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Indonesia: The Search for Peace in Maluku
Indonesia: The Search for Peace in Maluku
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 31 / Asia

Indonesia: The Search for Peace in Maluku

Executive Summary

The fighting that broke out between Christians and Muslims in Ambon, the capital of Indonesia’s Maluku province, on 19 January 1999 triggered a virtual civil war that soon spread to other parts of the province. At least 5,000 people (perhaps as many as 10,000) have been killed and close to 700,000   – almost one-third of the population     of

2.1 million – became refugees. Peace has yet to be achieved although violence has declined sharply during the last year. Refugees are beginning to return to predominantly Muslim North Maluku (which was separated from the old Maluku province in September 1999) but tensions remain high in Ambon and surrounding islands that are the core of the new Maluku province.

During the initial phase, each side inflicted heavy casualties. But in mid-2000 there was a qualitative change when a Java-based fundamentalist Islamic militia, Laskar Jihad, responding to the perception that Muslims were getting the worst of it, sent several thousand fighters to Ambon. They had received basic military training from a small group of sympathetic officers within the Indonesian National Military (TNI – Tentara Nasional Indonesia) and were supplied with modern weapons after their arrival in Maluku.

Supported by elements in the security forces, the Laskar Jihad put the Christian militias on the defensive, inflicted casualties on the Christian community and forced thousands of Christians to flee, causing the national government to impose a civil emergency in the two Maluku provinces in June 2000. Although Muslim offensives continued, by early 2001 the level of violence was declining and most of the population had been partitioned into Christian and Muslim zones.

The security forces failed dismally to contain the conflict during the first eighteen months partly because they were hamstrung by the competing sympathies many Christian and Muslim personnel felt for co-religionists. After the introduction of the civil emergency, however, the military adopted a new strategy involving establishment of a Joint Battalion (Yon Gab Batalyon Gabungan), a centralised mobile reserve drawn from elite forces of the three services that could be sent quickly to conflict areas. In a context where Muslim   militias

– backed by Laskar Jihad and some military and police personnel – were gaining ground, the Yon Gab found itself usually confronting Muslim forces and soon gained a pro-Christian reputation.

The Yon Gab appears to have contributed to the decline in fighting but credible allegations about the brutality of some of its members besmirched its reputation and aggravated Muslim antagonism. In November 2001 it was withdrawn and replaced by army special forces (Kopassus).

In contrast to North Maluku and the southeast part of the Maluku province, shootings and bomb explosions continue on Ambon and nearby islands although attacks on Christian villages and direct armed confrontations are now rare. Laskar Jihad is less openly involved in launching direct attacks on Christians and seems to be concentrating more on religious and social-welfare activities in Maluku although it continues to provide military training and has sent fighters to Poso in South Sulawesi.

Laskar Jihad and another, smaller and more secretive, Muslim militia, the Laskar Mujahidin, have been suspected of links to terrorist organisations outside Indonesia including Al- Qaeda though ICG has found no strong evidence suggesting a significant foreign connection to the troubles in Maluku. In addition, military and police deserters – Christian and Muslim – appear to be involved in occasional attacks. On the Christian side, youth gangs are ready to retaliate if the violence rises. Local speculation suggests that some elements in the security forces tolerate, or even support, a low level of continuing violence in order to induce property-owners to pay protection money. Continuing emergency conditions also give security personnel other lucrative opportunities.

During the last year there have been signs that at least some Muslims are losing enthusiasm for Laskar Jihad. In the past Maluku’s Muslims have not been especially attracted to “fundamentalist” movements, and most do not identify closely with Laskar Jihad. However, many are grateful for its role in fending off Christian militias. Muslims lack confidence in the security forces to maintain order and fear that Laskar Jihad’s withdrawal would leave them vulnerable to revenge attacks. However, Christian leaders see its presence as the key obstacle to a more permanent peace.

An effective peace agreement still seems far off in Ambon where Muslim leaders and Laskar Jihad are convinced that the Christian side started the fighting and demand that its leaders apologise on behalf of their community and the brains behind the conflict be prosecuted. Christians are equally convinced that Muslims started the conflict. They also have only limited confidence in the TNI’s capacity to protect them.

The government’s main priority is to ensure that large scale fighting does not resume. To preserve the present “peace”, it is essential that the security forces behave in a professional and neutral manner. In Maluku, however, the reality is that local forces, both the military and especially the police, are highly vulnerable to “contamination”, partisan alignment with their own religious community. Although Yon Gab contributed to the decline in violence during 2001, its brutal excesses alienated Muslims. The force that replaced it has yet to win the confidence of both communities.

In North Maluku return to “normalcy” is much more advanced, partly because the Muslim majority is too large to feel threatened politically. Although some of the worst massacres took place on Halmahera in North Maluku, it is now increasingly possible for refugees to return. The security forces are needed to prevent revenge attacks but it is hoped that a “natural” reconciliation process can take place.

In Maluku, especially Ambon, government and military emphasise that reconciliation should  not be “forced” and should proceed “naturally”. This means the partition of Ambon and other regions into Christian and Muslim zones will not be ended soon. But the longer partition lasts, the harder reconciliation will be. Meanwhile, limited steps have been taken to provide more opportunities for the communities to meet naturally such as establishment of markets in “neutral” areas of Ambon where Christian and Muslims can intermingle. The Baku Bae (reconciliation) movement has sponsored informal meetings between leaders. However, these initiatives are still in early stages, and there is no expectation that natural reconciliation will be achieved quickly.

In January 2002, the national government persuaded leaders of both communities to participate in a peace conference the following month but the gap between the sides  remains  wide, and the search for peace is far from over.

Jakarta/Brussels, 8 February 2002

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013