Forced migration in indonesia : historical perspectives

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Pre Colonial Forced Migrations

In the traditional society of pre-colonial times mobility was greatly constrained for most Indonesians although some significant movements, especially of the agricultural colonization, seasonal and trading types, occurred (Hugo, 1980:97-100). The pre-colonial class structure, the rise and fall of inland kingdoms and coastal sultanates, the regular incidence of famine, the development of various trading patterns through the Indonesian archipelago, the spread of new types of agriculture and various environmental disasters all shaped the patterns and levels of the movements which did occur. However, for the large part movement outside of the well trodden local area was prevented by lack of transport infrastructure, the obvious difficulties of moving between the regions of Indonesia’s more than 200 separate ethno-linguistic groups and in some areas the political constraints exerted by the control of elite groups.

The Dutch historians Vollenhoven (1918, II:123-5) and van Leur (1955:100-1) have summarised patterns of migration in pre-colonial Indonesia as being of three main types each of which involved some elements of forced migration…

(a) migration to cities which pre dated European contact.

(b) colonisation by a large group of migrants from one region who settled in another region.

(c) establishment of authority in foreign regions.

Taking first the movement to cities, pre-colonial urbanisation took two main forms (McGee, 1967). First were the traditional inland kingdoms based on exacting tribute from intensive agricultural populations in their hinterlands of which the temple complex of Borobudur in Central Java is a remaining vestige. Second, were the more ephemeral and smaller trading cities along the coasts of islands such as Java and Sumatra (Hugo, 1980). The taking of slaves was a substantial element in both types of cities. This is reflected in the data presented in Table 1, which relate to Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1673. Although this was after the Dutch had established themselves in the city (1596) and taken control (1619), it is indicative. In the inland kingdoms the cities also had substantial numbers of slaves, often from areas conquered by the kingdoms.

Table 1: Composition of Population of Batavia, 1673

Source: Dagh Register, 1674; Batavia, 1902:27-30 quoted in Castles 1967:157



Europeans and Part-Europeans
























Substantial agricultural colonisation occurred in the pre-European period. This was in large part a response to the build up of population pressure in origin areas so there was an element of force in this mobility as well. In some cases, such moves were triggered by the onset of physical disasters in the place of origin. An example of such movement was that of Javanese from heavily settled wet rice (sawah) areas of Central Java to more lightly settled shifting dry field cultivation (ladang) areas of West Java. This involved ethnic Javanese people settling in areas dominated by Sundanese and has been examined elsewhere (Hugo, 1975; 1980). The main flow occurring in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Major Paths of Migration in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in Western Java

Source: Hugo, 1975:81

The third type of mobility identified by van Leur and Vollenhoven was the “establishment of authority in foreign regions”. This created forced movements both in displacement of preexisting populations as well as the taking of massive numbers of slaves. They provide a number of examples but another was in the early seventeenth century when the Central Javanese kingdom of Mataram extended its influence over Cirebon in West Java making it a vassal in 1619 (Hugo, 1975:82). De Haan (1912, III:39) explains that the Mataram attacks produced a flood of Sundanese refugees from the region to the Citarum River region in Krawang (West Java) where they settled. The links established between Sumedang (Central Java) and Cirebon on the one hand, and Sumedang and Krawang on the other, during this period, are still reflected in contemporary population movement patterns (Hugo, 1975).

Forced Migration in the Colonial Period

Migration in the East Indies was transformed by the gradual penetration of capitalism via the “step by step” growth in European control of Indonesia, culminating in the taking of virtual total control in the nineteenth century. As European influence and control increased in Indonesia during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century, so did their impact on population movement (Hugo, 1980:100-102), but it was with the imposition of direct colonial rule by the Dutch (and for a short time British) government in the nineteenth century, which saw the most dramatic effects. Some of these effects were as follows:

* . There was probably a greater degree of peace and order, which at least in part removed the fears associated with forced movement between regions.

