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Indonesia’s Maluku Crisis: The Issues
Indonesia’s Maluku Crisis: The Issues
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 2 / Asia

Indonesia’s Maluku Crisis: The Issues

Several thousand people have died and hundreds of thousands have become refugees in the last eighteen months as the result of inter-communal fighting in Indonesia’s Maluku islands. The conflict continues at a high level of intensity despite the declaration of a state of emergency in June 2000.

I. Overview

In the last eighteen months, several thousand people have died and hundreds of thousands have become refugees[fn]Estimates of the number killed vary, with 3000 accepted by most groups as the low end of the range. The real numbers are likely to be much higher. See Human Rights Watch, ‘Moluccan Islands, Communal Violence in Indonesia’, 29 June 2000, www.hrw.org.press/2000. The US Committee for Refugees has estimated that in 1999 some 370,000 people were displaced by the fighting in Maluku. See USIA website report, ‘USCR World Refugee Statistics’, 14 June 2000. Accounts of the violence come from various sources, including eyewitnesses, and these reports have been filtered through news media and community organisations. Individual accounts may be embellished or distorted but the volume of reports and diversity of sources provide considerable corroboration for these estimates and for the alleged ferocity of the massacres.
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 as the result of inter-communal fighting in Maluku.[fn]Maluku is a disparate grouping of islands and peoples geographically dispersed from north to south over more than 1000 km and unified until 1999 for administrative convenience into one province, which is at least ten times more water than land. The province has now been split into two – Maluku for the southern half of the group and North Maluku for the northern half. There are more than twenty large islands, of which the biggest are Halmahera, Bacan and Obi in the north and Seram, Buru and Ambon in the central region of the province. Ambon, one of the major cities, is 2400 km from Jakarta. As in most parts of Indonesia, local politics have been intimately connected with patronage, access to resources and abuse of power.
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 The violence has escalated over time. What began with sporadic street fighting involving only local people has evolved into a conflict with national implications, particularly with the introduction in May of the Laskar Jihad, a well-organised and well-funded radical Moslem group. Traditional weapons have been replaced by military guns and mortars. The escalating violence prompted the Indonesian government to declare a civil emergency in late June. Affected Christian communities have appealed for international help.

The mass inter-communal violence in Maluku began in Ambon city on 19 January 1999 in a street brawl reportedly triggered by a fight between a Christian bus driver and a Moslem passenger. At least 200 people were killed in Ambon city and its environs over the following two months, but some sources report the number may have been more than 1000. The violence followed the arrival in mid-December 1998 of 200 Ambonese Christians deported from Jakarta after a deadly brawl over territory in a red-light district between rival Christian and Muslim Ambonese gangs.

On 8 March 1999, the Indonesian government formed a special Armed Forces team under Major General Suaidi Marasabessy to deal with the violence. Over the subsequent four months, the violence cooled, only to resume on 27 July, when it gained a new intensity and then spread in October to Malifut on Halmahera island. This incident involved inter-village attacks between Kao (mostly Christian) native inhabitants and Makianese (Moslem) migrants. The Makianese were resettled in Malifut in 1975, when it was feared their volcanic home island was about to explode. Relations between them and the dominant local people, the Kao, have always been poor – there have been seven small "wars" between the groups since 1975. The conflict then spread north and on 26 December 1999, nervous Christians attacked Moslem villages in Tobelo and Galela districts in Northern Halmahera, in what their leaders described as a pre-emptive strike. At least 100 were killed, and probably more.

