Mob violence in Indonesia has been aggravated by rapid urbanization and state complicity

Photo: Office of the Vice President - The Republic of Indonesia / Public domain

Mob violence is rising swiftly in major cities across Indonesia and the state has been complicit in encouraging vigilante behavior. What will it take for the Indonesian government to realize the severity of the threat?

By Umair Jamal

Vigilantism has increased dramatically in Indonesia in recent years and public mobilization in support of such attacks has grown sharply. 

According to the World Bank’s National Violence Monitoring System (NVMS), which records vigilante attacks in Indonesia, mob violence increased around 25 percent between 2007 and 2014. The program also found that from 2005 to 2014, there were 33,627 victims of vigilante violence in just half of the provinces in the country, with per capita levels of vigilantism by far the highest in Java and Sumatra.

The forms of violence vary greatly, from organized vigilante groups and ordinary citizens to mobs with different degrees of state involvement. The NVMS data shows that roughly 88 percent of all vigilante attacks in Indonesia are performed by ordinary citizens who do not have any association with vigilante outfits.

There has been an extraordinary rise in incidents of lynching and mob violence in Indonesia’s major urban centers, including Jakarta, often provoked by trivial issues such as petty theft.

The government in Indonesia has been unable to effectively deal with pressure groups and organizations leading such attacks.

The Ahmadiyah religious community in Indonesia, for example, has suffered greatly at the hands of vigilante groups. The popular culture in the country considers them non-Muslims and perpetrators stoking violence against the community “enjoy near-impunity and official indulgence” in the country.

There is growing evidence to suggest that the policymaking community in Indonesia has created an enabling environment for vigilante outfits.

The drift toward vigilantism has also become associated with growing migration, urbanization and development which impact various indicators of socio-economic growth. 

The Jakarta skyline. Photo: Netaholic13 at English Wikipedia / CC BY

Is rapid urban growth contributing to mob violence?

In Indonesia, rapid and unplanned spread of cities has led to deep social and economic divisions, becoming a key reason for mob-related violence in the country’s urban areas.

The link between social divisions and socio-economic variables is important to understanding the crisis and its impact on Indonesia’s cities.

The influx of thousands of rural workers into cities has produced high rates of unemployment in urban areas. The mounting urban poverty and environmental degradation that accompany this have directly and visibly affected people’s behavior for the worse.

“Mob violence has also been aggravated by rapid urbanization that brings together strangers from across the Southeast Asian nation in often poor, overcrowded neighborhoods, raising stress levels and fueling mistrust,” notes a report by AFP.

The NVMS data show that “more than half of the vigilante incidents [in Indonesia] occur in major urban centers.”  Mob lynchings in Indonesia’s urban centers tend to happen mostly in industrial towns like Bekasi that have developed quickly and are crowded with migrant workers. 

It may be that police don’t help to curb violent attacks in urban zones for fear of widespread backlash from religious and community groups, among other reasons.

There is a well-documented history of how Indonesian law enforcement agencies used civilian militias to contain communist groups in 1965.

Successive governments have continued to deploy these organizations to control dissent. “In exchange for their cooperation in managing larger threats to the regime, the state allowed communities a certain level of discretion in dealing with transgressions against local order. Thus, society’s coercive capacity has grown in tandem with the state,” noted Sana Jaffrey, who led the implementation of the NVMS database at the World Bank.

Governments in Indonesia continue to rely on community support, particularly in cities, to manage terrorist and sectarian threats. The Bela Nagara program, for instance, is one major example of the state-level support to “appropriate civilian muscle for security.” “It is not surprising, therefore, that disgruntled citizens [in Indonesia] can take the law into their own hands, while still enjoying impunity from investigation or arrest by state authorities,” said Jaffrey.

The state provides incentives for tolerating vigilantism, meaning migrant workers and other outsiders in Indonesia’s cities face mob violence that often goes unpunished by local law.

Are police part of the problem?

Photo: Kepolisian Negara Republik Indonesia / Public domain

The current national government is not doing enough to resolve the issue, instead moving to accommodate this culture of vigilantism. Indonesia’s cities are experiencing this mob violence despite a significant surge in policing capacity. On many occasions, the police also legitimize the mob’s demands by carrying out raids to satisfy them.

But the trend of accommodating the mob’s demands doesn’t mean that police necessarily fear vigilantes: whenever there is an attack against the police, a swift and serious reaction emerges from law enforcement, leading to arrests of vigilantes and appropriate punishments. The police respond far differently when it comes to mob violence against migrant workers.

Mobs in major cities such as Jakarta tend to avoid targeting police. Instead, they use popular opinion against migrant workers and minority ethnic and religious groups to force the police to legitimize their actions or turn a blind eye after they have delivered the so-called justice.

Examining the state’s behavior towards the issue, Jaffrey notes that “it is a large-scale enactment of a routine interaction between the state and vigilantes that often ends with accommodation of the latter.”

Thus, “Frustration with high crime and a lack of punishment for lynch mobs have encouraged more vigilantism,” wrote Jon Emont in an article for The New York Times.

What sort of reforms are needed to address the issue?

A solution to mob violence in Indonesia’s cities can only come from serious structural reforms. The state needs to stop enacting laws that discriminate against certain ethnic and religious groups and increase socioeconomic gaps.

By legislating regulations and approving public behaviors that encourage mob violence, the country’s lawmakers have become complicit in the crime. The state cannot delegate its policing responsibilities to the public and mobs.

Better urban planning, allocation of resources and job creation can go a long way toward mitigating the impact of socio-economic divisions that lead to the frustrations fueling violence.

The rise in mob violence has led to a lack of trust in legal and police institutions in the country. This issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

As long as incentives for tolerating vigilantism in any form remain in place, Indonesia’s cities will continue to experience violence that has the potential to break down the rule of law.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15