Forced migration in indonesia : historical perspectives

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Links Between Historical and Contemporary Migration

It is apparent that forced migration played a significant role in Indonesia’s history. Indeed for substantial periods of its history it has been more significant than voluntary movement although, as was explained at the outset, separation of voluntary and forced mobility is often difficult. Moreover, it is clear that forced migration is influential in shaping subsequent voluntary mobility. Many conflict and physical disaster induced population flows led to the establishment, when normalcy returned to the areas of former insecurity, of chain migration linkages between areas which acted as conduits for later migration. Hence, the imprint of these forced movements is still evident in contemporary migration flows. Forced flows usually set up linkages between the place left behind and the place of refuge along which information, money, goods and people can and do move. The latter is of particular importance in several of the Indonesian cases we have considered in this paper. For example, the massive refugee flows to the city of Bandung initiated by the Darul Islam rebellion in the 1950s were important in encouraging the growth and expansion of that city. However, this impact should not just be measured in terms of the large number of refugees which remained behind in the city since it is clear that once security returned “chain migration” of permanent and temporary movers continued to Bandung from the former Darul Islam areas and that the pioneers of these chains were refugees. Another example in Indonesia is that of migration from Bali to the Outer Islands of Indonesia, especially Sulawesi and Southern Sumatra. The first major transmigration from Bali occurred due to the forced evacuation of people displaced by the eruption of Mt. Agung volcano in 1963. However, the success of these transmigrants has greatly encouraged family and friends to follow them. The information flow, money remittances, visits etc., which have followed the forced migration, have led to the establishment of a much larger spontaneous flow. Lineton’s (1975a and b) study of Bugis migration from South Sulawesi to the east coast of Sumatra produced similar findings.

In addition, the role of forced migrations in lifting the level of urbanization in Indonesia should also be stressed. This is especially true in that much of this impetus was given during the early postwar period when the levels of urbanization were very low in most countries of the region. In Indonesia, flows of internally displaced persons played a major part in the massive growth during the 1950s of cities like Jakarta, Bandung, Makassar and a host of smaller fast growing cities. This makes it all the more surprising that such mobility gets little if any attention in research relating to rural urban migration and urbanization not only in Indonesia but Southeast Asia more generally. As Goodman and Franks (1975:199) point out,

"Despite the fact that internal wars have occurred in every country in Southeast Asia, most research on urbanization does not assess either the relative importance of internal warfare for overall rates of migration or the impact such warfare has on the pattern of urban growth."

It is apparent therefore that an historical understanding is important in seeking to understand contemporary migration patterns. This is not however restricted to taking into account past patterns of forced migration. Historical forces, which have influenced patterns of inequality, have been an important influence upon contemporary patterns of forced migration within Indonesia. Once example of such historical forces lies in the inequalities influencing migration, which European colonialism created between different groups in the East Indies and their continuation during the independence era. For example with the expansion of colonial exploitation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a corresponding increase in the demand for soldiers, police and low-level administrative staff recruited from among the indigenous population. In this recruiting the Dutch had a policy of concentrating on particular Outer Island ethnic groups, especially those who had been Christianised. Fisher (1964:265) points out that the educational and medical work carried out by Christian missionaries was invariably superior to that provided by the colonial government, so that the ethnic groups influenced by missionaries were, from the government's viewpoint, far better equipped and trained to take up skilled and semiskilled employment in the colonial service than were Javanese, Malays and other Muslim groups. Accordingly many of these Christians emigrated out of their home areas to various parts of the archipelago in which European investment and colonial activity were concentrated.

In particular, Menadonese (from North Sulawesi) have gone to Java as officials, clerks and accountants, and have provided a major component in the Netherlands Indies army in modern times, while Ambonese (from Maluku), besides serving in the army, have found employment as teachers and hospital attendants all over the country, and many Bataks have gone as clerks and overseers to the Cultuurgebied (Plantations in Northeast Sumatra) and as domestic servants to Batavia (Fisher, 1964:265).

