May 29, 2023 Last Updated 3:00 AM, May 26, 2023

Re-drawing Sulawesi's map

Published: Jul 24, 2007

Elizabeth Morrell

The heady days of new regional autonomy legislation brought with them expectations of political change and a sense of the potential offered by a new millennium. Curiously, this led to something the planners never intended — highly emotive movements for new provincial boundaries and districts (kabupaten), almost like local independence movements based on ethnic identity. This article discusses one successful new province carved out of South Sulawesi, another still under discussion, and a new district whole creation sparked violence.

In 2001 local businessman and politician Yusuf Kalla, now Indonesia’s vice-president, chaired a meeting to discuss the future of South Sulawesi province. The meeting discussed options created by decentralisation policies which allow subdivision of Indonesia’s provinces and lower levels of government. Various community leaders put forward suggestions to split the existing province into six separate regions — five new provinces, and the remnants of South Sulawesi.

Since that time, little has been heard from three of the new province movements. However, the two regions most distant from the capital of Makassar mounted strong cases. They had each struggled to become autonomous rovinces at the time of Indonesian independence. Those attempts failed because of political instability created by the Kahar Muzakkar-Darul Islam rebellion from the 1950s, the anti-Communist drive from 1965 and the increasing centralisation of the Suharto government.

Birth of West Sulawesi

In the post-New Order era these regions were the first to voice their intentions to separate, citing neglect by the South Sulawesi provincial government. One of these new provinces, West Sulawesi, was eventually announced in September 2004. The new province stretches along the north-western coast and mountains to the Central Sulawesi border (see map). The creation of West Sulawesi reinvigorated demands for a second new province in the north-eastern districts of the Luwu homelands and Tana Toraja. In this region, organising committees calling for the establishment of Luwu province are disappointed their wishes have not yet been granted by Jakarta.

West Sulawesi residents always had a stronger case for independence, and their proposal had passed through most levels of government approval before the presidential election. Even so, ratification came only after the organising committee lobbied urgently during the final days before tougher requirements for new provinces were introduced. Rumour has it that West Sulawesi only succeeded because a deal was struck with then president Megawati Sukarnoputri. She was allegedly promised loyalty in the presidential election should the province be approved. Megawati did visit the region shortly before the election and publicly agreed to the planned province. However, despite grateful campaigning by some new province supporters, she only received a minority of the vote.

West Sulawesi could be released because it had not been a strong contributor to the South Sulawesi economy. This lack of development was a prime motivation for separation. On the other hand, the Luwu homelands are often described as the ‘heart’ of the South Sulawesi economy. Luwu was an early location for plantation agribusiness, and is home to the large nickel mine operated by PT Inco.

Luwu and Toraja

The Luwu struggle has also been weakened by disagreements about the composition of the proposed province — primarily about whether or not Tana Toraja district should be included in it. Long-term rivalry between sections of the Luwu and Toraja communities re-emerged over this question. The principal concern for those in Luwu opposing Toraja’s inclusion was fear of dominance by Tana Toraja. The Toraja region is smaller than Luwu, but it is better known because its unique cultural practices have attracted attention through domestic and international tourism. In addition, higher levels of education, resulting principally from the early establishment of Christian schools, have produced a broad base of well-educated Torajans, including a strong expatriate community. Many opponents feared a Torajan governor would be appointed.

From the early stages, Tana Toraja had been included in the plan for the new province, which at that time was known as Luwu Raya (Greater Luwu). However, after divisive public debates, Toraja was excluded. The various interest groups then continued their calls for a new province, covering only the four districts of the Luwu homelands. The proposed name was changed to Luwu province. But in 2004, regulations for establishing new provinces were tightened, increasing the required number of districts, and renewed approaches were made to Tana Toraja. In November 2004 the Torajan local parliament expressed ‘in principle’ agreement to be part of the proposed province.

Violent disputes

Disagreements about including Toraja in the proposed Luwu province produced some resentment, and this deepened existing mistrust. But at least this was expressed publicly in open debate. More serious disputes have emerged from new district boundaries within the West Sulawesi area. Here the problem is related to the relocation of district boundaries rather than to the establishment of the new province. Once again antagonism has emerged as a result of cultural difference and fear of economic disadvantage.

In 2002, the new district of Mamasa was formed in what is now West Sulawesi, following calls for autonomy by an indigenous Christian community, often called the Mamasa Toraja, who live in the mountainous interior of the west coast. The Mamasa township had previously been part of the district known as Polewali-Mamasa, based in the Islamic coastal town of Polewali, a slow, five-hour car or bus trip away, accessible only by a narrow winding mountain road.

The division of the Polewali-Mamasa district in this way resulted in the cultural and economic isolation of three Muslim sub-districts (kecamatan). These sub-districts were incorporated into the new Mamasa district against majority wishes. During negotiations, many residents had argued that they should not be included in the mountain district. The three sub-districts are economically stronger than the rest of Mamasa, and had always looked to coastal towns for markets and administration. The original proposal, which was approved by the South Sulawesi government, recognised these needs. But Jakarta decision-making overrode local knowledge and wishes, and the central government included the three sub-districts as part of the new Mamasa district, possibly to boost its struggling economy.

In the two years since inclusion in the Mamasa district, violence resulting in deaths and property damage has occurred on several occasions. Six deaths have been recorded, nine people are missing, numerous injuries have been suffered, and over 50 houses and one church have been destroyed. Thousands of residents fled their homes during the violent outbreaks, and trust has been lost between those members of the community who wish to join Mamasa district, and those who do not.

After the latest outbreak in October 2004, 400 police and soldiers were sent to the area. Police arrested over 30 suspects, and investigations revealed that the conflict may have been made worse by instigators of religious violence in Poso, in the neighbouring Central Sulawesi province. One Poso resident was amongst those arrested, possessing a weapon. Two others had escaped arrest. Despite this, most people do not view the Mamasa violence as religious conflict. In fact, one Christian community also opposed its inclusion into Mamasa, and some fighting occurred between Islamic residents who were for and against the changes.

Political, not religious conflict

Most observers see the Mamasa conflict as political, based on underlying tensions brought to the surface by the formation of the Mamasa district. Some observers also believe the conflict may have been inflamed by South Sulawesi government and economic interests aiming to prevent or obstruct formation of the new province. Others allege that media bias increased the tension.

By November 2004 the latest outbreak of Mamasa violence had calmed. The violence ended after police coordinated negotiations, and a formal treaty was signed by representatives of both sides. However, rumours and misinformation have created further suspicion. People throughout the Torajan highlands worry that any renewed conflict in Mamasa may prompt extremist organisations to come to the area. No one I spoke to believed the Mamasa violence was the result of fundamentalism. Yet most feared it could attract extremist groups, including the paramilitary wing of the South Sulawesi Syariah Law movement, which has been held responsible for bombings in Makassar and violence in Maluku and Poso.

The Mamasa conflict presents a challenge for the new province of West Sulawesi. In November 2004, the South Sulawesi government was planning a judicial review of the legislation which established the new province, querying the financial assistance it is required to give during the transition period. But any delays in funding the new province will hinder attempts to build peace. Bureaucratic disagreement may once again provoke conflict.

Elizabeth Morrell ( teaches in the Flinders Asia Centre, School of Political and International Studies, Flinders University. She has been conducting research in South Sulawesi for over a decade.

Inside Indonesia 82: Apr-Jun 2005

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