. The whole pattern and availability of transport underwent a revolution which greatly reduced the friction of distance.

* . The structure of the economy was changed drastically in line with the exploitative colonial aims concentrating job opportunities in new and different types of areas than in the past.

* . There were direct colonially imposed laws to encourage or discourage particular types of movement.

* . There was a range of forced and semi-forced labour schemes.

. The introduction of an "externally oriented trading system" (Riddell, 1980:116), saw the development of urban centres and migration toward them.

* . The introduction of various schemes of taxation had effects on population movement.

. The encouragement of immigration of non-Indonesian foreigners.

. The introduction of wage employment of various kinds.

. The reduction in mortality and perhaps even an increase in fertility (White, 1973) led to increasing population pressure in rural areas.

. The introduction, albeit in an extremely limited way, of primary and to a lesser extent secondary schools.

While the movement asterisked influenced forced migration in Indonesia, it could be argued that the enforced imposition of colonialism meant that virtually all mobility in the colonial period could not be considered voluntary. Some scholars (e.g Amin, 1974; Gregory and Piche, 1978; 1980; Binsbergen and Meilink, 1978; Gerald-Scheepers and Van Binsbergen, 1978) see colonial population movement patterns and levels as a response to broader socio-structural changes associated with the uneven penetration of capitalism, which have substantial sectoral, class and spatial inequalities. The argument is that the fundamentally exploitative colonial system designed to control the local population and expedite the extraction of raw materials in the most cost-efficient way shaped the pattern of mobility in very distinctive ways that in some senses have yet to be altered. However, here we will focus on those movements which fit the definition discussed earlier of migrations being triggered by crisis events and which migrants moved because their life was endangered if they stayed.

The types of forced mobility, which occurred in Indonesia during the colonial period, are demonstrated here with reference to a single Indonesian province West Java. Firstly, in the early years of Dutch penetration, the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie – East India Company) were entirely mercantilist in their aim to extract the maximum in the way of saleable export crops with the minimum expenditure of their resources. The traditional aristocracy was installed as regents and became the medium through which the people of Priangan were forced to grow coffee. The so-called "compulsory crops" system, through the agency of the regents who Geertz (1963:51) styles "labour contractors", inflicted much hardship on the Sundanese and had an important impact on patterns of population movement. One effect was for local populations to flee the heavy exactions of the compulsory crop system. Raffles (1817, I:64-65) states that the oppression and degradation imposed by the Dutch, led to depopulation in parts of Priangan as well as the Banten and Cirebon regions:

"Every new act of rigour, every unexpected exaction, occasioned a further migration, and cultivation was transferred to tracts which had previously scarcely a family on them".

During the early years of European penetration, the slave trade in the East Indies continued and proliferated. Slavery was not abolished in the Netherlands East Indies until 1860 and prior to that the taking of slaves as forced labour was widespread practice. Writing in 1815, Raffles (1817) mentions that Dutch enforcement of compulsory labour for road and harbour construction and coffee and pepper cultivation was particularly oppressive in the Bantam part of West Java, producing severe and prolonged opposition and heavy outmigration. The latter, is reflected in the low sex ratio of 867 which characterised the population in 1815 (Hugo, 1975). After 1830 the Dutch initiated a series of politico-economic policies which were designed to make Java a 'mammoth state plantation' (Geertz, 1963:53). The 'Cultivation System', introduced in 1830, involved 'the remission of the peasant's land taxes in favor of his undertaking to cultivate government owned export crops on one fifth of his fields or, alternatively, to work sixty-six days of the year on government owned estates or other projects' (Geertz, 1963:52-3). The latter alternative predominated in West Java, where similar systems had been practiced for a century and the system came to be known as the Preanger System (Hugo, 1975). It is apparent that substantial population movements occurred with people moving away from areas where the cultivation system had been introduced to government lands not subject to it or to lands held by private individuals (see Day, 1904:315 for examples of such movements). In many areas the hardships visited on the population by the system were sufficient to impel them to flee. Bailey (1962) suggests that overpopulation in the Gunung Kidul region of Yogyakarta (well known as one of the poorest areas in contemporary Java) dates from the time when the Cultivation System was introduced. He suggests this caused people to flee from better agricultural areas suitable for cash cropping to Gunung Kidul, which as a poor lime stone area had been left alone by the Dutch.

