Decentralisation and Conflict in Indonesia: The Mamasa Case
Decentralisation and Conflict in Indonesia: The Mamasa Case
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Briefing / Asia 2 minutes

Decentralisation and Conflict in Indonesia: The Mamasa Case

I. Overview

Violence -- five people killed, five houses burned -- on 24 April 2005 in Mamasa district, a remote area of West Sulawesi, is raising concerns that Indonesia faces another outbreak of serious communal conflict.

The Mamasa conflict is administrative, rooted primarily in the desire of local officials for personal gain. No one from the area interviewed by Crisis Group believed religious differences were the cause. But because Mamasa is majority Christian and the 26 villages where opposition was initially concentrated are majority Muslim, the perception persists elsewhere in Indonesia that it is a communal struggle, and it has attracted the attention of Muslim radicals from outside the immediate area. The Indonesian government clearly recognises the danger of polarisation along religious lines and has moved quickly to make arrests and send additional security forces to the area. If communal conflict is to be prevented, however, the underlying administrative dispute needs urgently to be addressed.

The roots of the Mamasa conflict are in a by-product of Indonesia's decentralisation program known as pemekaran, literally "blossoming" -- a process of administrative fragmentation whereby new provinces and districts are created by dividing existing ones. Mamasa district was formed out of the district of Polewali-Mamasa (Polmas) in 2002, one of over 100 such divisions that have taken place since 1999 and have increased the total number of provinces and districts in the country by roughly 50 per cent.

During the campaign for the district, which began in 1999, villages in several sub-districts expressed opposition to their inclusion. The most persistent opposition was from 26 of 38 villages of Aralle, Tabulahan and Mambi sub-districts, known collectively as ATM. Supporters of incorporation in these sub-districts were dubbed "pro", while opponents were called "kontra".

When the national parliament passed a law to form Mamasa without regard for a compromise reached at local level to exclude the 26 villages, a system of parallel governments emerged. Opponents received support from the government of the "mother" district, Polmas, which continued to pay the salaries of civil servants who refused to work for the Mamasa government and maintained an administrative structure in the three sub-districts. Mamasa established its own government structure in the sub-districts, so that there were two sub-district heads and often two village heads in the same place. Children were forced to go to different schools based on their parents' political affiliation.

The tensions associated with the pro-kontra divide, conflated with a local land dispute, led to three murders in late September 2003, triggering major displacement. No effective action was taken to resolve the conflict, however, and three more people died in October 2004 after another clash. By then, when the central government sent an independent team to evaluate the district boundaries, issues of displacement, segregation and justice loomed large, and the conflict had become much more than an administrative dispute.

There are now indications that youths previously involved in the nearby Poso conflict may have come into the area to stir up trouble. The site of serious communal violence from 1998 to 2001 and sporadic trouble ever since, Poso has been an incubating ground for terrorism -- several of those implicated in the 9 September 2004 bombing in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta were Poso veterans. A repeat of this pattern in Mamasa needs to be prevented at all costs.

Mamasa is a case study of what can happen when there is not a clear procedure to resolve a dispute in the pemekaran process, the central government is too beset by other problems to find and implement solutions, and the law is not promptly and transparently enforced against those who commit violence. The latest deaths underline the dangers of allowing a low-level conflict to fester. The costs could be disastrous if militants decide the conflict is now ripe for exploitation.

Singapore/Brussels, 3 May 2005

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.