Understanding Conflicts in Southeast Asia: Indonesia is Heaven for Conflict Study

By Sirikit Syah

“Indonesia is a heaven for researchers and activists of conflict, peace and resolution. It is the center of conflicts. Any type of conflicts is available here. You just name what kind of conflict you want to research or study. In Indonesia, you’ll be satisfied.”

That was how Dr. Kamarulzaman Askandar portrayed Indonesia in his presentation on Conflict Resolution in Southeast Asia. He spoke at ‘Asian Regional Seminar and Workshop on Peace Journalism’ organized by AMIC (Asian Media Information and Communication Center) and FES (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung) in Taiping, Malaysia. The seminar was held on 4-7 August 2003. His remark drew laughter among the participants, who were journalists and editors in Asian countries.

He might have been joking, but his joke contained some truth in it. In Indonesia, as explained the following day by two Indonesian participants; Ridwan Sijabat from the Jakarta Post and Sirikit Syah from LKM Media Watch, there have been conflicts of religion, ethnicity/race, politics, and -on top of that- struggles for independence. East Timor got its independence in 2000. The other two still struggling for it are Papua and Aceh.

Dr. Askandar, preferred to be called ‘Sam’ because his name was similar to the name of GAM leader, visited Indonesia quite often. He went to Aceh, where he was suspected as GAM leader because of his name and his look, and he also visited Yoyakarta in Central Java. University Sains Malaysia Peace Research and Education Unit that he chairs has a partnership/cooperation with similar center at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta. “Academicians concerning on conflict study would agree that Indonesia is the best laboratory of conflicts,” he added.

On the other hand, he admitted that even though Malaysian seemed to be a peaceful country, it had many conflicts with almost every neighboring country, like the Philippines (over Sabah in North Borneo), with Indonesia (over Simpadan & Ligitan islands), with Singapore (over supply of water), with Thailand, Laos etc. Bunn Sri Negara, associate editor of the Star daily, corrected him by saying that Malaysia did not have conflicts with its neighbors. “They are just disputes. You have to distinguish between conflict and dispute. “Sam responded by stressing that any dispute was the seed of conflict.

Bunn Nagara then explained that in Malaysia you could not find any armed conflict. “The conflict here, if any, is political and unarmed. Recently there was a conflict involving two ethnicities; Hindu and Moslem, in Kampong, but it did not spread out.” Nagara emphasized that the root of the conflict was not ethnical issue, but a misunderstanding between neighbors. However, his paper sent journalists from another ethnicity to cover that incident.

“We sent Chinese journalists, not just because we wanted to avoid bias that might have happened if we sent Malay or Hindu journalists, but also because we wanted to protect our journalists. In a conflict involving of Hindu-Moslem communities, a Chinese journalist would be more trusted by both parties”.

‘I am Lucky’

Two days of seminar, where participants shared the conflicts in their countries to other participants, Connie E. Fernandez, a journalist from the Philippine Daily Inquirer sighed, “I am lucky as a Filipino.” Then, she continued, “Of course, the conflict in our country is not less important. But in terms of scale and the complication of backgrounds, the conflict in Mindanao is relatively small compared to the Indian-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, the Sri Lankan’s conflict of Separatist Tamil and the government, and particularly, the Indonesian conflicts.”

In her presentation, she drew a map of her country and marked a location in southern part of the Philippines (Mindanao island). “When I saw your conflict map of Indonesia, I was appalled. There are so many conflicts in Indonesia, spreading out in almost every part of the country,” she commented. The Indonesian participants drew a map of religious conflicts, which started in Ketapang-Jakarta and continued in Ambon/Maluku, North Maluku, and Poso in Central Sulawesi. The map also showed tribal conflict in Central Kalimantan between Dayak and Madurese; and of course, the conflicts between pro-independence versus the government in East Timor, Papua and Aceh. Compared to other countries’, the conflicts in Indonesia are multi-backgrounds.

Ridwan of the Jakarta Post, said he had been covering most of the conflicts in Indonesia. “For 15 years working with the Post, I have been sent to East Timor, Maluku, Poso in Central Sulawesi, Central Kalimantan, and Aceh. That, of course, could make him an expert on Indonesian conflicts. He just laughed aloud when he was “accused” of being ‘the man behind all those conflicts’, because he was present in every conflict region.
Back to the Philippines, it was quite clear that the root of the conflict was the desire of the Moslem majority in Mindanao to gain independence. According to Domini M. Torrevillas, a columnist from the Philippine Star, the Moslem in Mindanao wanted independence because they had been victims of injustice for a long time. Besides injustice treatment by the government in terms of land reform, job and education opportunity, which caused poverty among the people in the region, there are also false perceptions of Moslems. “Especially after the 9/11 incident, the Moslems all over the world became targets of suspicion, including Moslems in the Philippines. Some Moslems, when introducing themselves, must say, ‘I am Moslem, but don’t worry I don’t bite,” said Domini.

