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  February 15, 2002  

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Southeast Asia

The Spice Islands' legacy of violence
By Bill Guerin

JAKARTA - Ambon, the capital of the province of the Moluccas Islands, or Maluku to Indonesians and the Spice Islands to romantics, has been the setting for three years of inter-religious violence. More than 10,000 have died unholy deaths and thousands more, mostly Muslims, have fled the conflict for South Sulawesi.

An estimated 90 percent of Indonesia's 214 million people follow the Islamic faith, but in the Malukus, some 1,700 kilometers from the capital Jakarta, the split between Muslims and Christians is more or less even.

This year Jakarta finally geared up for action and a series of high-level ministerial pre-talks succeeded in bringing the major parties together to sign a truce on Tuesday. The events of September 11, and the deepening criticism of Jakarta's continued ambivalence to US President George W Bush's mighty cause, served to concentrate the minds.

Announcing the peace accord, Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Yusuf Kalla, who hosted the talks in the hilly resort of Malino in South Sulawesi, said: "Both sides have agreed to end all conflicts and hostilities," and added: "There were no disagreements."

The truce calls for the establishment of two commissions, one for security and one for social and economic affairs, to monitor what is, in reality, a ceasefire. It also makes provision for the disarming and banning of the feared militias and the establishment of joint security patrols. It calls for the return of refugees to their homes, the return of their property and the reconstruction of the province. This will scarcely impress the thousands who now have no homes to return to. Three years of bloody combat spawned more than half a million refugees.

Ambon, mostly devastated by the fighting, is in effect a divided capital with a thin no-man's land separating the two communities.

Thirty-five Muslim and 35 Christian delegates signed the agreement, the bulk of the 100 signatories that included Coordinating Minister for Security Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Yusuf Kalla himself. Just for good measure, National Police Commander Da'i Bahtiar and the Malukus Governor M Latuconsina signed the truce deal, thus making it worthy of respect.

However, the paramilitary Laskar Jihad delegates refused to attend the Malino talks, saying in a statement that the Muslim delegates at the negotiations did not represent the people of the province. The issue was a sore point in the hills of Sulawesi, with their delegation's leader Thamrin Eli stating publicly: "Laskar Jihad should not be ordered to leave Ambon with force because they are Indonesian citizens who have rights to stay wherever they want in the Indonesian territory." It's unclear whether security forces will attempt to expel the outsiders or allow them to remain in Maluku to "protect Muslims", he argued on Tuesday.

Muslim leaders and Laskar Jihad say the Christian side started the fighting and they have always demanded that their leaders apologize on behalf of the Christian community and that the masterminds of the conflict are brought to justice. Christians say the Muslims started the conflict. Neither side thinks much of the idea of militarily guaranteed protection. Experience has taught them otherwise.

Laskar Jihad forces in the Malukus appear not to be directly fighting Christians. Though they have boasted of training jihad warriors they sent to Poso in South Sulawesi, a similar conflict but on a much smaller scale, they do a substantial amount of charity and social aid work to help Maluku Muslims in need.

Laskar Jihad on the main Indonesian island of Java is, however, a different breed altogether. Along with the smaller and less well-known Laskar Mujahidin militia, they are alleged to have strong links to the al-Qaeda network and other terrorist organizations outside Indonesia.

Laskar Jihad and Laskar Mujahidin pose a much greater problem for the Megawati administration than any other Islamic militant groups. With the long arm of Washington already scrutinizing Indonesian-linked terrorist activity in Singapore, a fingertip away from Indonesia, the writing is on the wall.

The root causes of the Ambon conflict lie deep down in the gut of the long-standing economic and social imbalance between the Muslim and Christian communities. But other, more national, factors suggest such religious strife may not end so abruptly in a multi-ethnic Indonesian society that has become conditioned to everyday violence.

Decades of violence by the state against the people, during a 32-year Suharto regime that was born out of violence, have scarred the human soul of even the calmest and most gentle of people. Savagery is never far below the surface. In the living hell for those poor and impoverished who scrape out a living in Jakarta, robbers are doused with gasoline and otherwise ordinary people gleefully watch the human flesh crackle and sizzle out of existence.

Almost half a million alleged communists were slaughtered, mainly by their Muslim neighbors, in the green killing fields of Java and the tranquil rice terraces of Bali in 1965-66. This followed Suharto's takeover of power from "Bung" Karno, Indonesia's first president and the father of the current leader, President Megawati Sukarnoputri. The butchery was given the green light from Suharto in vengeance for the earlier brutal slayings of six generals by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Any analysis of contemporary Indonesian history dulls the senses and it suddenly becomes clear. The relatively recent violence following independence in 1945 is just the middle game. It all started way back with the Javanese kings of old. In the Spice Islands, it all started 500 years ago with Halmahera, the main island, the battlefield for rivalry and regional supremacy between the sultanates of Tidore and Ternate. Some of the worst massacres in this latest conflict took place on Halmahera.

