Migrants and Political Instability in Indonesia

As Indonesia grows richer and its citizens acquire increasing mobility, domestic migration between the country’s five major islands and 30 smaller island clusters, which feature as many as1,000 distinct ethnic groups, is causing rising political tension and driving concerns about environmental degradation.

Transmigration has been an Indonesian story for decades if not centuries, since the Dutch colonial government in the early 19th century started moving people around in an attempt to reduce the crowding on Java and provide a work force for Sumatran plantations. Although it ceased toward the end of the Dutch colonial period, it was revived following independence during Sukarno’s presidency. At its peak, under funding from the World Bank, between 1979 and 1984, 535,000 families, or almost 2.5 million people were moved.

Not without justification, often the locals on the other islands saw the program as part of an effort by the Java-based Indonesian government to extend its economic and political control. In some parts of the country, transmigration has led to savage violence, most recently in 2000 when, in the wake of the strongman Suharto’s fall, Dayak tribesmen on the island of Kalimantan butchered hundreds of ethnic Madurese and attempted to drive the rest off the island.

The current flashpoint is Papua, where the heavy flow of migrants from other parts of Indonesia has contributed significantly to island’s economic growth but also to the rising political temperature, with some of the local population now demanding independence. The Papuans are mostly Christians, in contrast to predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Racially they are also different from the majority of Indonesians and economically they are not as well off. However, they have extensive and rich natural resources, leading to a heavy flow of people both from abroad and from within Indonesia seeking to profit from exploitation of the resources.

As a result, the island’s racial and religious composition has begun to change quickly and markedly. According to the 2000 Indonesian population census, the latest available statistics, Javanese, one of the non-Papuan ethnic groups, made up 12.5 per cent of the population. The percentage was even higher in urban areas at 16.4 percent as migrants tend to flock to urban areas. Muslims formed 24.2 percent of the population, much higher in urban areas at 42.7 percent.

This phenomenon is not unique to Papua. In many areas of the world, the heavy flow of migrants has quickly changed the composition of population by ethnic or racial, religious and cultural background. Suddenly, the locals are shocked to find that they are living in different worlds. Migrants are often motivated to work harder than locals. Not surprisingly, that leads them to success, causing jealousy among the locals. Social unhappiness has the potential to be worse if the migrants have different religious and ethnic or racial backgrounds.

Migration, for instance, played an important part in the bloody independence of Timor Leste, formerly the Indonesian province of East Timor. Like Papua, East Timor, with its Portuguese colonial background was comprised mostly of Christians. Since integrating with Indonesia in 1975, the province had been growing economically. As with Papua, the heavy flow of migrants from within Indonesia, with different religious and racial backgrounds, was one of the important factors for Timor’s economic growth.

Furthermore, as in Papua, the migrants performed relatively better, both economically and politically, alienating the local population in their own community despite the economic uplift to the province. The locals saw themselves marginalized as the migrants took economic and political power. The 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis, which hit Indonesia hard, was the trigger for the 1999 referendum, in which the East Timorese voted for independence and the war for independence followed.

The impact of migration has also been seen on the peaceful island of Bali, which previously was populated mostly by Balinese who are almost exclusively Hindu. The prosperity and peace attracted not only legions of tourists, but also migrants who came to live and work on the island. Not surprisingly, these migrants have changed Bali’s ethnic and religious composition, as many are neither Balinese nor Hindu. Some enclaves of non-Balinese/ Hindus have been seen in Denpasar, the capital, raising concern on the part of some locals about Bali’s changing identity and the role of Balinese/ Hindus in the economy and power.

In 2000, the Balinese comprised 88.9 percent of the population but only 81.4 per cent in urban areas. Similarly, Hindus formed 87.4 per cent of the total population, but only 80.2 per cent in its urban areas.

The province of Riau Archipelago bordering Singapore may face a similar challenge. Malays in the province claim that they are “purer” ethnic Malays compared to those in the neighboring province of Riau. However, the economic attractiveness of the province, given its proximity to Singapore, the richest economy in the region, has brought a heavy flow of migrants from all over Indonesia as well as from other countries.

Although ethnic Malays remain the largest ethnic group in the Riau Archepelago, they are now a minority, with the total number of non-Malays exceeding ethnic Malays. In the city of Batam for example, ethnic Malays are now outnumbered by Javanese, which comprise 41 percent of the country’s population and are its largest ethnic group.

Although the ethnic composition has changed quickly, the religious composition has changed less because most of the migrants from within Indonesia are more likely to be Muslims, though a significant number of non-Muslims also migrated to the province. In 2000, ethnic Malays only formed 37.7 percent of the population in the province although Muslims comprised 88.6 per cent

If not well managed, as transport links and the communication system improve and as awareness grows that there may be a better life nearby, Indonesians are gaining the increasing ability to migrate within their country. As the changing religious and ethnic compositions in both Bali and Riau Archipelago indicate – and from the lessons of Timor Leste – have the potential to become a threat to stability. It is an issue the government must take into consideration.

(Aris Ananta is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.)