University class turned peace process. Senior Reseacher Timo Kivimäki, NIAS

16. Jan 2009

Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province has suffered from communal conflict and at the turn of the millennium the Indonesian province became infamous for two massive cannibalistic riots. While the massive violence has not continued there have been smaller violent incidents with several people killed every year. None of the conflict disputes have been solved either.  NIAS-led peace studies network on the ASEM Education Hub platform has been working in the areas offering teaching on conflict resolution and peace studies in several M.A. classes at the local Tanjungpura University. One of the classes has been targeted to the very same ethnic leaders who mobilized the mass riots and later tried to make peace with each other. On December 15th, this class stepped out of its educational platform and transferred itself into a peace process under the auspices of the vice president of Indonesia. This transition could offer a model for how purely academic work can serve the purpose of capacity building for peace and actual pre-negotiation for a peace process.


ASEM Peace Studies Network teaching in Kalimantan has been based on an assumption that while recognizing the expertise of local intellectuals in understanding the local conflict conditions, comparative research can still offer something to deepen this understanding. Every lecture starts with a general lecture based on comparative conflict studies, focused on a theme that is crucial for the understanding of the conflict in West Kalimantan. In a way the introduction of each lecture attempts to carry lessons from conflicts all over the world for the scrutiny in West Kalimantan. This has been my task. Next the local professor, Dr. Syarif I, Alqadrie has applied the global lessons to the Kalimantan context. In the third phase, the “students”, who, of course are the main actors in West Kalimantan conflict, elected leaders of ethnic associations of each major ethnic group from the five conflict-affected districts, discuss the Kalimantan experience trying to think what went wrong in the run-up to the conflict, and what should be done to prevent the conflict from escalating again. It is natural that in this process, a lot of practical negotiation takes place between the leaders of the main conflicting community leaders. However, a university class cannot pretend to be a negotiation venue: whatever the community leaders would accept in front of a European “Bule Gila” (crazy foreigner) will have little influence when objective interests run counter the commitments in an educational event. Yet, it would have been such a waste to keep the cooperation purely academic, and not to utilize the confidence built in the class, and the explicit consensus “pre-negotiated” around such crucial issues as how to prevent violent inter-ethnic crime from turning into communal conflict, how to help the police react quickly in the case of conflict triggering events by offering them community-base conflict early warning, and how to foster communication and confidence building between communities. During the year 2008 NIAS has worked on a solution that could help the situation.


Indonesia’s vice president is known for his expertise in conflict resolution. After “master-minding” three major peace processes in Indonesia, in Poso, Ambon and Aceh, he has also received a number of international offers for mediation of protracted conflicts. This is why it was natural for me to approach vice president’s able deputy for political affairs, Prof. Djohermansyah, who is also a conflict specialist, and a former student of the father of peace research, Norwegian Johan Galtung. Prof. Djohermansyah did not need much persuasion; he saw the potential of progress in West Kalimantan from the start. Preparations for the conversion of the ethnic leaders’ class into a permanent communication forum started in spring 2008. Finally, on December 15, Professor Djohermansyah joined the ASEM program, and took over the ethnic class, and inaugurated the West Kalimantan Ethnic Communication Forum. The inauguration ceremony was attended by public officials of the province on all levels of regional administration, as well as by the provincial police chief, all chiefs of the police districts. As expected, the inaugural meeting of West Kalimantan Ethnic Communication Forum reached agreements on many issues crucial for conflict prevention. The Pasir Panjang Declaration establishing the forum was signed by the ethnic leaders, the two initiators of the forum (Alqadrie and I) and the facilitator of the work of the forum, Prof. Djohermansyah. Furthermore, the forum decided on the principles of operation, conflict early warning cooperation with the provincial police, crisis management action (to be taken after a “triggering event” has taken place), work for the removal of root causes of conflict, and on the practical working forms and schedules of the forum. Many issues will be left for further meetings, but the fact that all the leaders of each of the conflict districts value the permanence of dialogue and problem solving between communities, is already a long step towards the right direction. Ethnic leaders are not all-mighty, conflict can of course happen even if these leaders opposed it. But with this cooperation it is unlikely, that these leaders mobilized the mobs and militias. It is also less likely, that ordinary people can mobilize ethnic sentiments for violent purposes if the respected ethnic leaders explicitly go against such mobilization. Even if there were youth groups who tried to frame an individual inter-ethnic criminal event in communal terms calling for a communal revenge, most members of the community would probably refrain and listen to their ethnic leaders instead of youth groups in the question of what ones communal affiliation and loyalty requires from them. While not able to resolve all conflict problems of the province, ethnic leaders are probably at best in defining what ethnicity can and cannot be used for. Thus a united stand by ethnic leaders against using ethnic loyalties for the mobilization of violence can be a meaningful contribution in the prevention of future conflict and in the resolving of old ones. The fact that a university class could spill overt this kind of united stand, proves that theory is practical and university collaboration can serve societies. There is nothing “merely academic” about purely academic work.