07 February 2004

Recap of Three Years of Violence in Maluku, Indonesia, 1999-2002

In January 2002, two reporters for the Jakarta Post, Edith Hartanto in Jakarta and Oktavianus Pinontoan in Ambon, published a special report entitled "Three years of bloody Maluku conflicts leave nothing but disaster."
AMBON, Maluku (JP): Three years ago, a petty dispute between a local and two migrants in the Ambon capital of Maluku degenerated into a full-scale sectarian riot which up to this year has killed 9,000 people and forced more than 500,000 people out of their homes.

The involvement of outsiders and provocateurs in the ensuing violence worsened the tension among what was once a harmonious community of various races and religions. The community became divided by blood, rage and deceit.

It all began on Jan. 19, 1999 at 3 p.m. local time when local public minivan driver Jopi Leuhery, from Ahuru, Central Maluku, became involved in a quarrel with two male migrants from Bugis-Makassar [Sulawesi], named Nursalim and Tahang.

The two men apparently tried to extort money from Jopi at the Batu Merah bus terminal and threatened to slash him with sickle.

Upset by their action, Jopi ran back to his house, picked up a machete and along with several friends went after the two extortionists.

In their account before the court, where they were being tried for a purely criminal offense, both Nursalim and Tahang said they fled to the predominantly Muslim Batu Merah Kampung area near the bus terminal and yelled: "There is a Christian who wants to kill us"....

Nursalim's action on that fateful day led to a fierce communal brawl, in which a group of angry Batu Merah residents went after Jopi, but failed to find him. The mass then burned a welding shop and a house belonging to a Christian in the border town of Batu Merah and the predominantly Christian Mardika ['Independence'] area. [See map, photos.]

At around 5 p.m. local time on Jan. 19, 1999, the first place of worship, the Sinar Kasih Church in Waihaong, was set alight by rioters.

Rumors spread and tension began to take hold in the area, and unidentified people roamed the streets, spreading rumors of attacks. Who they were and what their roles were in the riots are still unknown.

Angered by the attacks, Mardika people with the rest of the Christian community conducted retaliation assaults on mosques in the area.

On the morning of Jan. 20, 1999 a false rumor spread that the Grand Al-Fatah Mosque was on fire. By this time people were already divided in their own respective areas according to their religion. People donned bandannas to signify their religion: red for Christian, white for Muslim....

Analysts have said that if the security forces and the intelligence units had been quick to respond to the situation in the early stages of unrest in 1999, widespread communal conflicts could have been avoided.

From a criminal dispute, the Maluku riots developed into sectarian conflict that was loaded with economic and political interests, while the players in the conflict freely roamed the islands.

The involvement of outsiders such as the Jihad Force, which pledged to wage a holy war in Maluku, and small elements of the outlawed South Maluku Republic (RMS) separatist movement, have also contributed to the already complex strife.
(The reference to the RMS is a lame attempt at moral equivalence. The RMS was supported by Muslims as well as Christians, but some of the jihadis have rechristened it Republik Maluku Serani ['Christian Maluku Republic'].)
Frustrated by the prolonged violence and losses in both Maluku and North Maluku, in a desperate effort the central government imposed a state of civil emergency in the territory on June 27, 2000....

The implementation of the state of emergency, if not too late, was undermined by the fall of the police base in Maluku during the Tantui incident on June 23, 2000, by which time security forces on duty in the province were already divided by religion.
What undermined the state of emergency was not some chance incident. Instead, it was (in the words of area specialist Dieter Bartels) the "massive arrival of non-Ambonese, mostly Javanese, Moslem vigilante group, called Laskar Jihad ('Holy War Forces'). They brought with them sophisticated modern weaponry and allied themselves with the Moslem personnel of the military which constitutes about eighty percent of the troops. These developments totally destroyed the previous balance, tipping the scale in favor of the Moslems."

Having built up their forces since May, the Laskar Jihad entered the fray in force on June 23, mounting a combined land and sea attack on the elite Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) base in Tantui, a few kilometers from downtown Ambon. They attacked the police station to make sure the Christians were disarmed.
The assailants went on a rampage and burned the whole compound, including police housing complex, arsenal, hospital, provincial and high-ranking officers residences.
They assassinated the Brimob deputy commander in Maluku Maj. Edi Susanto (whose name is Javanese) and looted the police arsenal for weapons and ammunition. On July 1, with some wearing white robes and others in military-style uniforms, the thugs went on to attack three predominantly Christian communities, Poka, Rumah Tiga, and Waai, and to destroy the whole campus of Pattimura University.

The state of civil emergency was finally lifted in September 2003, by which time the Laskar Jihad militia had moved on to West Papua.
In the last few months there have been only a few minor incidents which can be attributed to the small number of militants still in the area. However, given that the investigation into the Bali bombing unearthed evidence of terrorists from Jemaah Islamiah and other organisations using Maluku as a training and recruitment area, the authorities need to remain vigilant for any renewed militant activity....

The Maluku conflict, which began in 1999, has left some 10,000 dead and over half a million displaced. Many areas remain segregated along religious lines. [See map.]
A Muslim-Christian interfaith council is slowly trying to piece the shattered community back together.

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