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Review: The politics of the periphery

Review: The politics of the periphery
Published: Jun 05, 2010

This edited volume is not just another book on local politics

Dirk Tomsa

As a political scientist with a special interest in Indonesia, and in particular the less well-known regions of eastern Indonesia, I picked up the book The Politics of the Periphery in Indonesia: Social and Geographical Perspectives with a sense of great expectation. Judging from the title, the book seemed to promise a wealth of new contributions to the burgeoning literature on contemporary local politics in Indonesia. However, as I was quick to find out, this edited volume – which came out of a workshop seven years ago – touches only occasionally upon familiar issues such as local elections, communal conflict or the redistribution of economic resources. Instead, it has a much broader focus that encompasses a range of historical and anthropological as well as sociological and political topics.

The introductory chapter, written by the three editors, starts with an interesting image of Indonesia as it is viewed from space at night. Pointing to the concentration of light in Java, southern central Sumatra and Bali, the authors describe the rest of the country as ‘marked by an inky darkness splattered only occasionally by the lights of provincial capitals and other isolated points of illumination’. Back in 1999, it was of course this inky darkness that policy-makers sought to address when they ushered in Indonesia’s far-reaching decentralisation process with the passing of Law No.22/1999 and Law No.25/1999. The implementation of regional autonomy sparked an unprecedented academic interest in the regions outside Java, resulting in a multitude of scholarly analyses of Indonesian local politics. What this scholarship has shown over the last ten years is that only some of the ambitious goals of the decentralisation process have been achieved. While, for example, direct elections for governors, mayors and district heads have increased transparency and accountability at the local level, they have also exacerbated the commercialisation of Indonesian politics. Similarly, while new processes of identity formation at the local level have led to positive changes in the distribution of resources in some places, they have also led to conflict and further marginalisation of minorities in others.

Compared to most of the existing studies on contemporary local politics in Indonesia, this collection takes a somewhat different approach to the ideas of ‘periphery’ and ‘politics’. Although some chapters do look to themes related to decentralisation, more than half of the fourteen contributions focus on rather different issues, ranging from the local pilgrimages of Indonesia’s various Javanese presidents to the role of the ethnic Chinese. There are also three almost entirely historical accounts of local identity politics and two fairly abstract chapters with only scant references to Indonesia. This leaves just five chapters directly addressing issues related to the decentralisation process scattered through the book. These chapters deal with Malay identity politics in various parts of Sumatra, local conflict over resources and identity, Papuan nationalism and adat communities in Lombok. All in all, a very eclectic mix of topics, which is both the strength and the weakness of this collection.

The major weakness of the volume is its lack of intellectual coherence. In the introductory chapter, the editors justify the inclusion of such a diverse assortment of topics by emphasising that ‘peripheries exist in the social as much as in the physical sense’. Yet with the exception of the ethnic Chinese, no attempt is made to include accounts of any socially marginalised groups. Charles Coppel strongly argues in his chapter that the Chinese are marginalised in part by the fact that ‘Chineseness’ is the quintessential ‘other’ in Indonesia. For this reader, at least, the volume’s silence on other marginalised groups like religious minorities, sex workers, the disabled, transsexuals and the urban and rural poor – to name but a few – reinforces, rather than breaks down, that process of ‘othering’.

The eclectic nature of this book provides an opportunity for discipline specialists to read stimulating material from outside their main area of interest.

It is fortunate, then, that some of the book’s individual chapters are very good. And ironically, perhaps, the chapters on the ethnic Chinese are among the best. Apart from the quality of these individual chapters, the book has another important selling point. Though criticised before, its eclectic nature may also be regarded as one of its distinctive strengths, as it provides an opportunity for discipline specialists to read stimulating material from outside their main area of interest. For a political scientist like myself, for example, it was initially disappointing to see that despite the word ‘politics’ in the title there are hardly any political scientists among the contributors. But a book like this also reminds us that Indonesian studies is by its very nature an interdisciplinary field that often finds its richness and strength in such a diversity of approaches and perspectives on any one theme.

Indeed, the expertise and passion of authors from such different backgrounds can make for captivating reading. David Reeve’s chapter on Ong Hok Ham, for example, provides a very interesting account of a fascinating character I knew very little about prior to reading this book. What makes this chapter particularly noteworthy is Reeve’s ability to link his discussion to the overall theme of the book, namely the periphery – a point that is not always driven home so rigorously in other chapters. Reeve’s description of Ong as ‘an outsider who became a living national treasure’ shows that life at the periphery can be turned into something very positive. Encouraging assessments such as this provide a nice counterbalance to the figurative image, conveyed in the introduction, of the periphery as the ‘darker extremities’ of Indonesia.

In sum, it is clear that more than ten years after the beginning of democratisation and decentralisation, the view from space would still reveal much darkness at Indonesia’s various peripheries. By shedding new light on these peripheries, the authors of this volume have made an important contribution to our understanding of the multiple processes of change that occur at the margins of this vast archipelago.

Minako Sakai, Glenn Banks & John H. Walker (eds), The Politics of the Periphery in Indonesia: Social and Geographical Perspectives. Singapore: NUS Publishing, 2009.

Dirk Tomsa ( is a lecturer in Politics and Asian Studies in the School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University. He is author of Party Politics and Democratization in Indonesia: Golkar in the post-Suharto Era (London: Routledge, 2008).

Inside Indonesia 100: Apr-Jun 2010

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