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More conflicts feared in election year

Jakarta Globe - January 3, 2014

Erwin Sihombing – When a child was killed and six buildings razed to the ground on Monday in West Manokwari district in the province of West Papua, in a clash between neighboring communities, it barely registered in the national media because of how commonplace such incidents had become.

It was the last local-level conflict reported in 2013, when such incidents increased by nearly a quarter from 2012. And if the government continues to overlook them, analysts warn, the number could rise even higher this year, with a correspondingly high death toll.

Neta S. Pane, the head of Indonesia Police Watch, a nongovernmental organization that monitors security and law enforcement, said at a discussion in Jakarta on Thursday that the potential for even more clashes was high this year because of the legislative and presidential elections in April and July, respectively.

He said that last year, his organization had recorded 153 community clashes throughout the country, or a 23.7 percent increase from 2012.

"As a result of those conflicts, 203 people were killed, 361 people were injured, 483 homes were damaged and 173 buildings were set on fire," he said. In 2012, he noted, the death toll was 154, with 217 people injured.

Neta attributed the increase in the number of clashes and the casualties to the lack of action by security forces to prevent the violence from breaking out or quell it once it had erupted.

"From the sheer number of cases that we saw last year, it's quite clear that the police's intelligence-gathering efforts have been quite weak. Their ability to detect threats ahead of time isn't functioning as it should," Neta said.

This year, he said, the government would have to up its game significantly, given the increasing volatility in the social equilibrium as the elections approached.

"We can almost certainly expect the run-up to both the legislative election and the presidential election to be marred by various kinds of social conflict and unrest, in which the death toll could be high," he said.

Religious intolerance alert

Thursday's discussion delved into the various kinds of social conflicts that have wracked the country over the past few years, including feuds, often over land ownership, between neighboring communities, as in the West Papua incident; sporadic clashes between members of the police and the military; incidents of religious intolerance by hard-line Sunni Muslims against congregations of minority faiths such as Ahmadis, Shiites and Christians; and a spate of prison riots, including one in North Sumatra last year that led to more than 200 inmates escaping from jail.

Haryadi, a political analyst from Airlangga University in Surabaya, East Java, said at a separate discussion in Surabaya on Thursday that one of the most egregious incidents of last year, and still playing out, was the eviction of a community of Shiite villagers from their home village in Sampang district, in East Java's Madura Island, to Sidoarjo district on the East Java mainland.

Haryadi blamed East Java Governor Soekaro's seeming reluctance to stand up for the beleaguered community on his need not to rile the conservative Sunni voter base.

"In this case Soekarwo has messed up because he's caught in his own trap of trying to maintain popular support, and his support for the principles of multiculturalism has suffered as a result," he said.

He added that Soekarwo had a responsibility to ensure justice for the Sampang Shiites, which should be one of his top priorities this year.

The Shiite community was the target of an attack by a Sunni mob in August 2012 that stemmed from a family dispute between its leader, Tajul Muluk, and his brother, local Sunni cleric Rois Al Hukuma.

The violence left two people dead and the Shiites' homes torched, forcing them to take refuge at a district sports center.

After languishing there for months, even after the government stopped supplying them with food and water, they were forcibly moved from Madura to the East Java mainland in June 2013, and have since been staying in government-provided tenement housing in Sidoarjo.

The central government says it is working with provincial and district authorities to ensure the Shiites can return to their home village, but has insisted that any return is contingent on the Shiites publicly renouncing their faith, in accordance with the demands of the Sunni hard-liners in Sampang.

No fear of repercussions

Data from the Setara Institute, which advocates tolerance and democracy, show 264 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2012, a significant increase on the 216 cases in 2010.

Fatal attacks on Ahmadiyah and Shiite Muslims by local Sunni communities have lent credence to the view that intolerance is on the rise in Indonesia, but many of the problems are woven out of the country's strong decentralized political framework and abrasive hard-line groups who are permitted by the regional and central governments to operate without fear of serious prosecution.

Observers warn the problems will likely intensify this year as political parties seek to appeal to Muslim voters by burnishing their conservative credentials.