Domini is also the Public Relation director of a Peace Movement in Mindanao. “Our organization is now focusing on dialog between Christian and Moslem women, and organizing common activities for children from both parties. If politicians are helpless, women and children could be expected to build peace among them. They had been victims of this conflict for a very long time.”

The Most Complex Conflict

The Indian Pakistani’s conflict cover the beautiful region of Kashmir seemed to be the most complex of all conflicts happening in the Asian region. When it was presented, it provoked a rather hot debate. Both the Indian journalists and Pakistani journalists were given similar amount of time to present the nature of conflict and its present situation. Since both side had different points of view, the presentation got heated up. Fortunately, some ‘intervention’ by other participants reminded them to discuss in peaceful manner. This ‘intervention’ calmed the situation and ‘conflicting’ participants even laughed about their intensity in telling the stories.

Uma Vishnu from Hindustan Times, India, and Zahid Malik from Pakistan Observer, then, continued their debate over lunch. This conflict over Kashmir seemed to be difficult to resolve because not only a huge number of population in Kashmir wanted independence, but also and particularly because two powerful countries were fighting over it. It was quite different from other conflicts like the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), East Timor, or even Aceh, where there was no other country fighting for it.
Rohan Abeywardene, deputy director editor of Daily Mirror in Colombo, Sri Lanka, said that in his country, the conflict was more heated up by political agenda and the international interference. He said, if Sri Lanka wanted to achieve peace, the media should stop exposing politicians who gave false promises, and the international community should stop intervening in Sri Lanka.

The Role of the Media

What Rohan said was in accordance to what Murtaza Razvi said several times during the seminar. He emphasized the importance of the media role, either in building peace or maintaining conflict. As assistant editor of Dawn, published in Karachi, Pakistan, he realized how the media sometimes wrongly picked up manipulative public leaders as their sources. In Pakistan, he said, there was a growing awareness among media practitioners to select sources carefully. They didn’t publish any comment from just any politician anymore. At Dawn, for instance, he delicately selected peaceful leaders with peaceful commentaries to be published, especially in concerning with the Kashmir issue.

Razvi also called on fellow journalist/participants -especially coming from India-to stop publishing attacks by politicians of one country to the other. “We should think of the people in Kashmir who are suffering from this conflict. So, if politician offers any idea of peace, we publish it. If they only sharpen the conflict, forget it.” In Pakistan, there was no mentioning of Hindu-Moslem conflict either. The press uses the term ‘communal conflict’, without identifying the religious groups. Even though agreeing about the practice of this peaceful journalism, Uma from India was somehow critical. She said. “Whom are we fooling about? Everybody knows what it means when we write ‘shops belonging to a minority community were destroyed by a majority group’. Why should we hide the identity?”

The point is, some participants who had just been introduced to the idea of peace journalism were not aware that hiding identity was not one of the peace journalism criteria. Peace Journalism does not hide fact, but, on the other hand, it doesn’t promote identity over the fundamental problem of conflict.

In Indonesia, according to Sirikit’s observation, the media switched orientation, from anti-government (East Timor case), provocateurs (religious conflict), conflict diminisher (tribal conflict), and pro-military (Aceh conflict).

It is not easy to be a peaceful journalist. Sourav Mukherjee, journalist from The Times of India, told a compelling story about the Hindu-Moslem conflict, and that he was accused of being bias when he tried to report a small-scale peaceful act in comparison to a bloody battle between the two groups. “It was a Moslem family protecting Hindu people from being attacked by Moslem group. It was a good story, but I was criticized by my own people.”

The Challenge of Peace Journalism

In fact, Sourav had practiced peace journalism. ‘A small-scale act counts’ is one of peace journalism teaching. The workshop was led by Dr. Cris Maslog, professor of communication at School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; and DR. Stephen Rendahl, professor of Peace Studies, University of North Dakota, USA. The participants came up with the idea of promoting Peace Journalism not only to journalists, but more particularly to editors and publishers. However, it is the publishers and editors whose commitment would mean a lot to the practice of Peace Journalism. The commitment by editors and publishers would give journalists in the conflict regions more time to explore background stories. More costs of coverage would be tolerated, and more space and duration would be dedicated to peaceful stories.

Sirikit Syah and Ridwan Sijabat are attending the seminar in Taiping, Malaysia, 2003.


Perihal LKM Media Watch
Mass media are watchdogs. But who watch the media? Let's do it together. Watch this very powerful entity, for better journalism, better Indonesia, better world. http://www.sirikitsyah.wordpress.com

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