Collective violence in Indonesia: trending upward

Commentary by Alif Satria
2022.06.21
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Collective violence in Indonesia: trending upward Indonesian police escort men suspected of taking part in a deadly clash at a nightclub in Sorong, West Papua province, Jan. 29, 2022.
AFP

Indonesia today is markedly more peaceful compared to the early 2000s. There have not been any large-scale separatist violence or sectarian conflicts like Aceh and Maluku witnessed from 1999 to 2003.

Periodic terrorist attacks still occur, but their lethality has significantly decreased compared to those perpetrated in the early 2000s. The 2002 Bali Bombing resulted in more than 500 casualties – deaths and injuries; the 2021 Makassar Bombing resulted in 20.

Studies from 2015 show that after 2003, most conflicts in the country were low-scale, mundane acts of collective violence – violence perpetrated by or against a group of people. These ranged from mob violence by villagers targeting petty criminals, to violent demonstrations over land disputes.

A new database compiled by the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies presents a holistic snapshot of recent trends in collective violence. The Collective Violence Early Warning (CVEW) Dataset records all reported instances in 2021, including group-on-group violence, such as village conflicts; group-on-individual violence, such as mob attacks; and state-on-group violence, such as violence by law enforcement.

Trends

Collective violence in Indonesia is not a rare phenomenon. In 2021, Indonesia experienced a total of 1,221 incidents of collective violence – or three to four incidents each day on average.

More concerning, the data shows that the number consistently increased. During the first quarter of 2021, Indonesia experienced a total of 206 collective violence incidents – a number that grew to 370 in the fourth quarter, a nearly 80-percent increase.

However, while incidents of collective violence were common, they were rarely lethal or large-scale. Throughout 2021, only one in six incidents resulted in a death. Accounting for both death and injuries yielded a rate of 1.7 casualties per incident.

Indeed, one in three collective violence incidents in 2021 were acts of small-scale vigilante violence, such as mobs attacking a criminal or gang members trying to avenge a friend.

Just because violence is small-scale, it does not mean it can be ignored. Throughout 2021, collective violence killed more than 294 people and injured more than 1,111.

Additionally, small-scale violence can escalate into larger conflicts. One critical example is the conflict between villagers and local police in Tamilouw, Central Maluku in December 2021. A blockade by villagers who wanted to prevent police from arresting their youth, quickly escalated to involve hundreds of officers and resulted in more than 25 injuries.

Another finding that cannot be ignored involves Papua province. First, of all of Indonesia’s provinces, Papua had the highest intensity of conflict by population. In 2021, Papua experienced an average of 22 incidents per 1 million people – almost four times the national average.

Second, Papua is the province with the highest number of casualties. Throughout 2021, collective violence in Papua resulted in more than 176 deaths and injuries. The only provinces to rival this were West Java, with 146 casualties, and East Java with 131.

Third, unlike other provinces, violence in Papua most commonly takes form not in vigilantism, but separatist violence and terrorism – violence that has almost twice the lethality rate.

Low intervention rate

Theoretically, small-scale violence should be easy to stop by conflict prevention policies or, more commonly, early intervention initiatives.

Unfortunately, the rate of intervention for collective violence incidents was low. Notably, third parties intervened and tried to de-escalate only 23 percent of all collective violence in Indonesia in 2021.

This is a significant drop compared from intervention rates in the early 2010s. Data from the National Violence Monitoring System (NVMS) showed that between 2006 and 2015, more than 50 percent of all collective violence incidents were intervened. The NVMS was run by the World Bank and the Habibie Center from 1997 to 2015 and collected data on all types of violence.

Although early intervention is rare, most intervention attempts succeed. Throughout 2021, three of four early interventions by third parties succeeded in deescalating tensions.

Surprisingly, this success rate was equally high for interventions by state actors, such as police and military, and non-state actors, such as civilians and traditional leaders. Throughout 2021, collective violence interventions by state actors had a success rate of 68 percent. For interventions by non-state actors, the success rate was 63 percent.

Interestingly, when interventions were done collaboratively, involving both state and non-state actors, they had a 100-percent success rate – although, notably, there were only seven cases where such collaboration occurred. 

What’s next

Indonesia is undoubtedly more peaceful today compared to the early 2000s. However, the CVEW Dataset shows that there is still much to do.

Evidently, collective violence in Indonesia has been rising throughout 2021. While most of the incidents are small-scale, they should not be ignored. Because of their high frequency, the overall number of casualties is high.

Some small-scale incidents have escalated into large-scale conflicts. And attention should be greatest in Papua, which has experienced the highest rate of collective violence when compared to population.

To prevent escalation, intervention needs to happen swiftly, at the onset of an incident. When third parties intervene in conflicts, they most likely will succeed.

Unfortunately, the intervention rate in Indonesia is low. Although more data is needed to monitor the trend in 2022, this snapshot is a cause for concern. Moving forward, Indonesia should invest more heavily in increasing early intervention capacity – for both state and non-state actors.

Alif Satria is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia. His research focuses on terrorism and political violence in Southeast Asia.

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