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The escalation and decline of violent conflict in Poso, Central Sulawesi, 1998-2007




McRae, David Gregory

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This dissertation presents a case study of the violent conflict in Poso district, Central Sulawesi province from 1998 to 2007. Poso was one of several areas in eastern Indonesia that became sites of intense inter-religious and inter-ethnic fighting following President Soeharto's resignation in 1998. An estimated 600-1000 people were killed in violence in Poso that began in December 1998 and had not completely ceased even in early 2007. Existing studies of the post-Soeharto conflicts have identified a common structural context that many of these conflicts shared. Impending political reforms after Soeharto' s resignation created local uncertainties over how groups could access state employment and contracts; the stakes were particularly high in areas with a relatively even religious demographic and where state resources were unusually important to the local economy. Moreover, these uncertainties arose at a time when the repressive capacity of the state was greatly weakened. This dissertation finds that this structural context is most accurately treated as part of the enabling context for violence in Poso. This context did not cause the violence, nor make it inevitable, nor does it explain the intensity, scale or forms of violence in the district. An over-reliance on structure also excludes agency and contingency from the explanation of violence. The central question of the dissertation is to identify the process by which violence escalated and declined in Poso and what this can tell us about why the Poso violence occurred. My approach is to explore this question through attention to six elements of analysis: how the violence was organised, the role of identity, the relative importance of national and local contexts, the forms of violence, the effect of previous violence on local actors, and the motivations of perpetrators of violence. This dissertation finds that violence in Poso was a collective enterprise, mostly perpetrated by local actors, for which individuals bear responsibility but in which no-one was in complete control. The lack of complete control is not to say that the escalation of violence was the result of unimagined consequences - those leading attacks at the times that violence escalated intended to effect an increase in the scale of the conflict- but the motivations of both leaders and rank-and-file derived in part from their experience of the conflict and not simply from pre-existing interests and intentions. This conclusion derives from the six elements of analysis outlined above. It is not my contention, on the basis of this dissertation, that this model will also adequately explain the escalation and decline of the other inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflicts that took place after Soeharto resigned. Nevertheless, the six elements of analysis that I propose in this dissertation are not derived from specific events in Poso, and it should be possible to apply this approach to other conflict settings. Similar histories of the Maluku, North Maluku and possibly the West and Central Kalimantan conflicts, produced by attention to these six elements of analysis, could provide a stronger basis to understand the extent to which these conflicts shared similar reasons for and processes of escalation and decline.






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