A Tale of Violence Averted

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On a brisk morning in 1997, a convoy of trucks rumbled into the rural predominantly Christian Toraja town of Rantepao, in upland Sulawesi, Indonesia. The trucks screeched to a halt at the town’s dusty main intersection, where sarong-clad villagers awaited public transport to the market and unemployed Toraja tourist guides lingered alongside snoozing immigrant becak drivers. The ordinariness of the morning was abruptly shattered, as fierce-looking young men poured out of the trucks in front of the Chinese-owned businesses lining the main street. The Toraja souvenir vendors in adjacent shops, bank tellers at the imposing People’s Bank of Indonesia, and the cluster of people catching up with friends in front of the post office all snapped to attention. All had seen televised images of violent anti-Chinese outbursts on Java and in their provincial capital of Makassar, and all had a framework for imagining what appeared to be on the verge of happening in their own homeland. Hurling anti-Chinese curses, these strangers began to move menacingly toward the largest Chinese-owned business, as frightened Chinese shop-owners snatched up their outdoor displays and frantically yanked down heavy metal security doors. However, the sequence of events that unfolded next did not follow the same path of violence and destruction that had seemed so inevitable and uncontrollable elsewhere in Indonesia. Dozens of Torajas quickly locked arms, forming a human barricade between the muscular invaders and the Chinese businesses. As I was later told by Toraja friends, these Toraja were unfazed by the rocks and sticks the men brandished. Instead, they resolutely declared, “You cannot harm the Chinese in Tana Toraja, for these are our brothers (saudara). You have to go through us to get to them. Go home, and leave our brothers alone.” After a tense standoff, the men grudgingly returned to their trucks and drove away. When I returned to Tana Toraja in May 1998, during a period of violent clashes throughout Indonesia, many people in the community recounted this story to me. Two of my closest Toraja friends enthusiastically shared detailed, riveting accounts of this narrowly averted conflict, knowing it would pique my interest. Although the tales of the incident varied in detail, all celebrated the theme of Toraja–Chinese Christian brotherhood (persaudaraan) and many suggested the muscular men were outside agitators, either military, Muslim Javanese, Makassarese, or Bugis (neighboring ethnic groups in South Sulawesi).

Chinese merchants in Rantepao told the tale more soberly, some trembling as they spoke. Many conveyed their fears for the future, and some were considering abandoning their lifelong homes in Indonesia. As one merchant, Pak Budi, told me, “This time around, we were protected. But will our Toraja neighbors be able to protect us when these outside agitators return with knives or guns?” As he spoke, it seemed telling that, unlike my Toraja friends, Pak Budi opted to use the term “neighbors” (tetangga) rather than “brothers” (saudara). His sense of vulnerability became still more palpable when he recounted that his children were unable to sleep soundly since the incident. Their nightmares triggered his own fears, and his evenings were spent making costly long-distance calls to lay plans for an emergency escape, should one be needed. In the meantime, Pak Budi was trying to smile charitably when testy customers growled at him because of the spiraling prices of his merchandise, prices driven up by the seemingly out-of-control inflation that was sweeping Indonesia at the time. For Pak Budi, Torajas’ 1997 defense of their Chinese “brothers” generated relief and gratitude, but he did not feel that he could expect their help in the future. One Muslim family, who had migrated two decades earlier from the impoverished adjacent region of Duri, also recounted the story of the averted clash to me, conveying their own distinct fears. On my first visit to their home after a two-year absence, Bu Hasan, her teenaged daughter, and I sat on a woven mat on the dirt floor of their modest plywood home, catching up over sweet tea and fried bananas as the television hummed in the background.

