Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Bahasa Indonesia (official), Javanese, Sundanese, etc.
Main religions: Muslim 87.2 per cent, Christian 7 per cent, Roman Catholic 2.9 per cent Hindu 1.7 per cent, other 0.9 per cent (includes Buddhist and Confucian), unspecified 0.4 per cent (2010 est.).
Main minority groups: Sundanese 15.5 per cent, Malay 3.7 per cent, Batak 3.6 per cent, Madurese 3 per cent, Betawi 2.9 per cent, Minangkabau 2.7 per cent, Buginese 2.7 per cent, Bantenese 2 per cent, Banjarese 1.7 per cent, Balinese 1.7 per cent, Acehnese 1.4 per cent, Dayak 1.4 per cent, Sasak 1.3 per cent, Chinese 1.2 per cent, other 15 per cent (Indonesia census 2010).
More than 85 per cent of Indonesians consider themselves to be Muslim, making Indonesia nominally the largest Muslim nation in the world. Indonesia is linguistically extremely diverse. West of Java, the majority language group is the Malayo-Polynesian family of more than 250 languages, usually distinguished into 16 major groups. Four of the 16 groups of the Malayo-Polynesian family are Malayan. One of the four is Riau Malay, the primary literary language of Indonesia, which in modernized form is Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of Indonesia.
The larger islands support several ethno-linguistic groups. Central Java is the homeland of the predominant Javanese ethnic group (comprising approximately 40 per cent of the Indonesian population), which has migrated over time to many of the other inhabited islands in the archipelago. East Java also contains substantial numbers of Balinese and Madurese from the islands of Bali and Madura, the Balinese being distinctive for having maintained a Hindu-based religion while the other Malay peoples of the archipelago adopted Islam. On the island of Bali itself, about 83 per cent of the population is Hindu. West Java also has a large Sundanese population, who are similar to the Lampung peoples of South Sumatra. Java supports more than half of Indonesia’s total population.
The economically important island of Sumatra contains a number of significant ethno-linguistic groups besides Javanese. These include the Muslim Acehnese of north Sumatra; Minangkabau, a Muslim group noted for its matriarchal structure and tradition of commerce and trading; and Batak, a half-dozen related tribes, many of which have become Christianized. Kalimantan is dominated by Dayak, Murut, coastal Malay peoples and ethnic Chinese.
The Moluccas (or Maluku Islands) are inhabited by peoples who were exposed to Islam and Christianity at around the same time, in the sixteenth century, but managed a peaceful coexistence between the two faiths at community level until the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998, when there was brutal communal fighting. Sulawesi is inhabited mainly by Muslim Buginese and Makasarese in the south, and Christianized Minahasans and Manadonese in the north. Papua is home to some 800,000 indigenous people divided into many hundreds of groupings. The names of smaller islands, or clusters of islands, are often coterminous with the ethno-linguistic communities.
The Indonesian government recognizes the existence of peoples referred to as komunitas adat terpencil (geographically-isolated indigenous communities), yet there are many more who self-identify as indigenous. According to the national indigenous civil society organisation Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (AMAN), there are between 50 – 70 million indigenous people in Indonesia.
Ahmadi Muslims number between 400,000 to 500,000. Ahmadiyya is an Islamic movement considered heretical by some hardline Muslims. Attacks and persecution of Ahmadiyya followers have been increasing in Indonesia, particularly after the country’s top Islamic body declared Ahmadiyya heretical in 2005, and a government decree in 2008 prevented them from proselytizing. The approximately 55,000 members of Gerakan Fajar Nusantara (Gafatar), another smaller Islamic following that combines aspects of Christianity and Islam, have also been increasingly under threat. In March 2016, the Indonesian government issued a decree banning Gafatar; the move coincided with a wave of mob violence, evictions and detentions.
Updated January 2018.