Day (1904:316) argues that the system caused a diminished food supply, which in turn produced famines such as that of 1849-50 in which one third of a million people perished. There was also migration associated with the inequalities in the cultivation system as Day (1904:265) has shown …

“it distributed burdens so unequally that it pressed many of the inhabitants to the verge of failure while it bore so lightly on others and left some entirely untouched … The indigo culture was especially oppressive requiring an immense amount of care and labour; and natives in the indigo districts migrated to other sections where only coffee and sugar were cultivated."

Elson (1986:144) explains that in the nineteenth century the expansion in the number of factories in Java the colonial government allowed forced labour to be recruited for factories. He shows (1986:153) that the most common practice, especially in East Java, was for local officials to designate the villages within a 5-10 km radius of a factory to provide workers. Other evidence of the flight of inhabitants of regions elsewhere in Java in which the exactions of the colonial regime were especially severe is produced by Widjojo (1970:36-7) and Schrieke (1957:300). There are also cases where the military intervention of the colonial regime produced forced migrations. For example in West Java the crushing of the Bantamese insurrection in Cilegon in 1888 led to significant outmigration (Gelder, 1900:783). Gooszen (1999:28) reports that in the mid nineteenth century many Banjarese were forced to flee their homeland of South Kalimantan due to the effects of a war with the Dutch. He also explains that many Acenese moved to Malacca after losing a war with the Dutch in 1903 (1999:29).

One part of West Java – the particuliere landerijen (private lands) in the immediate hinterland of Batavia comprised extensive tracts of land sold to individuals between 1639 and 1829 and within which a feudal system prevailed until the close of the colonial period.

Although slavery was abolished in 1860, the tuan tanah (landlords) had almost unbridled power within their estates and many forcibly prevented tenants from leaving. In effect there was a “forced staying” in these areas.

It is apparent that there were also forced migrations in colonial times associated with physical disasters. In 1883 the violent evisceration of the crater of Krakatoa caused several great waves which submerged the entire northern and western Banten coasts, destroying 61 villages completely and a further 96 partially, as well as killing a minimum of 23,917 people (Furneaux, 1965:182). The destruction wrought by the waves and volcanic ash was so complete in several areas that the fleeing inhabitants could not return for several years by which time many of the refugees had established themselves elsewhere and did not wish to return. In the worst mid area of Caringan, inhabitants could not return until 1891.

The forced outmigration caused when there were crop failures in Java continued, especially during the nineteenth century (Kroef, 1956:746). The introduction of the so-called “ethical policy” at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, undoubtedly reduced this type of forced migration. The ethical policy had an emphasis on “education, irrigation and emigration” in order to stop the acknowledged deterioration of living standards of the indigenous population that had accompanied the mounting pressure of population on resources in Java (Hugo, 1975:116). Elements in this system included upgrading local irrigation systems and put in place systems to deal with seasonal local famine and food shortage. Van der Muelen (1940:151) reports on the impact in one West Java district where previously a total crop failure occurred every four or five years and crop yields were 1,400 kgm/ha, the new irrigation works resulted in an average yield of 3,090 kgm/ha and the fear of crop failure was completely removed. The ethical policy also saw the removal of the compulsory labour requirements and the beginnings of the colonisation (later transmigration) program, which sought to resettle Javans from heavily populated areas to the Outer Islands.