The sultan of Ternate, traditional leader of the Christian population, no longer has political clout but his influence on the loyal Christians kept serious conflict at bay until 1999. Oddly enough, Ternate is 80 percent Muslim but the sultan of Ternate has traditionally protected his Christian minority there.

In 1999, as the conflict gathered momentum, North Maluku became a separate province. Tidore failed in a bid to become the capital of the new province and the ensuing renewed rivalry when Ternate became the capital reared its ugly head in the midst of the ongoing fighting.

Communal violence was rare during the ordered life under Suharto, but, in Jakarta is becoming commonplace, though thankfully is rarely caused by religious differences.

But religion has added a new and much more frightening dimension to the path of violence in Indonesia. Ambon is Indonesia's role model for a religion-based closed-shop network. Even today, with half of the city abandoned, the vast majority of employment lies with the local government. The networks ensure that jobs are bought or won on favors owed, not on any pretense about evaluating a list of applicants. This subculture itself ensures the perpetuation of violence - the need to fight for what is deemed to be yours by right, the need to fend off "the enemy".

Ambon is Christian-dominated and in 1950 a South Maluku Republic breakaway movement, supported by Ambonese Christian soldiers from the Dutch colonial army, proclaimed an independent Republik Maluku Selatan (Republic of the South Moluccas, or RMS). The military soon crushed this brazen attempt to change their status quo but every now and then breakaway (read separatist) demands surface and stir up sectarian violence.

Far away in the Netherlands, thousands of Christian Ambonese, sent away for their part in the attempt at the treasonable separatism, remain alone, unwanted by the Dutch and unlikely ever to be able to settle in the homeland they had tried to liberate from Indonesian rule.

But Christian gangs and Muslim gangs alike run the street economy, divvying up spoils, sometimes under orders from the greater mafia in Jakarta.

Intelligence reports show that the Ambon conflict was triggered not by some simple disagreement, which is the received wisdom, but was instead brought about by the hereditary rivalry between preman (thug) gangs in Ambon that are blood brothers to others in Jakarta. The links between those responsible for protection rackets in the capital, and elsewhere in the archipelago, as well as in Ambon, are public secrets.

The customized report from the Asia Human Rights Watch body vividly describes how the conflict, which was to cause so much pain and suffering, began. The stark language used describes the way rival gangs, the "Reds" and the "Whites" engineered a standoff at a distance. The Christian "Reds" mobilized in the Maranatha church, while the Muslim "Whites" tooled up at the al-Fatah mosque. Influenced perhaps, as this generation of Indonesians is, by a daily diet of imported and local violence on television, they had prepared for war. They had made contingency plans not because of an insult or incident in Ambon, but because of a loss of face over a gambling den war in far-off Jakarta.

Then came the spark that lit the tinder. A trivial incident at the Ambon bus terminal resulted, within minutes, in Christian and Muslims alike spreading the word that the "other side" had started it. All hell broke loose within days.

Former president Abdurrahman Wahid has often claimed that hard-line generals opposed to civilian rule sparked off the conflict. He may be right, and the military, cleverly sidelined by Wahid, planted the final kiss of death on him by withdrawing their support for the sitting president 48 hours preceding his ouster on July 23 of last year. The violence in Ambon certainly decreased sharply after Megawati was installed as the new president, but this is consistent with her strong and deliberately fostered relationship with the generals through their common ground of anti-separatism.

The fact that, under Megawati, the military may never be under effective civilian control spells real trouble ahead in Ambon if the truce fails to bite.

Partisanship by local security forces has long been a major problem in Ambon. Just as in the urban Jakarta environment, police and soldiers demand protection money from businesses at the first sign of any conflict. It is widely believed that rogue military officers have ensured that the conflict continued, by engaging in battle with the rival factions as mercenaries.

A year after the fighting started, Jakarta and Wahid himself stood on the sidelines as thousands of Muslim fighters belonging to the Laskar Jihad militia - or Holy War Troops - sailed from Java to engage in avenging Muslim deaths.

No, the deep-seated social divisions, envy and hatred that succor and nourish those who falsely fly the banner of religion and bigotry to justify their inhumanity will not be cured by a truce dreamed up by Jakarta.

Javanese colonialism has a lot to answer for. Suharto sent scores of Muslim families into this Christian-dominated region. Even as it became apparent that this increase in the Muslim population was seen as threatening the Christians, Suharto, under pressure to win political support from the Muslims, set up an Ambonese Muslim to governor the province. His man, Akib Latuconsina, governs to this day and oversaw the escalation in the numbers of government-sponsored Muslim migrants from densely overpopulated Java. Muslims were slowly but surely entrenched into the senior echelons of the bureaucracy and the balance of political power, as well as money and business moved away from the Christians to the Muslims.

Much as in Cyprus, still paying the price of an invasion in 1974 that brought thousands upon thousands of illiterate Turkish troops to a community at peace with its religious differences, Ambon, along with Nicosia, may remain one of the only two divided cities in the world for some time to come.

Violence begets violence. The top-down violence of 500 years in the Spice Islands and the contemporary violence in an Indonesia struggling to come to terms with a fast-changing world may yet extract their pounds of flesh.

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