While the presidency of Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, beginning in 2014, was accompanied by promises of justice for past human rights abuses, greater equality and strengthened rights protections, many of his supporters have been disappointed by the persistence of discriminatory practices and targeted attacks against minorities and indigenous peoples. Widodo secured re-election in the 2019 elections, winning more than 55 per cent of the national vote, but his choice of Ma’ruf Amin as running mate – a senior Muslim cleric who played a leading role in the prosecution and conviction of Jakarta’s Christian governor in 2018 on blasphemy charges – was regarded with dismay by many activists. Widodo himself has been accused of repressing dissent and wooing illiberal groups for political gain. In this content, the situation of the country’s minorities and indigenous peoples remains grave.
In particular, the Ahmadi community, who have suffered increasingly frequent violence against them since a 2008 ministerial decree that declared the Islamic group heretical, continue to be targeted by authorities. In January 2016, for instance, the local government in Bangka, a district of the Bangka-Belitung Islands province off the east coast of Sumatra, issued a letter threatening Ahmadis to convert to Sunni Islam or be evicted from the area. Bangka residents subsequently subjected the community to further intimidation and harassment. In early February, authorities reportedly visited the community, made up of approximately 14 families, and told them to leave, prompting a number to leave their homes for fear of reprisals. In Many 2018, extremists attacked Ahmadi houses on Lombok Islands, forcing more than 20 community members to seek protection at a police station. Ahmadis continue to face a range of discrimination in Indonesia, including difficulties accessing identification documents.
Other religious communities have been similarly targeted, including Gerakan Fajar Nusantara (known as Gafatar), an Islamic sect established in 2012 that incorporates teachings from Christianity and Judaism, thought to have about 55,000 members nationwide. In January 2016, Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo instructed local authorities to close down Gafatar offices. A mob subsequently looted and burned the houses of the community in West Kalimantan. Security forces were reportedly complicit in these actions and failed to protect the community, instead evicting over 7,000 community members from both East and West Kalimantan, holding them in unofficial detention centres, then deporting many – a large proportion of them women and children – back to their hometowns in Java. Thereafter, a joint ministerial decree (No. 93/2016) was issued by the Jokowi administration against Gafatar the following month, declaring the sect blasphemous and its followers heretics. In May 2016, three of its leaders, who had already declared that they had left the religious community, were arrested on accusations of treason and blasphemy and were sentenced in March 2017 to between three and five years in prison.
Persecution on the basis of one’s religion has not been confined to smaller communities in outlying regions. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as ‘Ahok’ – an ethnic Chinese Christian and governor of Jakarta since late 2014 – had proceedings initiated against him in November 2016 by police under Indonesia’s blasphemy law for remarks he had made at a gathering in September. Ahok won the largest share of the vote in the first round of elections to keep his governor’s role, but lost the hotly contested run-off vote in April 2017 to his main contender Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education. The trial had been suspended for the duration of the elections, but the charges certainly had a negative impact on Ahok’s campaign and were widely seen as an attempt by his political opponents to mobilize ethno-religious hatred against him. Once the election was over, the case proceeded; in May 2017, Ahok was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. He was initially planning his appeal but withdrew it, citing fears that his sentence might be extended if he did. The prosecution’s appeal that Ahok be given a lesser sentence and probation remained in place. In January 2019 Ahok completed his sentence and was released from prison.
Indonesia’s large and diverse indigenous population continues to face ongoing rights violations, particularly in relation to the control and management of their ancestral land. Despite 2013’s landmark Constitutional Court ruling that gave indigenous peoples rights to own and manage customary forests, estimated to affect 40 million indigenous people, there is not as yet a clear procedure for implementing its provisions, leaving communities vulnerable to continued violations. In March 2016, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) released the findings of its national inquiry into indigenous peoples’ land rights. It found that the absence of formal recognition of indigenous communities and their customary lands was one of the root causes of human rights violations against indigenous communities. Inequality between indigenous men and women was also highlighted as a contributing factor as women can face discrimination from within their communities regarding decision-making power and are disproportionately affected by conflicts over natural resources as they must travel further distances to find access to food and traditional medicines.
