Working In Indonesia

Andrea Strimling

Commissioner, International ADR, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service; also a founder of ACRON (the Applied Conflict Resolution Organizations Network)

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003


This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

One was when I was working in Indonesia helping senior governmental and non governmental leaders to build local capacity to prevent and resolve the violence that was sweeping the country along ethnic and religious lines. I was traveling with a man who is the former minister of environment. He's a Berkeley trained economist, very, very smart man, extremely well respected around the country and he had become a sponge for these ideas. So everything we brought, you know, he would be quoting the next day all of the literature from the field just sort of internalizing it and then feeding it back in his speeches. It was an incredible opportunity to really feel like there was a vehicle for bringing some of these ideas into high-level discussions and also for having them sort of adapted appropriately.

We were in a remote village actually on one of the outer islands and it was a place he was known very well. The community assembled the religious leaders from all of the five official religions for this evening meeting with him. I was sitting by he side sort of, as he needed it, consulting with him in the background. He was dealing with this group whose community had not yet been touched by the violence between religious groups, but it was very concerned that it could be. This was intended as sort of a preventive meeting. And interestingly enough these religious leaders get together once every two months or so, or maybe even once every month to share ideas and information.

And they discuss the relationships among the religions. So he asked them how things are between their religious groups in this particular community for about an hour and they kept saying "Oh, it's very good, we really respect one another, we really like one another", and all of that, This went on and he kept asking in different ways, pushing a little bit around the edges and finally about twenty minutes before the program was set to conclude after lots and lots of dialogue about how wonderful everything was, one of them said "Well actually there was a small problem", and this was, I believe it was a Muslim leader. And he said "The Christians have been coming into the traditionally Muslim villages and they've been trying to convert our youth and they've been distributing copies of the Bible in the local language, I mean not the Indonesian language but the local, local language and this has made us very, very upset because of course were concerned about losing our, you know, our followers."

And so, after a little bit more discussion everyone nodded and said this was really serious. The man who I was traveling with and working with on this project, asked me, "What do I do now?" and I said, "Ask them what they did in response." So he said, "What did you do in response," and they said without even thinking twice, without even questioning for one moment the validity of this response, they said, "Well, we called the military." In that moment I realized that this country has been dealing with imposed power for so many decades that there simply is not even the thought of, let alone the capacity to engage in meaningful dialogue around these issues, even though they have this forum that is intended to promote dialogue across these lines. And even though they have these relationships, ongoing relationships among religious leaders the default response was to ask for military assistance in this situation.

What was really telling was the man who I was working with did not even question that answer. It was just an indication of how incredibly valuable and inspiring some of these ideas can be. So we used that to talk with them a little bit about opportunities for dialogue, but unfortunately the project didn't continue, so there wasn't. I wasn't involved further with this group. So that was one, it was just a really telling experience that completely affirmed for me the importance of the basic approaches involving dialogue across differences, that is sort of fundamental to our work. Whether or not the specific techniques are applicable in a certain context, the basic, and the fundamental intention is very valid.