Economic Crunch Ups Security Risks
Economic Crunch Ups Security Risks
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 5 minutes

Economic Crunch Ups Security Risks

Security problems in Indonesia in 2009 are likely to stem from the confluence of a sharp economic downturn with election year politics. Aceh in particular is a place to watch in the lead-up to the April polls, as the potential for localized outbreaks of violence is high. Economic hardship could also lead to a rise in anti-migrant sentiment, including in former conflict areas. 

In Papua, while the new year will certainly see the occasional pro-independence demonstration and its suppression by security forces, the bigger issues are likely to be tension over development projects that bring in more non-Papuan Indonesians, and the apparently unstoppable carving up of Papua into smaller and smaller districts, sub-districts and villages, many of them drawn along ethnic lines.

Communal tensions remain an issue in many parts of the country; the passage of the anti-pornography law did not help. The likelihood of a terrorist attack seems low but cannot be ruled out as long as important fugitives remain at large, contacts with jihadis elsewhere continue, and Indonesians in Mindanao show an interest in returning home.

The international financial crisis is expected to hit home in the first quarter of 2009, with layoffs, already on the rise, increasing sharply in everything from the manufacturing to the plantation sector. Large demonstrations of laid-off workers can be manipulated by political parties anxious to discredit the current government.

We saw last June how easily a protest at the Indonesian parliament against fuel price hikes turned violent; the stakes will be higher as the elections get closer and the money for rent-a-mobs starts flowing freely in urban centers like Jakarta, Medan, Surabaya and Makassar.

The elections could be particularly fraught in Aceh. Distrust between GAM and the military is higher than it has been at any time since the Helsinki agreement; the appointment last July of a new regional military commander from Kopassus has exacerbated it. Influential groups within the military and intelligence agencies believe that GAM is continuing to press a pro-independence agenda through political participation rather than armed struggle.

They may be concerned enough about the likely victory of Partai Aceh, the GAM party, in many of the local legislative races to take counter-measures: throw political support to groups considered pro-Jakarta; support GAM splinters, in the interest of sowing division; or look for ways to discredit individual GAM leaders.

At the same time, rifts within GAM are taking place anyway, without external help. Just as many violent incidents in 2008 have been the result of intra-GAM disputes, some of them business-related, 2009 is likely to see more of the same. High unemployment among ex-combatants will also keep crime levels up.

Anti-migrant sentiment could intensify with economic hardship, with locals turning migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia into scapegoats. In Maluku, the Butonese could be targets, for example. A worrying report from Banten in early December noted that laid-off workers would be offered an opportunity to participate in the government transmigration program.

Given the social problems this program has generated in the past, governments at both the local and national level should think twice before seeing it as the answer to economic problems.

Papua poses a particular dilemma in this regard. The urgent need is for expansion of social services, particularly education and health, and development of human resources, including in public administration. The pemekaran process has already spread qualified Papuan public servants too thinly and opened up more positions for migrants. But it is the planned expansion of agro-industry that could really tip the balance.

In August it was announced that the bin Laden family firm would invest US$4.3 billion in turning 500,000 hectares of land into rice paddied in the Merauke area -- and Merauke city is one where migrants already outnumber indigenous Papuans.

Similarly grandiose plans for palm oil expansion were also on the books, but these may be put on hold with the fall of Crude Palm Oil (CPO) prices worldwide. Virtually any major industrial investment, however, will bring more migrants in its wake.

The security issue arises when anti-migrant sentiment takes on a communal dimension, with most of the migrants Muslim and the indigenous population overwhelmingly Christian. Many Papuans already feel like second-class citizens; many also fear a process of "Islamisation". If they become further marginalized by these mega-investments, anger toward the migrants, the government in Jakarta, or both could rise.

Communal relations more generally continue to be a problem in Indonesia. In 2008 the issues were the Ahmadiyah decree; the pornography bill; the Minister of Health's fulminations about the West, supported by groups like Hizbut Tahrir; the influence of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI); and ongoing threats against churches, particularly in West Java -- where aggressive Christian proselytizing has contributed to the problem. Clashes like the one at Monas on 1 June are not just possible in 2009 but likely.

The government needs to do better in ensuring that acts of violence are punished, and better still, prevented. But just as importantly, it needs to firmly and publicly assert the importance of religious tolerance, and not just by hosting expensive interfaith talkfests.

Sri Mulyani has shown how one committed reformer can bring about sweeping changes in a ministry. If the government is serious about religious tolerance, it will need to similarly overhaul the ministries of education and religious affairs and start thinking about how to instill this principle from kindergarten on up.

Finally, there is the issue of terrorism. Events in Mumbai in late November were a sobering reminder that some groups remain committed to a global war involving indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Despite emotions raised by the executions of the Bali bombers, the threat of a major attack in Indonesia seems low, but it has not vanished.

Noordin Mohamed Top remains at large; so does Reno, the man who escaped at the time Azhari was shot in Malang. Several of the Javanese JI members responsible for masterminding attacks in Poso fled during police operations in January 2007 and have not been seen since.

The Singaporean JI leader, Mas Selamat Kastari, has not been caught, and a whole contingent of combat-hardened JI, KOMPAK and Darul Islam members continues to fight in Mindanao. Indonesian extremists seem content for the moment to wage "jihad by the pen" rather than by attacks, but their commitment to the principle of military preparedness remains, as does the contact of some with counterparts outside Indonesia.

Economic crisis by itself is not likely to lead to more recruits for these groups; poverty has not been the cause of radicalization in the past, and one group largely absent from JI's ranks is the urban poor. But by-products of an economic downturn, such as attacks on Muslim migrants, could change the picture very quickly.

Overall, then, 2009 is likely to be a tough year. More than ever, political leaders can make a difference -- and so can Indonesian voters.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

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