National level legislation, protecting and outlining the rights of Indonesia’s indigenous peoples, is urgently needed to regulate the process of legal recognition and land demarcation. Though legislation along these lines, the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (PPHMHA) Bill, has already been drafted, but the law remains stalled in parliament. As Indonesia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, it is crucial that indigenous peoples achieve the right to manage their own forests to prevent the onslaught of land development projects that until now have proceeded largely without their consent.
In the far eastern provinces of Papua and West Papua, collectively referred to as West Papua, human rights abuses remain widespread despite official commitments to bring an end to violations by security forces in these regions. While an official taskforce was announced in April 2016 to investigate a number of high profile cases of human rights abuses in the provinces, including incidents in Wasior in 2001 and Wamena in 2003 where military and police crackdowns left dozens of civilians dead. So far, however, there has been little detail on how the investigations would proceed, and local human rights groups have publicly expressed their lack of faith in a government-led investigation, particularly as its formation involved no consultation with the community.
The Setara Institute, a human rights monitoring organisation in Jakarta, reported that human rights violations in Papua during 2016 had risen steeply to 68 cases, compared to 16 the previous year. Largely peaceful protests were met with a heavy-handed response from security forces: in May 2016, a peaceful pro-independence rally resulted in what many are calling the largest mass arrest ever in Papua with 1,449 people arrested in Jayapura and hundreds more across the province. Thereafter, independence rallies in June led to more than a thousand more arrests, followed by a further 500 in December. Many were released without charges, but there were reports of mistreatment and torture. Indonesia authorities continue to target Papuan activists, including an assault on a peaceful gathering by the West Papua National Committee that resulted in the detention and beating of nine activists in December 2018, three of whom were subsequently charged with treason. As of June 2019, Indonesia had 38 Papuans in prison for their political activity, often on charges of treason.
Updated June 2019.
The Republic of Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of nearly 14,000 islands, which divides into two tiers. The main islands of the more heavily populated southern tier include Sumatra, Java, Bali and Timor. The northern tier includes Kalimantan (most of Borneo), Sulawesi, the Moluccas and Papua (the western half of New Guinea). Sumatra lies west and south of peninsular Malaysia and Singapore across the narrow Strait of Malacca. Kalimantan, the Indonesian section of Borneo, is bounded to the north by Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei. North of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is the Celebes Sea and beyond that the Philippines. Indonesia’s geographic position has made it a gateway for human migration throughout history.
Humans may have inhabited parts of today’s Indonesia from between 2 million to 500,000 years ago, but most Indonesians today are of Austronesian stock whose ancestors may have migrated into this part of the world in waves, starting perhaps from Taiwan some 4,000 years ago, displacing in the process an already existing population of Papuan people.
The main islands of Sumatra and Java had flourishing pre-colonial empires and long-established commercial links with China and India, Asia Minor and Europe. In 1511, the Portuguese captured Malacca, which controlled the sea lanes between India and China. The Portuguese fought the Spanish and local sultanates to establish armed forts and trading factories in the archipelago. The Portuguese held on to East Timor until the Indonesian invasion of 1975 (see Timor Leste), but elsewhere, in the early seventeenth century, they were pushed aside by the Dutch, who set up a monopolistic trading company and empire based in Batavia (present-day Jakarta).
The Dutch gained control of the coastal trading enclaves throughout the archipelago and developed mining and plantation agriculture. The Dutch largely ignored the interiors of the islands and ruled through alliances with local sultans. Only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did the Dutch seek to unify control, greatly extending plantation agriculture, based on forced labour, and repatriating huge profits to the Netherlands.
Chinese immigration was encouraged to provide intermediaries between the colonial authorities and the indigenous peoples. The Dutch were ousted by the Japanese at the beginning of the Second World War. The Japanese installed Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, leaders of the Indonesian nationalist pro-independence movement, in nominal power. In 1945, the Indonesians proclaimed independence. However, after the defeat of Japan, the Dutch sought to re-establish their rule, forcing the Java-based nationalists to fight a four-year war of independence. The Netherlands finally recognized Indonesian independence in 1949.