This Christian attack on Moslem villages led to retaliation on 23 January 2000, when about 300 men, wearing white robes, are said to have attacked the Christian village of Haruku Sameth on the island of Haruku, killing eighteen out of a population of 3600, wounding many others and destroying homes with military weapons such as machine guns and grenades.[fn]This is according to several eye-witnesses (and victims) interviewed by a fact-finding team in April 2000. See Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Draft Report on Visit to Indonesia, 12-21 April 2000.
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In April 2000 a radical group based in Java, Laskar Jihad, began to agitate publicly for a Jihad (holy war) to defend Moslems in Maluku, saying they were being slaughtered and unprotected. Some Moslem politicians echoed their calls. The group’s leader, Jafar Umar Thalib, an ascetic Indonesian preacher who had once fought in Afghanistan, went to the Presidential palace in Jakarta at the head of a mob carrying swords and spears to demand an end to the violence in Maluku. The President saw him for five minutes before angrily ordering him out of his office. National authorities subsequently closed the group’s military-style training camp in Bogor, near Jakarta. Its members were, however, allowed to return to their base near Yogyakarta in Central Java and in May an estimated 3000 members of Laskar Jihad left Java for Halmahera and Ambon after declaring publicly their intent to go there to fight. They took control of an existing militia on Ternate, a small island off Halmahera, and used it as a base to begin terrorising northern Halmahera. On 19 June, at least 100 Christians in Duma, in the Galela district of Northern Halmahera, were killed by Laskar Jihad militias operating out of Ternate.

The military and police have stood on the sidelines as violence has raged, and some units have even participated. They have not disarmed combatants, and individual members have sold weapons to them. Army soldiers have sometimes sided with Moslems, while police paramilitary personnel have sometimes sided with Christians. The uniformed services have failed to act to protect unarmed victims. The armed forces and the police did not try to stop the Laskar Jihad’s passage from Java to Maluku in May in spite of specific instructions from President Wahid that they not be allowed to leave Java. These orders were relayed both directly to Armed Forces Chief Widodo and through the civilian Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono.

On 27 June 2000, the national government declared a state of civil emergency – one step below an imposition of martial law.[fn]According to the Foreign Minister, the decision was taken after a number of Ministers met with leaders of the House of Representatives. According to the 1959 Law on State Emergency, the police and the security apparatus may take all necessary steps to restore order, including the conduct of a naval blockade in the Moluccan seas; preventing the entry of suspicious elements into the territory; conducting sweeping operations to confiscate illegal weapons; imposing a curfew on the residents; replacing the military and police command in the area; imposing media black out; house-to-house searches for weapons and the wiretapping of telephone and radio communications. According to the Foreign Minister, the Indonesian police and the security forces on duty have received strict orders to respect and protect human rights. They have been instructed to avoid excessive use of force. The Office of the State Minister for Human Rights Affairs is preparing a simple manual which will be distributed to every member of the police and the security apparatus in the field so that they will know how to perform their duty without violating human rights.Hide Footnote  It gives the military and the police wide powers to act – but still under civilian command. President Wahid is ultimately responsible, with the Governor, Saleh Latuconsina, in charge in Maluku and the acting Governor, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Abdul Muhjie Effendie, in charge in North Maluku. On the day the emergency was implemented, Governor Latuconsina declared that all conflicting parties should cease their exchange of fire and hostilities. Curfew was imposed from 10 pm until 6 am. Public gatherings were banned and the community was given a general notice to surrender weapons to the authorities by 30 June 2000. Meanwhile the navy intensified its efforts to prevent the smuggling of arms into the region.

On Monday 26 June 2000, the Commander of the Pattimura Military Command, Brigadier-General Max Tamaela, a Christian, was replaced by Colonel I Made Yasa, a Balinese Hindu whom it was hoped would appear neutral to both sides. One of the deputies was also replaced. By July 2000, the uniformed strength in Maluku was at seventeen military battalions and two police paramilitary battalions, totaling approximately 14,000 troops and up from a reported 5,300 one year earlier.

Despite the civil emergency, the conflict is continuing. Not only in Halmahera but also in Ambon, Christians are now on the defensive. Numerous attacks have been launched on predominantly Christian villages near Ambon causing many to flee after homes and churches were destroyed by mortars and firebombs. The Pattimura University in a mostly Christian neighbourhood has also suffered extensive damage. The military, despite being nearby, did not act, and it appears withdrew troops before the attack. In North Maluku over 400 refugees drowned when an overcrowded ship sank in a storm on its way to North Sulawesi. It is estimated that more than 100 people have been killed during the first three weeks of the civil emergency.

Jakarta/Brussels, 19 July 2000

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