The colonial period saw a major increase in the urban population of the East Indies, especially Java. In bringing their plundering of Java’s raw materials to new heights of efficiency, the Dutch created a system of colonial cities and towns, which functioned as key devices in expediting the production and delivery of those products. Much of the population growth up to 1870 involved forced and semi forced migration with slaves being a significant but declining element in cities like Batavia (Hugo, 1975:44). Castles (1967:155-6) says that slaves outnumbered free settlers for the initial centuries of Dutch settlement in Batavia. Initially slaves were brought in from South Asia (Coromandel Coast, Malabar, Bengal and Arakan) but in the second half of the seventeenth century this gradually gave way to other East Indian sources. Castles (1967:156) explains, “at various times Sumbawa, Sumba, Flores, Timor, Nias, Kalimantan and Pampanga in Luzon made their contributions; but the consistently important sources were Bali and South Sulawesi.” The high death rates in Batavia meant that the population had to be constantly replenished. De Haan (1935, I:371) reports that in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, 4,000 slaves were being imported annually. Raffles (1817, II:270) reports that 14,249 of the 47,217 population of Batavia were slaves. The slave population were an important part of the diverse Indonesian ethnic groups who by the end of the nineteenth century had merged to form a distinct new sukubangsa (ethnic group) known during colonial times as the Batavians but now are referred to as the Betawi (Castles, 1967:156).

Critical to the whole colonial system were policies toward labour supply and it is clear that these had a significant influence on migration. It was imperative to ensure that there was an adequate labour supply at the places where resources were being exploited. In many cases this labour was not available locally either because the areas suitable for cash cropping, mining etc. were ecologically not favoured for semi-subsistence traditional activities or because the local populations were in some way considered not suitable for work on plantations or mines. Accordingly, there were many schemes throughout the colonial period to bring labour to areas of exploitation of resources. In the early days of the VOC, slavery was rife and thereafter various types of contract labour schemes were introduced as well as schemes whereby labour was provided on plantations, roads and other works, etc. in lieu of paying taxation to the colonial regime. These movements are considered in some detail elsewhere (Hugo, 1980).

After 1870 private Europeans and Chinese were permitted to obtain long term leases over land and there was a tremendous expansion of capital intensive plantation agriculture. This expansion occurred initially in Java "thanks to its transport facilities, greater public security and abundant labour supply" (Fisher, 1964:259). However, in the irrigated lowlands of Java the density of settlement left little land available for plantation development and as a result most of the new plantations were established in the central highlands of Java. By the late nineteenth century the growing congestion in Java forced colonial planters to turn to the Outer Islands. Prior to 1870, Dutch colonial exploitation of the Outer Islands had been limited to some coffee cultivation and coal and tin mining. However, in the latter years of the century the fertile northeastern lowlands of Sumatra located on the major sea route to Europe were developed for tobacco and later for rubber, tea, palm oil and sisal. Hence, this region became a major new centre of colonial activity. The scarcity of labour in the region led planters to initially recruit Chinese coolies to work on the plantations and later Javanese and Sundanese workers from Java. The result was the introduction of the contract coolie system whereby agents recruited workers for planters. As Furnival (1948:346) has pointed out "a private agent dependent for his livelihood on the number of recruits is less scrupulous than an official in his relations with both employers and labourers”. Heavy penal sanctions were applied to contract coolies and severe exploitation and mistreatment were commonplace until recruitment was placed under government supervision in 1909 as part of the ethical policy. Nevertheless, it is clear that there were elements of force both in recruiting and in restrictions placed on the contract coolies in destination areas.

The importance of these contract labour movements in interprovincial migration in the Netherlands East Indies in the later part of the colonial period is evident in Figure 2, which indicates that migration from Java (especially Central and East Java) to North Sumatra was by far the largest interprovincial flow in the years preceding the 1930 census. The bulk of this mobility was associated with the contract coolie system. The significance of contract coolie movements to Sumatra is reflected in the fact that one tenth of the indigenous population of Sumatra were born in Java-Madura (Volkstelling IV, 1936).

