Burning Down the House

Arson attacks in Pangkalan Bun

In December 2011, supporters of one candidate in a highly disputed Indonesian electoral race for district chief, or bupati, marched through the streets of Pangkalan Bun, the capital of West Kotawaringin in Central Kalimantan. After almost 18 months of protests following the polls in June 2010, passions were still running high in this small town on the south western tip of the island of Borneo. Protesters held aloft a coffin to represent the death of trust in the rival candidate and the Constitutional Court, one of the new and most respected institutions of the post-Soeharto period of reformasi.

They were angry that the court had on 7 July 2010 overturned the election result and doubly worked up as they had now heard that incumbent Ujang Iskandar would be inaugurated in Jakarta. The ruling, which reversed the ballot box victory by their man Sugianto Sabran, came after the court found evidence of widespread vote buying.

Arson attacks in Pangkalan Bun

Arson attacks in Pangkalan Bun

As they had done in the past, the youths threw rocks at the bupati‘s office and then expanded the attack to other government buildings but unarmed police were able to disperse them. On 29 December 2011, they massed on the streets and apparently became frustrated that their preferred targets were heavily guarded. When they passed the official residence of the bupati or “house of history” (rumah sejarah) in the afternoon, the young protesters with little knowledge of the building’s significance to the defunct sultanate forced their way in. There was no one home as in his five years in power Ujang had never stayed there, using it only for ceremonial functions. The hot headed young men lit fires inside, shocking many elders. Flames engulfed the building in minutes and police could only prevent locals from getting too close. (Strangely, the fire brigade, located directly across the road was unable to do anything to prevent the desecration of this historic site.)

This case illustrates an ongoing flashpoint in Indonesia’s decentralisation that extends way beyond the confines of any one provincial town. When the Constitutional Court disqualified the winner of the district’s local election and ruled that the defeated incumbent should get a second term it was going way beyond established precedent, but for the sake of reinforcing judicial authority of one of the highest courts in the land, it should have still been enforced. The local district council, however, saw the ruling as an intrusion by Jakarta in a local race and refused to accept it. More than two years on, the bupati who was awarded the victory by the court still cannot govern because of this local resistance.

As Crisis Group has noted before, what happens in regional Indonesia matters on the national stage even if the places where these conflicts take place send the most experienced observers racing to Google Maps  to find out where they are.

In this case and two others, we examine in Indonesia: Defying the State how local institutions in Indonesia, empowered by decentralisation, are standing up to the country’s highest courts with impunity, allowing judicial authority to be undermined and conflicts to fester. District councils, mayors and regional election commissions have learned that there is little cost to ignoring court rulings on electoral or religious disputes, pandering instead to local constituencies and pressure groups. Decisive leadership from the president could make a difference; instead, slow and ineffective responses from Jakarta brew more insubordination.

When Indonesians take to burning down government buildings, police stations, and their own history it is time to send the fire brigade from Jakarta. Ignoring the problem will only fan future flames of conflict.

Author: Achmad Sukarsono

Analyst, South East Asia. Jakarta, Indonesia. Achmad Sukarsono joined Crisis Group as Southeast Asia Analyst in August 2010 after working as a reporter for Bloomberg News. His area of research includes elections, local politics and security institutions in Indonesia. He received his MA in Comparative Politics from Queen Mary University of London in 2008. He studied in the UK on the Chevening Awards Scholarship that he won in 2007 whilst working for the World Bank as a Communications Officer. From 2000 to 2007, he worked as a general news correspondent for Reuters in Jakarta. He has an undergraduate degree in International Relations from the University of Indonesia, where he was active in the 1998 student movement. He speaks and writes in English and Indonesian.