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Saturday, 8 January, 2000, 12:38 GMT
Analysis: What provoked Moluccas violence?
Child and armoured vehicle in Ambon
The Moluccan crisis is President Wahid's biggest challenge
By regional analyst Nicholas Nugent

It is one year since violence first broke out in the Moluccan capital of Ambon as the island's Muslim population were celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

As Muslims once again mark Id-ul-fitri, communal violence has reached a new peak throughout what once were known as the Spice Islands.

Fragile Archipelago
The two large islands of Seram and Halmahera have been worst affected by the latest disorder.

Over the past year, thousands of people have been killed, many when the army or police opened fire to quell inter-community clashes.

Tens of thousands have seen their homes burnt down, or else been forced to seek refuge on other islands in the Indonesian archipelago.

Megawati Sukarnoputri
Indonesia's Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri
The new Indonesian Government of President Abdurrachman Wahid is still coming to terms with the loss of the province of East Timor and serious separatist violence in Aceh and elsewhere.

It seems taken aback by the worsening violence in Maluku - Indonesia's name for the Moluccas - and so far it has offered no solution.

While Indonesia's majority Muslims dominate the northern Moluccas, in the south there is balance between Christians and indigenous Muslims as well as Bugis and Butonese settlers from neighbouring islands.

For generations the communities lived side by side according to a traditional alliance known as pela.

Under pela, Christians and Muslims lived harmoniously in adjoining villages. Christians would help build a community mosque, Muslims would help build a church.

The chief city of the southern Moluccas, Ambon, was once the capital of the Dutch East Indies, the islands having come to European attention as the source of the prized and lucrative clove and nutmeg spices.

Arrest a decline

When the Dutch left and Indonesia was founded, many Ambonese, especially those who had become Christians, felt a close affinity with the Dutch and, for a time, resisted incorporation in the Indonesian republic.

Their rebellious movement, known as the Republic of the South Moluccas or RMS, was eventually defeated, its leaders retreating to the Netherlands.

Some analysts believe that growing tensions between Christians and Muslims erupted into violence after Ambonese Christians called on RMS supporters in the Netherlands to help them arrest a decline in their community's influence.

Christians had seen Muslim settlers take an increasing number of positions of influence as well as greater control of the region's business activity.

However, the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which investigated the breakdown in relations, found that many Indonesians saw the hand of the Indonesian military at play.

They accused the army of provoking the violence in an attempt to prevent last year's general election from taking place.

Civil war

The army, they said, wanted to restore its influence and control, which had declined sharply when President Suharto's long period of military rule ended in May 1998.

Another factor in the current fighting is the role of Jakarta-based Ambonese gangsters, or "preman", both Muslim and Christian.

They have been directing their respective communities in what is increasingly seen as a civil war.

The most recent outbreaks of violence have been in the large and remote northern island of Halmahera where several hundred people are reported to have been killed since mid-December.

The escalation in the trouble came shortly after a joint visit to Ambon by President Wahid and Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whom the president has entrusted with the task of resolving the Moluccas conflict.

Restore the balance

Neither has so far offered any solution, though they responded to charges that the military themselves have been taking sides by ordering a rotation of troops.

It seems that the Moluccan crisis has overtaken Aceh as the biggest challenge facing President Wahid's new government.

Muslim demonstrators in Jakarta have called for urgent government action saying the vice president should step down if she cannot resolve the problem.

Neither community in the Moluccas is asking for a separate state or even greater autonomy.

But they are asking for government action to restore the balance between the communities which both sides believe has been disturbed from outside.

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See also:

07 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
Muslim anger over Moluccas
07 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
Troubled history of the Moluccas
24 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesia's year of living dangerously
01 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific
New clashes in Moluccas
30 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
Religious violence spreads in Moluccas
29 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
Troops act against Ambon violence
28 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
Church calls for Ambon peacekeepers
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