Figure 2: Indonesia: Major Interprovincial Lifetime Migration Streams (Those with more than 5,000 Persons) 1930

Source: Volkstelling VIII, 1936

The contract coolie movements were made on both permanent and temporary bases, but it was difficult to distinguish between them because temporary migration often involved absences of several years. Between 1913 and 1925 some 327,700 kulikontrak (contract coolies) left Java for Tanah Sebrang (the land beyond), representing some 15% of Java's population growth during the same period (Scheltema, 1926:873-4). Although many contract coolies returned to Java, an unknown but significant number settled in the outer islands and this is reflected in the fact that at the 1971 census, 10 percent of North Sumatra's population had lived in another province and more than two thirds of them had lived in North Sumatra for more than 10 years. This underestimates the impact of migration from Java-Madura since it excludes the Sumatran born children of Javan migrants. At the time of the 1930 Census enumeration, there were 379,000 coolies working on European estates in Sumatra, of which 290,000 were Javanese and 30,000 Sundanese (Volkstelling VIII, 1936:34).

There was also an international extension of the contract coolie system. A small number of Java-born persons moved out of Indonesia during the last century of colonial rule, under "contract-coolie" recruitment programmes to obtain cheap labour for plantations. In 1930, for example, there were 89,735 Java-born persons (Bahrin, 1967:280) and 170,000 ethnic Javanese (Volkstelling 1936, VIII:45) in Malaya, 31,000 emigrants in the Dutch colony of Surinam and 6,000 in New Caledonia (Volkstelling 1933, VIII:45). Smaller numbers moved to Siam (3,000 Java-born persons in 1920), British North Boreno (5,237 in 1922) and to a lesser extent Sarawak, Cochin China and Queensland, Australia (Scheltema, 1926:874).

Before 1931 there were some experimental attempts to establish agricultural colonies of settlers from Java in the Outer Islands, mainly Sumatra, but the two major colonies in 1930 had a total population of only 31,759 persons (Pelzer, 1945:191-210). However, when the depression of the 1930's forced curtailment of plantation industries and reduced the demand for Javanese labour, the government turned to colonization to replace contract-labour schemes as a measure to relieve population pressure in Java (Pelzer, 1945:228). Hence, between 1936 and 1940 the number of colonists in the Outer Islands trebled from 66,600 to 206,020 (Pelzer, 1945:202). It is clear that the colonists were predominantly from Central and East Java and Madura. This was the precursor of transmigration in Indonesia and although there is much discussion of force in this system there was no evidence of force being used in colonisation in the colonial period.

By the time the Dutch were evicted by the Japanese in 1941, European colonialism had transformed the East Indies’ economy, society and demography. Major changes in population mobility as both a cause and consequence of this transformation included movers in which there was a significant element of force. The short Japanese occupation period was one in which there was significant forced migration. In addition to the massive evacuation of the Dutch, other European and Eurasian population in the face of the Japanese invasion and those remaining were put in internment camps. On Java there was a significant increase in the populations of several cities such as Batavia and Bandung from an influx of rural dwellers fleeing from the harsh requisitioning of agricultural products and “labour recruitment” policies of the Japanese (Kroef, 1954:157-8; Heeren, 1955:204). Smail (1964:12) notes that during the occupation, the disappearance of jobs on plantations with the Dutch withdrawal, forced delivery of large quantities of rice and forced recruitment of workers (the romusha scheme) there was a substantial amount of forced migration through the Japanese period. In a village surveyed by the writer in 1973 in West Java, it was reported that the Japanese killed or scared off all of the substantial Chinese population which lived there in the 1940s, requisitioned 60 percent of the rice crop so that villagers had to each cassava and they took away approximately 100 young men as romusha labourers, none of whom returned at the end of the war (Hugo, 1975:253). The taking of forced labour under the romusha scheme practiced by the Japanese in the East Indies as well as other parts of Southeast Asia resulted in the enslaving of many thousands of young men. They were sent to work not only elsewhere in the East Indies but also in Japan and in other countries. There were, for example, many Indonesian romusha who worked on the infamous Burma railway.

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