Tue, 14 May 2002

Dealing with cost of conflict

Ignas Kleden, Center for East Indonesian Affairs, Jakarta

The relationship between conflict and social integration appears to be a paradox. On the one hand, social integration exists when conflicts can be prevented, or if ongoing conflicts are resolved peacefully. The absence of social conflict can lead to social integration, whereas the presence of social conflict jeopardizes it.

However, one can go the other way around, and say that in a society with solid social integration it is more difficult for conflicts to emerge in comparison to a society where there is widespread instability. When the situation is insecure, almost everything, whether serious or trivial, can bring about violent outbursts and conflict. This means the absence of social integration can more easily cause conflicts, whereas solid and stable social integration becomes the most effective factor to prevent social conflict from occurring and escalating.

Where does one start? This question is much more challenging than just a theoretical exercise. Ambon is an exemplary case as far as the relationship between conflict and social integration is concerned. After more than three years of violence and destruction, there is virtually no feeling of security there.

The worst situation occurs when people are no longer confident of being able to establish reconciliation and restore peace, even if they are more than willing to do so. To put it in theological terms, there is a contradiction between hope for peace and faith in human ability to establish peace. One hopes and yet does not believe in what one is hoping for. In March last year, we discovered, through extensive interviews with people of six groups in Maluku and with six groups of people from Maluku province in Jakarta, that at least 80 percent of the population in Maluku at that time wanted to end the conflict. However, this figure needs to be analyzed carefully. The fact that people want to end war and conflict does not necessarily have to correspond with a serious determination for conflict resolution and reconciliation.

The wish to terminate conflict might be no more than an expression of being tired of fighting, a hint of the desperate desire to live in some form of normality, a signal of exhaustion and a lessening of aggression and ability to defend, or of being uncomfortable living in unwanted confinement. In other words, it is a negative option, a need for "freedom from". This is something different from the wish for reconciliation and peace, which is a positive option, a realization of "freedom for". In the case of Ambon and Maluku, we are faced with the bitter fact that the transition from the negative option to the positive determination is volatile and beyond predictability. Social conflict has gone so far as to transpose social insecurity into psychological instability.

The experience of hardship, destruction, violence and fear has been so deeply embedded in the collective memory that it is very difficult to forget. What often happens is that the stubborn memory makes the past actual again. This "psychological present tense" of violence should be handled carefully because any intervention that aims to handle this lag of consciousness too hastily, will be faced with the suspicion of whether some outsiders want to help or to traumatize.

This essay ventures to suggest that, for the time being, psychological treatment is a priority, and that it is no less important and urgent than legal action or political intervention. This becomes all the more apparent if we take the situation of children into consideration. Young boys and girls who have seen their mothers murdered, their fathers kidnapped and their brothers and sisters injured and disfigured, cannot easily rid themselves of bitter feelings and resentment. If this situation is not tackled swiftly, either by government or by private initiatives, than these children will grow up and allow revenge to mature with them.

Of course, religious teachers can tell them that revenge is wrong. Or teachers of law can try to change the minds of their pupils by saying that one should never take action that would transgress one's own rights and life. All these good intentions will not work if the shaky psychological foundation of those children is not made more stable through special treatment. It is an illusion to expect people to be ready for the process of reconciliation if no serious efforts have been made to bring them closer to normality. If this is not done with some success, we will just be causing future conflict when these children come of age and start thinking why they are condemned to suffer unduly.

So far there has been no organized effort to give serious attention to special psychological treatment. There might have been some individual attempts in that direction but this is too little to be of much consequence. Violence produces violence. This is true, not only in the synchronic sense, in that a violence will instigate more violence, but also in the diachronic sense, that violence against one generation will cause violence in another. Violence comes from within human beings, and something should be done to improve the interior condition of people, before we can embark upon external action.