy, PUSAKA threatens public order and the status quo more than ordinary gangster organisations. Paridil Murad, the former head of Public Works in neighbouring Bulungan District, recognised this potential when he formed PUSAKA in 2005. According to a Public Works official, PUSAKA has been awarded several small contracts of less Rp.100 million (about A$ 11,000) in Tarakan because of its propensity for causing disturbances. It has been unsuccessful in winning large contracts, however, and several attempts to obtain direct funding from the government have failed.

Proving community leadership through mobilisation

To be viewed as the vanguard of a disgruntled ethnic community, however, PUSAKA must also demonstrate to its constituents that it is indeed working in their interests. In the absence of any actual programs, this has entailed responding vigorously to murders and assaults of indigenous people. In several such incidents in 2010, PUSAKA mobilised the community and marched through the streets. This, they believe, demonstrates to the indigenous community that they are able to make their grievances heard in high places. It also reminds local power brokers that PUSAKA is capable of wreaking havoc if ignored. This is why, after viewing the prisoner in late September, PUSAKA leaders were content to return to their homes in the expectation that their string of patronage failures would soon come to an end.

But in this instance, PUSAKA lost control of the crowd. Many Tidung had grown angry at PUSAKA’s appropriation of indigeneity as a way of obtaining public funds without actually representing the interests of the community. In the words of one Tidung leader, PUSAKA had ‘acted arrogantly and only in the interests of the group’s leaders’. The importance of this murder and the cumulative impact of recent similar events had led ethnic organisations to take added measures in competing for influence within the indigenous community. For example, PUSAKA’s decision to fly its war commander into the city heightened the emotion in the crowd.

So to a large extent the riots stemmed from intra-indigenous dynamics as much as tensions with the Letta. The frustration felt by the Tidung at being marginalised from the local political economy was important to understanding the underlying causes of the riot, but it was PUSAKA’s attempts to use this frustration to obtain patronage benefits that pushed it into violence.

A return to large scale conflict?

The issues behind these events are similar to those behind conflict in 1999: political inequality, economic marginalisation, patronage, crime and poor law enforcement. As then, influential individuals and organisations exploit these tensions for their own political and economic interests, in the process occasionally causing violence, whether intentionally or inadvertently. One important difference stands out: the capacity and willingness of Jakarta to respond quickly and prevent escalation. In Tarakan – as in the Ambon riots in September 2011 – the national government acted quickly, dispatching police reinforcements and publicly reminding officials that they must act effectively. Most commentators have rightly commended the national government for its decisive action.

Yet in another sense little has changed since 1999. In the 12 years since then, local security forces do not appear to have improved their response to rapidly developing ethnic violence. In the recent Ambon riots too, external security forces were required to bring the fighting under control. Local commanders appear concerned that they will be punished if their personnel act with excessive force or side with the protagonists, with whom they often share ethnic ties. The current system of responsibility for internal security allows local officials to refrain from acting forcefully against rioters and instead wait for orders from their superiors.

The prevention of escalation in Tarakan and Ambon therefore depended on rapid reaction from Jakarta. This has been possible given the current period of political stability in Jakarta and a dearth of incidents occurring simultaneously in several regions of the country. While the current draft law on social conflict management proposes greater powers for local authorities to intervene in conflict situations, what is needed is in fact greater responsibility for them to do so proactively. This would involve sanction for officers who fail to take all actions possible within proper limits. After all, protecting human rights involves avoiding sins of omission as well as commission.

Since the September riots the government in Tarakan has expressed concern over the proliferation of ethnic organisations such as PUSAKA and is attempting to curb their growth. Yet the actions of these groups, while often belligerent and provocative are just one element of a system of exclusion on the island. Ongoing economic and political marginalisation of the indigenous minority compared to migrants has created resentment and animosity between several ethnicities. The opaque and collusive nature of public contracting also encourages actors to threaten and occasionally use force to carve off a piece of the pie for themselves. If the central government does not pay serious attention to these issues, and to the continuing inadequacy of district and provincial law enforcement and security forces, serious group violence is likely to continue across the archipelago.

Chris Wilson ( teaches Political Studies at Auckland University. He focuses on ethno-religious conflict in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 108: Apr-Jun 2012

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