Jacques bertrand’s ‘nationalism and ethnic conflict in indonesia’

The book to be analyzed is Jacques Bertrand’s ‘Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia’, published by Cambridge University Press in 2004. This book is seen as one of the most recent writings on the subject of ethnic conflicts as they are, and through the prism of the situation in Indonesia.

Jacques Bertrand is known for the deep scientific research in the area of Asian studies; Bertrand is the authors of numerous works related to Indonesian conflicts and ethnic backgrounds, so the book may be seen as either a continuation of this research, or as the means of concluding all previous knowledge and making it more systematic, thus eliminating unnecessary information and creating a clear picture of what the situation is and what the roots of this situation are.

A question may appear (as well as serious doubts) as for how a Professor and a scientists of Toronto University, which is not even close to Indonesia could perform such deep research and whether the ideas given in the book can be trusted and can be relevant, but Bertrand was able to view the situation from inside, visiting Indonesia and conducting the research there. These ‘research trips’ as the author calls them, transformed the initial idea and image of the book, and the resulting work is the one we read now.

Speaking about the situation when a foreign author writes about ethnic conflicts of some other country, it has both its advantages and drawbacks. Taking into account that the author states ‘many people from various non-governmental organizations across Indonesia provided me with assistance, contacts and resources’ (Bertrand 2004, p. xv), it may be assumed that the conclusions made in the book are relevant and reliable.

The author’s purpose of writing this book was systematization of the information which had already been at disposal and needed deeper analysis and application in the theories described in the book; however, probably the principal aim of writing this book was to find possible solutions of the conflict situation. ‘I only hope that my work, in its very small way, can help to elucidate some aspects of the conflict and perhaps contribute to the reconciliation process’. (Bertrand 2004, p. xv) 3. One of the principal benefits of the book is that Bertrand was able to make huge systematization of the already existing material.

This is clearly seen through the strict structure of the book, with each part addressing the separate aspect of the conflict without tearing it off the general line of discussion. Thus, step by step, the reader fills the image of the situation which he has given through the beginning of the book, with additional aspects and details, making it multidimensional. ‘The argument of this book consequently differs from other studies that have addressed various aspects of the ethnicviolenceof the late 1990s’. (Bertrand 2004, p. 6)

The principal difference and one of the main advantages of this classification is that it is done through three lines – the first one described what role elites play in raising ethnic conflict; here Bertrand was brave enough to deny the strength of certain arguments and evidences (for example, the role of outside forces) and to re-direct discussion into understanding, what forces linked local groups to elites, and why so many people joined the riots. The whole structure of the book is made as leading the reader to the possible conclusions step by step.

From the very beginning the author gives basic theoretical approaches as for the possibilities of escalating ethnic violence. The advantages of making this chapter the first is in giving serious background for the reader to understand what roots of violence and ethnic conflicts exist at present, which helps to make personal conclusions as for which of the theories is applicable to the situation in Indonesia. Bernard tries to explain the core of ethnic violence through the conjunction and interrelation of nationalism, institutions and relations between ethnic groups.

It has been emphasized through the book that all previous studies had focused on national ethnic identities as well as various socio-economic factors; not a single theory had made anystresson the assumption that ethnic violence becomes relevant through the periods of institutionalreconstructionof the state. (Bertrand 2004, p. 10) These theoretic approaches are also seen through the light of the nationalism/ ethnic conflict connection, in which Bernard sees the essential aspect – nationalism is what links nations to the states (Bertrand 2004, p. 15), and while it is often seen as a very negative aspect, in its moderate forms nationalism is what defines the ‘face’ of nation.

Having once paid attention to the assumption that religion is the core of the ethnic conflict in Indonesia, Bernard follows this line across the several more sections, coming to the point that the discussion of how religious issues are managed in the country and how islamization influenced the ethnic structure and relation of people in Indonesia will finally become the correct choice giving the ideas as for how this conflict should be solved.

Making logical structure, Bernard leads the reader to the issue of religion as leading in Indonesian ethnic conflicts, gradually; starting the section of religious conflicts with the description of their essence, the reader goes through the explanation of connections between riots and religion, as well as the fall of Sukarto’s regime which is seen one of the pushing forces for the escalation of ethnic violence. ‘Though the violence was directed most clearly at the ethnic Chinese, religious undertones were nevertheless present’. (Bertrand 2004, p. 102) – this quotation shows the objectivity of analysis.

Bernard tries to avoid categorical statements and assumes that the analysis of the Indonesian ethnic conflicts should be done very carefully; the author is rather cautious in many statements which make the reader understand the striving for being objective. In explaining the reasons for religious riots, for example, Bernard was rather critical of the previous analyses made by other authors, but even in that case it has not been done in denying way, but through the prism of the knowledge which the author possessed and wanted to deliver to the public.