Bu Hasan, a plump widow in her fifties, reported that since the incident business had evaporated at the small noodle soup kiosk she ran out of her home’s crammed front room. Previously, Bu Hasan had spent her afternoons scurrying between the caldron of aromatic soup simmering outside her back door and the front-room noodle shop, where benches were filled with animated Toraja high school students and neighbors taking breaks from chores. On my earlier visits, Bu Hasan was always dashing about, juggling heaping trays of lemper (rice packets wrapped with banana leaf) and steaming bowls of the soup for which she was locally famous. On this day, however, she was idle, the wobbly wooden benches were empty, and the front room was disturbingly silent. Bu Hasan distractedly smoothed a wrinkle in her batik housedress, as she described her recent economic and personal hardships. Remorsefully, she confided that she was ready to abandon the soup kiosk and turn her efforts to selling used charity clothing supplied by her coastal Muslim relatives. I stole a second, closer glance at her front room and now noticed that the two long tabletops, where Christians and Muslims once sat slurping noodles elbow-to-elbow, were spotlessly scrubbed, without the usual soup splashes and abandoned banana-leaf wrappers. The glass snack jars and containers of hand-folded, kite-shaped napkins were filled to their brims. I imagined Bu Hasan and her daughter folding countless paper napkins and baking heaping mounds of sweets in hopes of luring back their customers. Their efforts, however, were in vain: a faded portrait of President Suharto and the tattered posters of Indonesian pop stars presided over a silent, empty room. In a soft voice, Bu Hasan shared her fears that, as Muslim outsiders, her family was now being lumped with the anti-Chinese agitators. The televised images of looted, torched Chinese stores elsewhere in Indonesia both sparked her pity for these fellow “outsiders” and prompted fears about what might befall her own family. My feeble attempts at reassurances were met with a reminder that, as Muslims, her family did not share the same kind of “brotherhood” with the predominantly Christian Torajas. A few weeks later when I revisited Bu Hasan, she confided that her family was contemplating returning to their impoverished Duri homeland. On that 1998 visit, I was alternately moved, alarmed, and intrigued by the discussions prompted by this episode of narrowly averted interethnic violence. I open with this incident because it embodies several themes concerning ethnic–religious clashes and accommodations framing this chapter. The first theme is that of the complexity of discussing religious identities in Indonesia and elsewhere in contemporary South�east Asia. As suggested in this Toraja story of violence averted, a variety of conflicting and entwining identities were at play: ethnic, religious, political, and regional residential. Although Christianity and Islam have become increasingly important dimensions of identity in Indonesia in recent years, and are often reported to be prime motivators in current situations of conflict, one must keep in mind the constructed and myriad nature of identity. Not only does each Indonesian have a variety of entwining, sometimes competing religious, ethnic, and regional identities that must be considered in analyzing ethno�religious strife, but these identities are also not inert and primordial. Rather, identities are dynamic: they are shaped in particular historical and political circumstances (cf. Keesing 1989). Identity is always in the process of being formulated, challenged, or reaffirmed.

While popular media commentators often paint Indonesia as an explosive volcanic hotbed of ethnic and religious resentments, as a nation comprised of cultures programmed to run amok, or as a land of devout Muslims revolting against the forces of globalization and Westernization, scholars such as Sidel (2001) and Bubandt (2001) suggest that such explanations are erroneous. Rather, we need to understand how historical processes of capitalist development, class relations, and religious policies in Indonesia underlie the recent eruptions of violence. One broader theme in this chapter is on spotlighting these sorts of local histories to better illuminate dynamics in current ethnoreligious conflicts.

Another theme in this chapter concerns the production of peace and pan-identities. The Rantepao event is an instance in which violence was averted, where ethnic divisions between Chinese and Torajas were momentarily erased, presumably due to shared Christian identities and common residential or regional identities. Although many commentators have concentrated on documenting and analyzing violence in Southeast Asia, I wish to focus on the ways in which peace is produced, however tenuously. Just as it is important to ask why some places have been torn by religious, ethnic, and class violence, it is equally important to ask why many places in the same nation seem to remain comparatively peaceful, despite economic and employment woes.

The third theme of this chapter centers on how stories and material objects can become resources for ethical responses to conflict and the threat of violence. On the many occasions during which I heard the story of Toraja resistance to outside provocateurs, it was clear that this tale had become imbued with meaning as a model for Toraja conceptions of identity and ethical behavior. The emphasis on the Chinese as “saudara,” a term laden with Chritian connotations, also hints at the role of language in producing and underscoring emergent kinds of “we” identities, uniting ethnic communities under a religious umbrella. In Indonesia, how do some expressive and artistic practices foster reflections on ethical behavior in contemporary times? Specifically, this chapter explores how material creations become vehicles for imagining ways to engage harmoniously (and sometimes not so harmoniously) with other groups.

 

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