Although the numbers of people involved in this type of migration were by no means as large as, for example, the contract coolie movements, they had a significant impact in the homelands of the groups involved. In 1930, for example, only 87.5 percent of ethnic Minahassans from north Sulawesi were living in the Minahassan heartland (Jones, 1977:35). . Some 5.5 percent of them were living in Java, where they formed a significant minority group in colonial cities such as Batavia, Surabaya and Bandung. Gooszen (1997:36-37) points out “… those who entered the colonial service as soldiers, officials or household servants were integrated into the Western culture which tended to alleviate them from their countrymen.”

There have been “echo” effects of these policies in contemporary migrations. Firstly, there was a significant number of Moluccans from Ambon who remained loyal to the Dutch and upon independence went to the Netherlands and their children remain a significant minority group there. It could be too that antipathies between these groups and some other Indonesian groups could have been influenced by their different colonial histories. Similarly, the privileged position given to the Chinese in the colonial political-economic structure undoubtedly has been an element in shaping anti-Chinese conflict in independent Indonesia.

Moreover, it is argued elsewhere (Hugo, 2002) that understanding historical migrations in Indonesia are an important influence upon contemporary conflict-induced migrations. The causes of these movements are complex but often involve perceptions that one group has greater access to resources than others. These inequalities, perceived and real, result in tensions between ethnic and religious groups which usually have an element of newcomers versus longer established residents in them. The 'newcomers' in many cases are not first generation immigrants but are descendants of earlier generations of immigrants who are of a different ethnicity and/or religion of the local population. Accordingly, an interesting dimension of the forced movements is that in many cases they represent a reversal of earlier flows, although many of those involved may never have lived in their area of origin and may not retain linkages with family in that area.

The most discussed group among the 'newcomers' who have been made IDPs are former transmigrants from Java and their descendants that have been forced to leave and enter local refugee camps or return to the area that they or their ancestors had left several decades ago. The areas where transmigrants have come into conflict with local populations have been in West and Central Kalimantan, Central Sulawesi and West Papua. These are areas where a predominantly Muslim transmigrant population from Java has come into contact with a local Christian or animist local population. However, in all cases it is far too simplistic to portray the conflict as a Muslim-Christian confrontation. There have been elements of the newcomers being seen as intruders and given privileges denied longstanding residents, coastal dwellers versus inlanders, ethnolinguistic differences mixed with long simmering local resentments released with the national political transformations and the activities of criminal groups. The transmigrant:local clashes have perhaps been greatest in Kalimantan where the predominantly Madurese newcomers have been settling in West and Central Kalimantan, both under the auspices of the transmigration program and spontaneously, for a century.

Hence, while the conflict induced IDPs are often depicted as an example of the effects of clashes between Islam and Christianity, this is greatly oversimplifying a complex and deeply concerning situation. The linkages between past migrations leading to a confrontation of groups with vastly different economies, cultures, modes of livelihood, ethnicities, languages as well as religions and the contemporary IDP movements, however, are strong.


Indonesia has been a region of conflict during the colonial and post colonial periods under the influence of processes of nation building, internal and international power struggles, colonial and neo-colonial forces, changing class, cultural, ethnic and religious relationships. These conflicts and Indonesia’s proneness to physical disasters have meant that forced migrations have been significant throughout its history. However, this mobility has not attracted the attention of researchers and this has been a significant oversight. As Olson (1979) has argued, persuasively, the examination of internal displacement of population in a developing country context can have significant implications for economic development and social change within those nations. A comprehensive understanding of these movements can inform the development and elaboration of population redistribution strategies which seek to redistribute population to achieve more equitable distributions of access to resources and wealth. It is crucial that the neglect of historical forced migrations is not duplicated in contemporary Indonesia where the element of force is an important and complex element in population mobility.


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