Making autonomy or federalism the best resolution of the ethnic conflict, Bernard explains this position stating that ‘autonomy could redistribute political power, representation, and control over the state’s resources to provincial or district levels. As such, it gave political elites in these territorial units more power to direct resources to their specific needs’ (Bertrand 2004, p. 185)

Thus, having started the book with the discussion of the political local elites as one of the major participants of ethnic violence, having gone through historical and religious aspects, Bernard still comes back to these elites in the solution, seeing it as the most beneficial. As it has become clear, the structure is absolutely strict, vivid, logical and correct. The book can be viewed as the basis for deep analysis and understanding the misconceptions which existed in the previous studies on the same subject. These misconceptions have also partially been mentioned here.

The assumptions which underlie the author’s argument mainly touch the aspect of religion; the basic assumption is that religious conflicts become the moving forces for the ethnic conflict, as well as that local elites need self-identification, which also leads them to riots and ethnic violence. One more useful assumption is that though many riots had no religious tint on the surface, the conflict between Islam and Christianity is the ground on which ethnic conflicts grew; with assuming that local elites play not the last role in creating these riots.

It is also possible to assume that ethnic violence is used as cover for elimination of the undesired religious layers; this assumption can be seen through the whole book, though it is not expressed openly, but is rather implied. How to categorize the author’s approach to the problem? I would state that it is a combination of sociological and political approaches. It is suggested that sociological approach is viewed through the analysis of the connections between the elites of various level (national, local).

Political approach is seen through the suggestion that autonomy will be the best resolution of the conflict. The question is here what other views and perspectives could be used here and how they could change the whole book. Let’s think – the two approaches used by the author are beneficial because they make it possible to come to the relevant conclusions and to make real suggestions as for the possible solutions. If this approach was philosophical – it would be absolutely different and probably deeper, but it would not be possible to create basic resolutions for the conflict.

Methodology which was used by the author is mostly interviewing – Bernard spent rather long time speaking to native people and living among them to gather all information possible for the book. As it is stated in the very first section of the book, ‘colleagues provided useful comments on parts of the manuscript or related papers, some influenced my ideas in discussions at various venues where I presented my work, or forced me to revise my analysis significantly in light of their constructive criticism’.

It may seem difficult to define what audience Bernard addresses in this book. Looking closer at the language in which the book is written, and thinking of what audience should be the best for reading the theoretical and practical material, it may be assumed that this book will be the most suitable for the researchers who now only work in he area of Asian conflicts and would be interested in information about Indonesia – the theoretical background is so strong that it can be used in any related sociological and political studies in the area of the ethnic conflicts, violence and their reasons and sources.

Moreover, the line which the author makes through the book (the logical line) can also be used by professionals in analyzing other regions of the world in the similar manner. Though the references made by Bernard to other works and authors, are all noted in the book, it is still easier to be read for those who have an idea about these works and what these works are about. Any author can be criticized and it is always possible to find weak sides in any work, no matter how professional it can be.

There of course can be other views on the problem, and Bernard was wise enough as to show these viewpoints in this work and to critically analyze them on the basis of the knowledge available from her life in Indonesia, though it is also possible to look at the problem not through religious prism, but through the prism of political reasons of striving for autonomy, for example, and in this case the research would take a different form.

For example, Bowen (1996) speaks about ethnic conflicts viewing them through social conflict and the importance of political choices, without any relation to religion. In his article he writes that emerging of the political systems is the crucial element for avoiding violence in any form, and though Bernard relates to institutional changes in the political structure, the arguments are still directed towards religion.

Though it may be suggested that while the book was published in 2004, three years might have created serious effect on the Indonesian regime and much could have changed after that. One of the recent articles in Washington Times about Indonesia (Anonymous 2005 p. A22) and its violence on the ethnic background has given assurance that Bernard was right – the arguments given about the Sukarno regime and its impact on raising ethnic conflict are only supported and are not denied and even neutralized.

Though the tendency towards democratization of the Indonesian society was noted as an important political factor for eliminating violence and destroying the grounds for the conflict; when population has received the right to elect and to vote, it has become clear that the Sukarno regime’s supporters would not have many chances to win the elections. While Bertrand states at the end of the book that ‘the end of regime opened up opportunities for renegotiating new terms of inclusion, or secession, for ethnonationalist groups’, (Bertrand 2004, p. 217) this assumption is supported by the abovementioned article.

Thus, it is not possible to say that the arguments given by Bernard were weakened with time; the perspective drawn by the author was developed as predicted, and the absence of any recent articles on violence in Indonesia is the best support for the prediction that renegotiating of ethnic groups has taken place. The significance of the writing analyzed here is not under any doubts; it has become clear that the analysis made by Bertrand is so deep that it cannot be stated any other author has been able to conduct the research of such large scale over the recent years.

The significance of this writing is more increased through the two following factors: first of all, it has been done ‘from inside’ of the situation with Bertrand undertaking multiple research trips to the country; and second, seeing the serious conclusions touching the need of autonomy, to which the author was able to come.


  1. Anonymous 2005, ‘Democratizing Indonesia’, The Washington Times, September 23, p. A22
  2. Bertrand, Jacques 2004, Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia, Cambridge University Press.
  3. Bowen, JR 1996, ‘The myth of global ethnic conflict’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 7, no. 4, p. 3-14