Indonesia’s history since independence has been tumultuous, as its leaders have attempted to deal with its ethnic diversity, sheer size, lack of internal political cohesion and impoverished peasantry. Indonesia had military and political confrontations with Malaysia and the UK over the creation of the eastern Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak and the Sultanate of Brunei on the island of Borneo, sharing the island with the Indonesian province of Kalimantan.
Indonesia confronted the Dutch over the forced incorporation of Irian Jaya (West Irian) into Indonesia and the Portuguese over East Timor (see East Timor). There have been rebellions on the provinces of West Java, Aceh Central and North Sumatra, Papua, East Timor, North Sulawesi and the Moluccas; and recurrent outbreaks of anti-Chinese violence.
To counterbalance the political strength of the army and the militant Islamic political parties in the 1950s, Sukarno, Indonesia’s first President, encouraged the re-emergence and political strength of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). In 1965, left-wing military officers and some elements of the PKI attempted a coup, which was quickly suppressed by elite army units under General Suharto. The army launched a massive witch-hunt for PKI members and sympathizers, which saw the slaughter of an estimated 500,000 people, including many ethnic Chinese. Suharto was installed as President, a position he held until 1998. During his administration, the military, better known by its acronym ABRI, exercised a great deal of political power, enjoying special civic privileges and responsibilities, including unelected seats in Parliament and local legislatures, in addition to its defence and security roles.
The Asian economic crisis of 1997–8 brought Indonesia to its knees. Popular discontent with the Suharto administration led to mass protests and widespread rioting that forced Suharto to step down in May 1998. This was followed by a quick succession of changes and reforms towards a more open and democratic society, a process referred to as ‘Reformasi’. East Timor voted to regain its independence after 1999, and despite violence and serious obstacles in its path was allowed to do so. Islamic fundamentalism seemed to gain strength during this period of upheavals, including an upsurge in confessional attacks in different parts of the country, and terrorist bombings in Bali and Jakarta.
There eventually followed in 2004 Indonesia’s first direct presidential election, and changes which were to reduce, though not extinguish the military’s political power. A series of calamitous natural disasters have struck Indonesia in recent years, but at least one of them, the 2004 tsunami, may have contributed to the 2005 settlement of the separatist conflict involving the Acehnese minority.
In the wake of Suharto’s fall in 1998, militant groups multiplied within Indonesia and attacks on religious minorities became increasingly common, typically Christians and non-Sunni Muslim communities, including Ahmadis, Shi’a and Sufis. Many of the attacks can be traced back to the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a militant Sunni group with ties to senior members of the police, military and political establishment.
Since the end of the Suharto presidency in 1998, Indonesia has been moving towards a more liberal democratic system, with increased human rights provisions and mechanisms and other major political and structural changes: presidential elections in 2004 were the first where the president and vice-president were directly elected.
The Constitution contains a range of human rights guarantees. There are a number of human rights institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), and a human rights court set up in 2000. Despite some good work in the past by Komnas HAM, the government appears to be unable to address very serious human rights violations such as extra-judicial killings, torture and other abuses by the security forces, which often target minorities in restive provinces. Corruption – including within the judicial system – and inadequate training, resources and leadership, all combine to weaken the potential legal and constitutional protections. The human rights court’s effectiveness is limited because cases involving military personnel fall instead under the jurisdiction of the Indonesian Military Court.
Recent attempts to address past breaches have encountered setbacks. The establishment of a special Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights violations since the 1960s was struck down by the Constitutional Court in December 2006 as having no legal basis. The earlier conviction of a pilot for the murder of human rights defender Munir Said Thalib on board a flight to Amsterdam was overthrown by the Supreme Court in Jakarta in October 2006. The case remains unsolved.
