SOAS University of London

Centre of South East Asian Studies

Ethnic Politics in North Sumatra

Dr Budi Agustono (University of Sumatera Utara, Medan)

Date: 21 October 2019Time: 5:15 PM

Finishes: 21 October 2019Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: 4429

Type of Event: Seminar


North Sumatra is one of the 33 provinces in Indonesia. In the pre-colonial times, this region was known as a trading port accessible to foreign traders from Persia, India, and China to their own settlements.

After the Dutch colonized the region, they changed the North Sumatera society. Dutch colonial power introduced modern bureaucracy and western education. This effectively cut off the local rulers' power and limited their political and economic roles. Their income depended on the Dutch government, especially from land concession fees. In line with the modernization of bureaucracy, the coming of plantation industries driven by colonial capitalism has spurred the deepening of capitalism into the region. The massive plantation industries needed a large number of workers to operate, and drew them from the various ethnic groups to serve as plantation labors. Chinese and Indians were recruited from their origin countries while the Javanese and Bawean from Java were encouraged to come to the plantations as labors. However, local people rejected to become labors, while migrants mostly occupied the positions of management in the plantations. The coming of different ethnic groups combined with the existing local ethnics had created North Sumatra as a multi-ethnic or plural society.

When the nationalist movement sprung up in the early twentieth century, many of its leaders were of migrant backgrounds such as the Minangkabau, Mandailing, Acehnese, Javanese, Karonese, and Javanese, while the local population consisting mainly of the Malays had never been involved. The nationalist movement did not only attack the Dutch but also the sultanates or local rulers who were mostly Malays. The nationalist movement became the contesting areas among ethnic groups.

In the decolonization period, political parties and mass organization leaders led by migrants played an important role in occupying government offices and organizing masses for political purposes. Political tension arose from a struggle over resources and distribution of power. The local Malay rulers and their families who had enjoyed political and economic privileges since the colonial times became targets of the so-called social revolution. Hundreds of royal families ended up raped, killed, and their properties were looted.

In a plural society such as North Sumatra consisting of eight ethnic groups with different religions, languages, and cultures, social relationship has often been colored by a socio-political tension. Interestingly, despite the competition for resources is getting stronger, open ethnic conflict has never taken place in North Sumatera.


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Organiser: SOAS Centre of South East Asian Studies

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