The Challenges of Post-Conflict ‘Residue’

Six years ago, almost to the day, I was reviewing the draft of a programme evaluation report that my organization had commissioned. The writing wasn’t excellent but it was passable. The content, however, and the accusations lobbed at the organization were mind-blowing. ‘Organization X is directly contributing to growing conflict in Poso (in Central Sulawesi province, in Indonesia).’ I’m pretty open-minded and as the devil’s advocate in the office was the one normally posing strong questions to ensure that just this sort of thing wouldn’t happen. So I was a little flabbergasted. I spoke with the other members of the evaluation team (who spoke Indonesian) and both were a stunned as I. Both were in all of the meetings with the lead evaluator and could not fathom how he had deduced such a conclusion.

Our government counterparts were shocked to hear such a claim and in fact thought the opposite – our organization was a valuable and respected partner in peacebuilding in the region. It nonetheless necessitated an investigation – accusations such as these cannot be glossed over or ignored. The rapid booking of plane tickets and a reorganization of my schedule and I was off to Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi province, followed by a six hour drive through the mountains to the district of Poso.

Some background to the conflict: after the fall of President Suharto in 1998, and with it the centralized state, the Indonesian government implemented the ‘Big Bang’ decentralization process which devolved power on decision making to local authorities – by-passing provincial government and going directly to the district level. Power struggles between local elites ensued – and as in so many similar cases, people took sides. What was initially a power struggle between elites was transformed into an inter-faith conflict as leaders exploited perceived slights or fears of exclusion. Peace was finally brokered in 2001.

What I found when I arrived was both a relief and worrisome. Indeed, talking with local government, civil society and religious leaders calmed my concerns about the outrageous claims that had been made in the evaluation report – our organization was a valued partner in the on-going peacebuilding and reconciliation between the Christian and Muslim communities in the district. But I was getting a sense that something wasn’t quite right. Used to candidness when chatting with community leaders, regardless of faith, the rather tight-lipped responses to general conversation were a bit of a red flag.

On my way back to the car, a local religious leader stopped me. He wanted me to know that the local leaders were worried – they were having a problem with radicalisation among young men in the community and they didn’t know how to counter it. It was not an issue they had had to worry about in the past, and they were concerned about where such trends would lead. I thanked the man for his insight and encouraged him to keep communication flowing – and I was both pleased and grateful that community relations had improved to the point where there was (informal) interfaith dialogue on the problems of radicalisation taking place.

I had six hours in the car and two flights back to Jakarta to ponder what had been revealed. It didn’t take me long to land on the root causes, but it raised quite a few questions about how to proceed.

First, the root causes. Within six months of the conflict being ‘settled’ and terms agreed, the Indonesian government implemented a policy that stipulated there were no more internally displaced persons (IDPs). The perceived intention was that, by sending out this message, Indonesians would feel secure in the knowledge that the government was in control and it was time to get on with consolidating democracy and focus on the prosperity of the country. From the government’s point of view, this made sense – it had been dealing with pockets of ethnic and inter-faith conflict across the country since independence but which intensified with the fall of President Suharto in 1998. Conflicts had emerged in Poso, Maluku, in East Timor, East Kalimantan and others, and were compounded by ongoing conflicts in Papua and Aceh.

The challenges resulting from this policy were thus: by stipulating that there were no longer IDPs, organizations that were working with them could no longer provide assistance for the resettlement process. In fact, the resettlement process was cut, full stop. We’re not talking millions of people like in Syria or Iraq, but there were a few thousand, and in Poso, mostly from the Muslim community. They had lost their property and did not have land title documents to prove they should be compensated. Most had lost their identity documents which meant no access to services such as education. It also meant little opportunity for employment, particularly in the public sector. In a nutshell, they had no recourse to justice as conflict victims, and so were effectively stateless (by definition) and in some kind of no-man’s land (although not really). Feelings of injustice were fomenting and boredom setting in – a situation easily exploitable for groups looking to recruit young men to a ‘cause.’

By 2014, Poso was becoming known in security circles as a ‘hotbed’ of jihadism in Indonesia. The local leader, Santoso, had plead allegiance to ISIS. A few weeks ago, he was finally killed by Indonesian forces. As with any terrorist organization, he is replaceable. Moreover, he was not the cause of the growth of extremist cells in the region, he simply took advantage of it.

At the heart of it, the government’s policy on IDPs was a root cause. Obviously one cannot claim that jihadism would not have found a home in Poso otherwise, but it did set off a chain reaction that made individuals more susceptible to recruitment.

The challenge in 2010 was not so much addressing the issue of growing jihadism in Poso with the central government as it was talking to them about why this was a problem in the first place. IDPs were a sensitive subject which we had learned to handle with kid gloves. Did we address it directly and risk the ire of the government, or just carry on with our programming and deal with it in a roundabout way? I regret to this day that we didn’t have the courage to deal directly with the problem.

However, while we now knew it was a problem, it was the government that was failing to recognize that its policy on IDPs was an issue that needed urgent attention. It was a huge gap in post-conflict programming, demonstrating that conflict resolution and peacebuilding processes are not made up of a menu of items you can pick and choose at will; they are holistic processes that require time, energy, a lot of money and acceptance of ideas that you may not be happy about.

The conflict resolution process was truncated in Poso, and at the time it was frustrating but I doubt many actors foresaw the consequences. From a development perspective, ignoring remaining IDPs would exacerbate inequality and increase poverty. From a peacebuilding perspective, it was more tricky as it created further divisions in the community. From a security perspective, the conflict was over. But instead, it transformed.

No conflict resolution or peacebuilding process will ever cover all bases – something will get missed even with the best planning, and post-conflict contexts are fluid and dynamics change regardless. It is, nonetheless, important to take away the lesson that Poso provides us: even if you decree that a post-conflict issue has been dealt with, it is still there. If you don’t deal with it, someone else will.

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