Indonesia is not an Islamic state. The state ideology, Pancasila, requires only that citizens believe in one supreme God, and that they accept membership of one of five officially sanctioned faiths, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Orthodox Muslim groups have argued since independence that Islam should play a greater role in government and society, with some pushing for an Islamic state based on Shari’a law. Secular nationalists have countered that this risks provoking secessionist moves in regions of Indonesia where Muslims are not a majority.
The political divide between the state and orthodox believers caused riots and a wave of bombings and arson attacks in the mid-1980s. However, Suharto successfully suppressed the more militant Islamic organizations, and co-opted the others. Under his authoritarian rule open reporting and discussion of religious and ethnic friction was banned.
At present, Indonesian law only recognizes six major faiths, while practitioners of smaller Islamic sects, such as Ahmadis and Shi’a, endure regular threats and intimidation. In particular, the Ahmadiyya sect was formally branded heretical by the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top Islamic body, in 2005, and is prevented from proselytizing and constructing new houses of worship.
In Indonesia’s current climate of intolerance, the space for religious and ethnic minorities to practise their culture and faith openly continues to narrow. Indonesia experienced a surge in religious intolerance under the 10-year rule of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, resulting in frequent violence against its Ahmadi, Christian and Shi’a minorities. Indeed, extremist groups enjoy considerable legal support in Indonesia, where authoritarian blasphemy laws can easily be used to facilitate religious persecution. Meanwhile Sunni extremists appear to be able to practise hate speech in mosques across the country with impunity.
President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo was elected in October 2014, on a platform the included democratic reform and minority rights. Unlike his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi has publicly acknowledged the need for Indonesia to curb extremism and his government proposed a new law to protect religious minorities shortly after assuming power. While activists have argued that the proposed new law does not go far enough and includes vague provisions that allow the government to discriminate against minorities in the name of ‘national security’, little progress on the law has been made so far.
Updated January 2018.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia)
Center for Human Rights Studies (PUSHAM)
Center on Law and Human Rights Studies (satuHAM) (Pusat Studi Hukum dan HAM)
HURIGHTS OSAKA (Japan)
Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN)
Indonesia Anti-Discrimination Movement
Indonesia Forum for Human Dignity (Netherlands)
Indonesia Human Rights Committee (NZ)
Indonesia Human Rights Network (USA)
Indonesian Legal Studies Foundation
Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy (ELS-HAM)
Institute for Irian Jaya/West Papua Indigenous People Study and Empowerment
Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM)
Institute for the Defense of Human Rights (LPHAM)
ICDHRE – Islamic Center for Democracy and Human Rights Empowerment
PBHI – Indonesia Legal Aid and Human Rights Association
PIJAR Indonesia (Pusat Informasi dan Jaringan Aksi Informasi)
Sawit Watch – Defending Peoples Rights
Sekretariat Anak Merdeka Indonesia
The Indonesia Human Rights Campaign (TAPOL) (UK)
Watch Indonesia (Germany)
Yayasan Lembaga Hukum Indonesia (Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation)
Aceh Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Banda Aceh)
Tel: + 62 651 23321
Aceh NGO Coalition for Human Rights
PB-HAM Aceh Timur
Supreme Council for Confucian Religion in Indonesia – Majelis Tinggi Agama
Lembaga Bela Banua Talino (LBBT – Institute for Community Legal Resources Empowerment)
Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Untuk Masyarakat Adat (The Law Assisting Institution for Customary Communities of West Kalimantan)
Serikat Gerakan Pemberdayaan Masyarakat Dayak
Hindu Human Rights
Aliansi Demokrasi untuk Papua
Foundation for Keeping Moluccan Civil and Political Rights (FKMCPR)
Institute for Papuan Advocacy and Human Rights
Tel: +61 418291998 (Aus)
Lepa-Lepa Maluku Foundation (LEMA)
Tel: +62 91 622 163
Papua NGO’s Forum (FOKER LSM Papua)
Tel : +62 967 573 511
West Papua Action,
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in