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Sunday, 2 July, 2000, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
Analysis: Behind the Moluccan violence
Ambon protest
Tensions are being fuelled by local disputes
By Jonathan Head in Jakarta

After 18 months, there is still no end in sight to the conflict between Christian and Muslim communities in the Moluccas.

If anything, the outbreaks of fighting are becoming more destructive, with the increasing use of modern weapons.

In desperation, tens of thousands of people have fled, either to the refugee camps which have sprung up all over the islands, or to other parts of Indonesia. The exodus will continue while rival gangs of armed men continue their attacks on each others neighbourhoods.

The conflict has devastated a once prosperous region of Indonesia. It appears to benefit no-one. So what is keeping it going?

Local disputes

The roots of the conflict are not so much in religion as in a whole range of local disputes between the different communities, which were ignored or simply suppressed during the three decades of authoritarian rule under Suharto.

Thousands of people are fleeing the violence
For example, in the provincial capital Ambon, Christians were believed by many Muslims to have preferential access to government jobs - a hangover perhaps from the privileged position they did enjoy under Dutch colonial rule. Christians feared the influx of Muslim migrants from other islands would lead to the islamisation of the Moluccas.

In the north Moluccas, where some of the fiercest fighting has taken place recently, the conflict is even more complex.

It involves the long-standing rivalry between the traditionally dominant Sultan on the island of Ternate, and other areas. It involves resentment of the Christian minority on the main island of Halmahera towards Muslims who were resettled in their neighbourhood following a volcanic eruption 25 years ago.

There are also disputes over who benefits from a new Australian-run gold mine, and over who will run the recently-created province of the north Moluccas.

Muslim protester
A Muslim protester calls for an end to the conflict
As in other parts of Indonesia, there are plenty of underemployed men willing to take up cudgels on behalf of their own communities if given a little money and encouragement.

These problems would have been difficult enough to resolve peacefully in a country with little experience of democratic practices. But other factors have made matters much worse.

Taking sides

The most alarming development in recent months is the direct involvement of the security forces in the conflict.

The military now admits that its troops have become "emotionally involved" in the fighting. It even acknowledges that police and soldiers have been shooting at each other.

Morale throughout the military has plunged, as it has faced a barrage of criticism from civilians over past human rights abuses

More than 40 members of the security forces have been killed. Some local battalions have effectively ceased to exist, as soldiers have deserted to fight alongside their own communities, Christian or Muslim.

Even troops brought in from elsewhere in Indonesia have taken sides, rather than try to contain the violence.

Morale throughout the military has plunged, as it has faced a barrage of criticism from civilians over past human rights abuses and uncertainty over its future role.

Its economic opportunities are diminishing, and commanders can no longer supplement the meagre salaries of their men. The military is itself deeply divided between competing factions. The soldiers have no appetite for the tough action required to extinguish communal disputes in their early stages.


Another "external" factor is the arrival of thousands of Muslim militants in recent weeks from other parts of Indonesia, who say they have come to fight a jihad or holy war in defence of the Muslim communities in the Moluccas.

Ambon children
Scavenging in the ruins of a building destroyed in the violence
These groups are well-funded and well-organised. President Wahid ordered them not to go to the Moluccas, but the security forces did nothing to stop them.

They have now obtained modern automatic weapons, presumably from sympathisers in the military, and they are believed to have been involved in large-scale attacks on Christian communities which have led to heavy casualties.

The inability of the government to control these "external" factors is as much as anything a result of the disarray in President Wahid's administration. The government is grappling with a formidable array of challenges, and has simply been too distracted to devote much attention to the Moluccas.

But there is little doubt that some sections of the political and military elite are at least tacitly encouraging the violence in the Moluccas.

President Wahid
Disarray in President Wahid's government is compounding the problem
The open involvement of troops in the conflict could not continue as it has done without some senior commanders deliberately allowing it to do so.

The Muslim militias have also clearly received high-level backing - they have been training near the capital Jakarta on land owned by an influential political figure. Someone is paying for their food, accommodation and transport.

The long-term goals of those behind these dangerous developments are not clear.

It could be they want to undermine President Wahid's government by promoting conflict in the Moluccas. Some politicians may be using the conflict to heighten Islamic consciousness in this traditionally moderate country.

In the chaos and uncertainty of post-Suharto Indonesia, the use of violence as a political tool is becoming increasingly commonplace.

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