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  May 4, 2002  

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Southeast Asia

Indonesia's deadly war games

By Richel Langit

JAKARTA - "By hook or by crook" seems to be the tenet that Indonesia's powerful military and police hold dearly in pursuing their political ambitions.

Renewed religious conflicts in Ambon, Maluku, have increasingly been exploited by the military and police to boost their bargaining position against President Megawati Sukarnoputri and other civilian politicians in both the House of Representatives (DPR) and the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), with the ultimate goal of maintaining their political role.

Indeed, MPR, the country's highest legislative body, is working on the fourth and last phase of constitutional amendment, which is expected to put an end to the military's political role. If the amendments are endorsed by MPR in its annual meeting in August, the military and police's political role comes to an end in 2004, instead of 2009 as previously agreed. For the military and police, which have controlled the country's political life for more than three decades now, the sudden change constitutes an untimely political shock that has cost them huge economic privileges.

It is not surprising, therefore, that almost immediately after the bloody attack on the Christian village of Soya, Ambon, last Sunday, which killed 14 people, calls have mounted for the imposition of a military emergency in the province, where protracted religious conflicts have claimed close to 10,000 innocent lives. The imposition of a military emergency would practically mean allowing the military to rule the province.

The truth is the military and police have sabotaged efforts by the Maluku administration to stop the conflicts by ignoring orders from Governor Saleh Latuconsina. Latuconsina in particular complained about the navy's indifference to his orders to beef up sea security and criticized security officers' reluctance to arrest those responsible for instigating the violence.

"If we ask the navy why they do not provide sea security, they would say 'we lack equipment', where in fact the Maluku administration has provided most of the required equipment," Latuconsina said on Wednesday. "How can the situation in Ambon improve and how can I take stern measures against the warring groups if my instructions are just ignored by security personnel?"

Earlier, the military switched the religious conflicts in Ambon from horizontal conflicts - between two social groups - to vertical conflicts between the state and the Republic of South Maluku (RMS) by accusing the insurgent group of masterminding the bloody violence in the province. By pointing their fingers at RMS, the military is practically declaring war against the alleged perpetrators of the violence.

But what puzzles many outsiders is the fact that security officers have taken no action against the Java-based Muslim paramilitary group Laskar Jihad, whose presence in the province has only exacerbated the violence. No less an authority than Latuconsina linked last Sunday's bloody attack on the Christian village of Soya to the Laskar Jihad paramilitary and its leader Djafar Umar Thalib, who once fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the1980s. Indeed, two days before the deadly attack, the Muslim cleric addressed his fighters in a mosque in downtown Ambon, lambasting security authorities for failing to prevent the alleged separatist group RMS from hoisting its secessionist flag on April 25, and calling for a "people's war" and holy war against the separatist movement.

The same Laskar Jihad has also been involved in confiscating lands belonging to Christians and distributing them to its members and Muslims from outside Maluku province. Legal owners of these lands were chased out by force and as a consequence have had to escape into the jungles in order to save their lives. Christians captured by the vigilante Laskar Jihad forces had to face the consequence of simultaneously forced conversion to Islam and circumcision or death.

When leaders of warring groups came to a government-sponsored meeting in Malino, South Sulawesi province, last year, Laskar Jihad leaders refused to come to the "negotiation table". And when leaders from both camps signed a peace agreement in the resort town of Malino last February 12, Laskar Jihad refused to recognize the settlement. In fact, immediately after the meeting, Laskar Jihad leaders set up their own radio station, through which they openly urged Muslims to wage war against their Christian infidel enemies.

Speculations are mounting that the presence of Laskar Jihad in Ambon is fully supported by the military and police as part of their effort to create "necessary conditions" for the imposition of a military emergency in the territory. It is a well-known fact that some elements in the military and police are actively supporting certain Muslim fundamentalist groups, which often take the law into their own hands.

Meanwhile, by implicating RMS in the communal clashes, the military has, in effect, sided with the Muslims and declared war against the Christians fighting for their lives. As such, the end of the conflicts may come with a bitter reality - the perishing of Christian communities in the province, either by forced conversion into Islam or martyrdom. Either way, the conflicts would follow the plot sketched out by Muslim fundamentalist groups that have persistently demanded the implementation of Islamic law, or syariah, in Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim country. In fact, the RMS issue was first brought up by the Laskar Jihad in 2000, when it sent over 10,000 volunteers from Java to fight along their Muslim friends against the Christians in Maluku.

RMS, a little-known secessionist group that finds its roots in the declaration of the South Maluku Republic by Ch R S Soumokil on April 25, 1950, has been identified with the Christians. But as a movement, RMS long ago lost its steam, with its support base vanishing rapidly after the Dutch, who colonized Indonesia for more than 350 years, recognized Indonesia's independence in 1959. Since then, RMS has ceased to be a threat to the country's unity. If many Christians now demonstrate support for the rebel group, they are merely expressing their anger and disappointment over the government's inability to put an end to the conflicts, which have displaced thousands of innocent people.

Religious conflicts in Ambon are unmistakably communal conflicts that started out as an ethnic conflict between migrants from Buton, Bugis and Makassar ethnic groups, which are all Muslims, and the indigenous Maluku ethnic group, which is evenly divided between Muslim and Christian communities. The migrants later successfully exploited the conflict by appealing to Muslim brothers in the Maluku ethnic group, shattering long-held social values such as "Pela Gandong", or mutual help and brotherhood. Nevertheless, the conflicts remained communal violence until the government and military announced the involvement of RMS in the conflicts.

According to Thamrin Amal Tomagola, a noted sociologist from Maluku, the switching of conflicts from horizontal, or communal, to vertical conflicts and the recent bloody clashes in Ambon were designed to allow the military to use a repressive, security approach to putting an end to the conflicts.

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