Ethnicity and Violence


ETHNICITY commonly speaking is seen as the most major sources of conflict within society. Nevertheless, many studies find that ethnicity is not!

In his study on the anatomy of ethnic riots, Horowitz (2001) underlines that ethnic riot is a multidimensional event. It is a cause, effect and process at the same time. It is not a random phenomenon and yet it has a structure and a natural history. The victim of the ethnic riots, according to Horowitz, can be seen from two main theories. First is the target choice theory whose main assumption is that the prosperous minorities are likely to be the victim. However, based on many cases in his study, Horowitz found that the prosperous minorities are likely not targeted even in the most brutal riots. The second is the scapegoat hypothesis that focuses on the weakness of the targets of the ethnic violence.


Ethnic violence, Horowitz defines, “entails a substantial measure of relatively spontaneous physical assault by member of one group or members of another,” and “the main target are people and the property that is associated with them, rather than institution.” He also differentiates ethnic riots with many other form of social violence, such as violent protest, pogroms or the massacre of the helpless people, feuds, lynching’s, and genocides. Ethnic riots are also different from terrorist attacks where an individual or group of individuals use killing based on particular policy.

Collecting the data of 161 countries from 1945 until 1999, Fearon and Laitin (2003) argues that the prevalence of civil war in the 1990s was not due to the end of the Cold War and associated changes in the international arena. Many conflicts have roots prior to the end of Cold War. Moreover, the common assumption saying that diversity within society is among the major sources of social conflicts is cannot be accepted anymore.

In additional, Fearon and Laitin find that there is only little evidence where a civil war or ethnic conflict could be emerged following the diversity within society. Fearon and Laitin also use a working definition to explain the civil conflicts. They draw criteria for violent civil conflict. The first criterion is about the fighting between agents of state and non-state groups. The next criterion is about victims of the conflict.

dsc00436The third work for is taken from Ashutosh Varshney (2002), where the author discusses the violence between the Muslim and Hindu in India after the India-Pakistan partition until 1995. He brings up the debate between postmodernist and constructivist in defining the cause of conflict. Unlike postmodernists who see that the violence is mainly created by the elites’ political ambitions and objectives, the constructivists believe that the nature of violence is not merely a master narrative. Using Benedict Anderson’s imagined community concept, Varshney highlights that “the modern technology of imagination are not available only to the knowledge and power elite, but also to the people at large.” The process of making resilience and resistance or violence and revenge narrative is not dominated by the political elites.

Varshney stresses his study to the need of what he calls the civic engagement as an instrument to reduce and decline the number of violence. He argues that the more open one ethnic group or religious association to the others, the better connection among those different societies, communities or groups and the less number of violence among them under the banner of ethnic or religion differences driven by narrow political elite’s interest. Modernity at the same time has changed the meaning of identities by bringing the masses into a larger, extra local framework of consciousness and made it wider and more institutionalized.


Born and raised in a melting pot city in Indonesia where I happen to share my identity with my fellows and friends from the childhood, I myself determine and believe that the violence is mainly caused by social and political gap in the broader or umbrella society. When a group of people, whatever their ethnicity and religion, has been politically pressured and economically marginalized and their existence has been diminished by the superior for such a long time, they would likely produce and manufacture the resistance-rhetoric among the group’s members and transfer the resilience from generation to generation.

As many of the New Order’s critics, I assume that the regime has mistreated the unitary-state concept as the foundation of the state. He has discriminated many of local/native peoples in the country, and centered the development process mostly only in the shantytown of Jakarta, and accumulated the wealth even only in his allies and cronies.


For example, Soeharto of New Order treated the Chinese descendants in two different ways. In one hand, he gave a sense that he treated the Chinese descendants just like they were involved in what was campaigned as the 1965 communist coup. Following this campaign, eventually the rest of Indonesian have associated the Chinese men with communism and blamed them for what happened in 1965. The New Order regime has banned several scholarly works that provided evidence of the amalgamation process between Chinese immigrants and the local community, such as Prof. Slamet Muljana’s Runtuhnya Kerajaan Hindu Jawa dan Bangkitnya Kerajaan Islam Nusantara and Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Hoakiao di Indonesia.

In another hand Soeharto gave privilege and protected to the Chinese tycoons (Bob Hasan, Liem Sioe Liong, Jimbaran groups, etc.) as his compatriot in the capitalistic and Western style national development program. Soeharto and his administration established the invisible Berlin Wall between the Chinese descendants and the rest of Indonesian. Soeharto exercised quite similar treatment to the Muslim groups, pushed them to accept Pancasila as the only foundation for any Muslim organization, and associated those who rejected Pancasila with the communism and the nationally banned Indonesia Communist Party (PKI).

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