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Tuesday, June 1, 1999 Published at 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK

Ambon's troubled history

Moluccan islands: significant dots on the Indonesian map

By Jakarta Correspondent Jonathan Head

Indonesia Flashpoints
Communal killings on the eastern Indonesian island of Ambon erupted after a minor incident at the end of the Muslim fasting month in January 1999, apparently without warning.

Leaders of both the Christian and Muslim communities blame each other for the violence and attempts at reconciliation between the two sides have made little progress.

[ image: The riots have caused devastation]
The riots have caused devastation
But clues to the cause of the unrest may lie in Ambon's unusual history.

Ambon and the surrounding south Moluccan islands are merely a few dots on the map of Indonesia. And yet their influence on the history of the region, and even the world, has been immense.

Five hundred years ago they were the only source of nutmeg and cloves, spices which then cost more than gold. It was in their attempt to reach the source of these valuable crops that European explorers first sailed around southern Africa to India - and then the other way round the globe, running accidentally into the Americas.

[ image: Nutmeg; worth more than gold]
Nutmeg; worth more than gold
Control of the islands was fiercely contested between Dutch, Portuguese and English traders. As a result of this international interest, the Moluccas were left with a diverse mixture of religions - Muslim, Catholic and Protestant, all blended with powerful local customs.

The Dutch exerted a strong influence over the islands right up to Indonesia's war of independence in the late 1940s. They recruited Ambonese Christians as soldiers to pacify the rest of Indonesia, and they offered them education. In return, the Ambonese supported the Dutch against the mainly Java-based independence movement.

Decades of turmoil

When Indonesia finally won its independence in 1949, the Ambonese believed they would be allowed to form their own state. They fought briefly for a Republic of South Moluccas, before being subdued in 1950. Thousands of Ambonese soldiers in the Dutch colonial army fled to the Netherlands.

It was some of their offspring, frustrated over their living conditions in the Netherlands, who mounted a series of attacks on Dutch targets in the 1970s, culminating in the hijacking of a train in 1977 in which a number of people were killed.

[ image: Muslim Solidarity members protest religious killings]
Muslim Solidarity members protest religious killings
Ironically, there have been few signs of such turmoil in recent decades.

Separatism has broken out in other parts of the archipelago, notably in East Timor, Irian Jaya and Aceh, but the Moluccans seemed reconciled to being an integral part of Indonesia. Even now, few Moluccans talk about forming an independent state. The most recent conflict seems to be a more basic struggle for territory and identity.

Few of the Islamic and Christian militants fighting each other today have any clear objectives. Instead they are motivated by a deep fear and mistrust of the other side which has probably been there for years. Under former President Suharto discussion of religious and ethnic differences was strictly banned, driving such disputes underground, and perhaps hardening attitudes.

Muslims vs Christians

Muslim leaders now say they believe Christian militants have long had a plan to drive out more recent Muslim immigrants from other islands. They argue that the Christians were unusually favoured by the Dutch and given much better access to jobs and education - now they are unwilling to see Muslims do as well.

[ image: Soldier's guard an uneasy calm]
Soldier's guard an uneasy calm
Christians point to the vulnerability of their faith in predominantly Muslim Indonesia - they cite the statistic that more than 500 churches in the country have been burned down or damaged by Muslims over the past five years. They do not believe they receive adequate protection from the state, and they fear Muslim immigration into Ambon will leave them a powerless minority in one of the few places where Christians were once in a majority.

The collapse of the authoritarian Suharto system has allowed these feelings to surface. The armed forces are demoralised and thinly-stretched. The future of Indonesia is uncertain. There is the possibility of a more Islamically-inclined government emerging from the June election, helping cement Christian fears.

[ image: Residents are fleeing the violence]
Residents are fleeing the violence
Ambon used to practice a widely-admired system of traditional alliances between villages of different faiths, known as Pela Gandung. Indonesians liked to refer to it as a model for their nationwide pursuit of religious tolerance. In truth that tolerance was always more a product of enforcement by a secular army and government than of popular sentiment, but in Ambon it seemed to work.

No-one is able to explain how it collapsed so quickly and without warning this year, but it sends a serious warning out to the rest of the country, which has plenty of religious and ethnic faultlines which could now be exposed in the volatile post-Suharto era.

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