Review of: Patrick Barron, When Violence Works: Postconflict Violence and Peace in Indonesia

By Astri Suhrke

When Violence Works is a provocative title of a book, and Patrick Barron sets about to show how violence has worked in Indonesia in a select number of places and periods. The focus is on so-called post-conflict violence, i.e. lower level violence that erupts or continues after major collective violence (e.g. civil wars or intense communal conflict) have ended. Low-level violence, including violent crime, tends to increase after wars end, and political scientists have been intrigued as to why this is so. Most commonly, analysts have looked for the answers in unresolved issues that shaped the preceding violence, in the nature of the peace settlement, and in broader institutional and societal factors. Barron has another explanation: Violence occurs when key actors find it in their interest to engage in or permit violence. The relevant actors are defined as local elites, national elites and violence specialists, and their interests are defined as desire for power and resources. The language of this theory is that of rational choice; violence is the result of decisions to engage in violence based on deliberate and strategic calculations of utility. Barron mostly examines violence in post-conflict situations, and he claims to present a general theory for why such violence does or does not occur. But he also applies this theoretical framework to explain the preceding conflict situations, which suggests ambitions for an even broader theoretical reach.

The research is guided by formal hypotheses regarding the behaviour of key actors (e.g. H1. Necessary condition: support for violence from local elites and violence specialists, H 10. Where there are expected changes to the rules by which resources or power are allocated, violence will rise), which are tested against quantitative as well as qualitative data. Barron draws on a large data set, which he helped build, called the National Violence Monitoring System (NVMS). The data bank contains information on 158,363 incidents of violence in Indonesia in the period 1998-2012, including violent crime and domestic violence as well as what is usually called collective, political violence. In addition, his research involved interviews with around 300 persons for the case studies chosen for detailed investigation.

The cases are post-civil war Aceh, where the post-conflict period is defined as August 2005-December 2012; Maluku, where March 2002-December 2012 is taken as the post-conflict period after communal violence; and North Maluku, where the equivalent period after communal violence is July 2000-December 2012. While choosing a cut-off point for a “post-conflict period” has occasioned some discussion in the literature, the end of the time series in the data set seems to have settled the issue here.

Maluku is analysed as the province with high-level violence. Post-civil war Aceh and post-communal violence North Maluku serve as a control group of sorts; they are chosen as provinces with low post-conflict violence. Within the three provinces, six districts were selected for further examination based on variations in level and type of violence in the post-conflict period.

What then are the findings? The hypotheses framed at the outset are affirmed. At one level, this is hardly surprising insofar as social violence requires some actors to be willing to engage in violence. Assessing the motivation and calculation of the key actors is, of course, difficult. Barron relies on two main sources: the logic of the situation as inferred by the informed analyst, and opinions of local informants. In some cases, this seems to convincing. For instance, it is probably safe to conclude that some ordinary crime (which is included in the dataset) is based on expectations of economic gains and the likelihood that patronage networks will secure impunity if caught. But did detachments of national the security forces deployed to Maluku deliberately fail to prevent episodic communal violence between Christians and Muslims because they had a pecuniary interest in violence (they received salary supplement when stationed in the area)? Or did local elites trigger communal violence in order to ward off inspection from a national anti-corruption agency? May be so. But Barron’s sources cannot provide solid evidence that such calculations were made, and strategic calculations, of course, can go astray. Barron’s narrative of the cases sometimes let slip that violence got out of control and escalated in an all too familiar dynamic of its own.

More broadly, the focus on actors’ calculation does not tell us anything about the structural or historical context in which such calculations are likely to take place and have violent consequences. Why, for instance, do anti-corruption investigations in, say Norway, not lead to street violence, as it apparently did in Maluku? The comparison is absurd but also useful. The critical questions for understanding the occurrence of violence, whether in a conflict or so-called post-conflict situation, are when, why and where local elites and violence specialists decide to instigate or allow violence, and the conditions under which agents of violence can be readily mobilised – whether in the form of street mobs, vigilantes, militias or regular militaries. In this book, these questions, and certainly the answers, disappear in the detailed empirical analysis and are obscured by an approach that single-mindedly searches for evidence to support the more narrowly focused hypotheses of utility calculations by key actors.

The only overarching analysis of context comes at the very end, where Barron concludes that since Indonesia has embraced the political structures of liberal democracy, and the army’s political role has been curbed, there is very little chance that “extended violence” in the form of civil war or intense communal violence will recur. That is reassuring. However, a quick look at India, for instance, suggests otherwise.

The micro-analysis of the case studies provides bits and pieces of contextual information that are interesting and useful for understanding the occurrence of violence. For example, the differential economic opportunities to former combatants in two districts of Aceh seem related to different levels or post-conflict violence. Less violence correlated with new employment opportunities in mining. This seems plausible, given the general link between ordinary crime and high levels of unemployment and poverty. But why is there no discussion of unemployment or economic conditions as a possible reason for violence in the other areas studied?

Not surprisingly, there is little discussion of communal divisions as a potential source of continued violence in Maluku and North Maluku, even though the preceding violence followed ethnic lines. The omission is logical; such divisions are only marginally significant in an analytical framework where violence is examined as the outcome of deliberate and strategic calculations of cost and benefit.

The data set is a valuable and makes for interesting reading. The most interesting part to this reader is that compared to many other “post-conflict” situations, and even societies that have not experienced recent wars, the reported level of violence in all the three cases studied are quite low.  In Maluku, chosen as a high-violence province, the number of annual violent deaths in the ten-year post-conflict period (including “ordinary” murder) was 34 per million population. Translated to deaths per 100 000 (the standard ratio) this gives 3.4 deaths per 100,000.  This is just above the average homicide rate for Europe provided by UNODC for a comparable point in time (3 per 100 000).[1] Finland – a country with only distant memories of a civil war – is in the middle of that range with around 1.5 per 100 000. In Central America, by comparison, protracted civil wars in the late 20th century left a legacy of double-digit homicide rates per 100 000. El Salvador in 2012 had a rate of 41.2 homicides per 100 000.

The discussion in a final chapter on the Indonesian military’s role during the periods of extended violence provides what is arguably the book’s most important conclusion. With the fall of Suharto in 1998, the military faced new uncertainties and challenges to its hitherto significant political and economic power. To protect institutional interests – including its formal political role, its position as guardian of the nation, and the size of the defence budget – the military leadership recognized the strategic value of violence, Barron argues. Hence, the army “allowed violence to escalate” in Aceh and East Timor (the latter discussed only in this chapter), and deliberately failed to stop the communal violence in Maluku. If the military leadership indeed made such a calculation, it was a strategic miscalculation. In rapid succession, they lost on all accounts. The military’s political representation in the Parliament was cut in half (1999) and its political role (dwifungsi) was formally abolished (2000). In the meantime, East Timor had become a ward of the UN and later declared independence. The 2005 peace agreement gave Aceh significant autonomy, and internationally supported inquiries into the military’s human rights abuses tainted its prestige. In short, if Barron is right in concluding that the Indonesian military calibrated its use of force to serve institutional interests, violence did not work. Recalling the title of the book, that is an important conclusion.

[1] UN Office on Drugs and Crime prepares  yearbooks with statistics on homicide globally. For 2012, see The average for Europe includes Russia and Eastern Europe, which have higher rates than the rest of the region.

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