Relationships between the different groups within this multi-ethnic and multi-religious social mosaic are not as harmonious, equalitarian, and friendly as one would have expected them to be
Thousands of people participating in a rally in Jakarta on Nov. 20 to show their support for diversity. Indonesia's society is deeply fractured along ethnic, religious and economic lines, and its fragile social cohesion easily cracks when tensions between groups arise, resulting in numerous conflicts, some of them violent. (Reuters Photo/Iqro Rinaldi)
While exploring Indonesia, foreigners are often greeted by the warm hospitality of its people, who will present visitors with friendly smiles and generous help to make the experience of discovering their beloved homeland a memorable one. This archipelago of over 17,000 islands with exuberant nature, high volcanoes, deep jungles, glittering beaches and dark caves has all the attributes to be a wonderful experience. When it comes to its peoples, Indonesia is much like a colorful mosaic of dozens of cultures, religions and ethnic groups that, at first glance, appear to harmoniously cohabitate and share the land and resources.
Once we take a closer look at Indonesia's eclectic society, however, we cannot help but notice that the relationships between the different groups within this multi-ethnic and multi-religious social mosaic are not as harmonious, equalitarian, and friendly as one would have expected them to be. There is a sharp contrast in how Indonesians treat each other depending on whether they belong or not to the same ethnic and/or religious groups. For instance, ethnic Javanese might treat each other in an equalitarian and respectful way, but look down on ethnic Dayaks, who look down on Flores people, who, again, in turn look down on the indigenous peoples of Papua.
These social fractures become deeper and sharper across religious lines. It is not unusual for the relationships between people who share the same ethnicity and land to be significantly undermined if they hold different religious believes. Moreover, these fractures are further widened when two groups are of different ethnicity and religion, such as the case of Acehnese Muslims and Ambonese Protestants. If to these ethnoreligious social fractures, one adds economic success along ethnic lines, such as the case of the Chinese Indonesians, social relations between them and the rest almost vanish. These multiple social divisions result weak social cohesion, leaving numerous pieces of the Indonesian eclectic social mosaic frailly bonded.
Indonesia's society is deeply fractured along ethnic, religious, and economic lines, and its fragile social cohesion easily cracks when tensions between groups arise, resulting in numerous conflicts, some of them violent. If not addressed appropriately, these interethnic and religious clashes will continue to happen and could continue to grow in intensity. While the source of these tensions are complex and might differ from case to case, the historical evidence shows that after a period of incubation, tensions build up and can trigger in recurring local and national violent outbursts, such as the countrywide anti-Chinese riots in 1998 and the interreligious clashes in Poso, Central Sulawesi, in the early 2000s. I use the concept of a social earthquake to describe this type of violent event.
Inspired by my background in earthquake engineering, I define social earthquake as a violent social conflict resulting from the (sudden) release of tensions existing among groups that have been formed by the deep fracturing of a society along ethnic, religious, economic, ideological, or political lines, or a combination thereof. Tectonic social plates are formed when two or more distinct groups of people share a common space, but share little when it comes to values, principles, and objectives. Moreover, given their physical proximity, these groups are often competing for local resources and power, making their coexistence difficult. If the commonalities that unite the groups are reduced below a minimum, these groups might start looking at each other as different, strangers, or even as evil others.
Indonesians are mostly unaware that their society is divided into conflicting social tectonic plates that are fractured along ethnic, religious, and economic faults. The few who are aware of these divisions and tensions seem to have internalized them as the normal state of affairs in the country and do not seem to see a need to worry about them.
More importantly, Indonesians are unwilling to openly discuss their interethnic and interreligious relations despite the numerous violent events occurred in the last two decades that left in their wake thousands of deaths, hundreds of burnt-down places of worship, and dozens of destroyed villages. And when these violent events are discussed in the media, it is in a superficial manner and often blamed on manipulations or misunderstandings, rather than on the deep-rooted interethnic and interreligious tensions that fracture Indonesian society.
By declining to honestly look at the existing tensions and genuinely explore ways to defuse them, conflicts continue linger, hampering the formation of an Indonesian national identity. This refusal is also reflected in Indonesia's education system, which focuses on promoting Indonesian's fundamental ideological concept of Bhineka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), but ignores to educate students about the interethnic and religious conflicts that undermine it. Thus, the fractures that divide Indonesian society can grow deeper and wider to the point that the different groups become much like social tectonic plates that are struggling against each other. This struggle undermines Indonesia's sociopolitical stability, economic development, and, ultimately, the wellbeing of the Indonesian people.
Indonesia has all the attributes needed to build a prosperous society where its peoples can proudly and warmly welcome foreigners and, more importantly, Indonesians belonging to different religions and ethnicities too. However, if the ethnoreligious and economic tensions are not openly discussed and understood, and addressed in an effective and sustainable manner, tensions will continue to intensify and result in recurring social earthquakes.
Patrik K. Meyer is a visiting professor at Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta and a New America Security Fellow. He holds a Ph.D. in politics and international studies from the University of Cambridge, an M.P.A. in development from Harvard Kennedy School, an M.S. in structural dynamics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a B.S. in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.