Indonesia's aspirations to political stability received a body blow as two bombs ripped through a busy Saturday morning market in the town of Tentana, central Sulawesi, killing at least 19 people and wounding many others. This part of Sulawesi island has been recovering slowly from major inter-communal violence in 2000. Whether these attacks mark the start of a new phase of hostilities remains to be seen.PreventConflict.org provides more background.
Sulawesi is unique among Indonesia's major islands in that Muslims and Christians are more or less evenly numbered, though their distribution is highly uneven. The south is predominantly Muslim, the north predominantly Christian, and the centre, a chequerboard of Muslim and Christian groups and communities.
The trigger of the conflict emerged in the shadow of Suharto's resignation as Indonesia's President in 1998. As a matter of social convention, the custom in Poso over the past many years was for the bupati (local governor) to alternate between Christian and Muslim office-holders. In this way, the special favors that naturally sprang from political office were somewhat diffused between the two communities. Apparently seizing the transitional tone of the day, then-bupati Arif Patanga, a Muslim, proposed that one of his family members succeed him instead of a Christian.
At around the same time, in what is referred to as the first stage in the Poso conflict, Muslims launched an attack on Christians in Poso, following a brawl between a Christian and Muslim youth. Muslims began to burn down churches and Christian homes, culminating in the second phase of the Poso conflict in April 2000 in which hundreds of Christian homes were destroyed, and many were killed.
The third phase began in May 2000, when the retaliation began in earnest as Christian "ninjas" terrorized and tortured Poso Muslims. Calling themselves "Black Bat" raiders, the Christians attacked Muslim villages. Illustrative is the case of Sintuwulemba, a Muslim village in which a large percentage of the men disappeared or were killed. It is estimated that 300 people were killed although authorities have claimed that it is difficult to produce definitive numbers of the deaths, as the bodies of many victims have supposedly floated out to sea under cover of darkness by way of the Poso River.
In August 2000, the governors of the four Sulawesi provinces declared a truce in the Christian stronghold of Tentena, Pamona Utara subdistrict. Then, in April 2000 the Palu local district court ruled that three Christians who had been accused of involvement in the previous year's violence would be put to death. Many Christians felt that the death sentence was unjust and biased, considering that no Muslims had been tried for violence that occurred in the first two phases of the conflict. Following the sentencing, there was a resurgence of violence in Central Sulawesi.
In late November 2001, the Muslim-Christian fighting flared up once again, spurred on by the introduction of thousands of Laskar Jihad members in Poso, armed Muslim gangs attacked and burned Christian villages around Poso. An estimated 15,000 Christians had fled from the attacks by early December.