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Revised paper for the Proceedings of the Conference on "Conflicts and Violence in Indonesia," organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Department of African and Asian Studies, Humboldt-University in Berlin, July 3-5, 2000.

How the military exploited local ethno-religious tensions in Maluku to preserve their political and economic privileges

George Junus Aditjondro
(Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Newcastle, Australia)


The violence in the Maluku (Moluccas) islands has taken between 4 000 and 10 000 lives since January 1999 000 (Ivan A. Hadar, pers. com., June 17, 2000; Barr, 2000; Deutsche Presse-Agentur, September 26, 2000), out of a total population of 1,19 million people in 1997. This death toll is approximately evenly distributed between North and South. About fourty percent of the casualties, or around 4000 people, have died in North Maluku, another fourty percent in Central Maluku (Seram, Ambon and the Lease islands), and twenty percent in Southeast Maluku, especially in the Banda, Aru and Kei islands (Alhadar 2000: 15; Dodd 2000).

This wide range of the death toll is caused by the fact that many fatalities have not been accounted. The victims might have died in burning houses and other properties, were unceremonially buried after being slashed to death, or drowned in the sea while trying to escape on overloaded ferries, as has happened on June 31, 2000, when Cahaya Baru sank during its voyage from Halmahera (North Maluku) to Manado (North Sulawesi), drowning nearly 500 refugees (International Herald Tribune, July 1-5, 2000; Sydney Morning Herald, July 3 & 5, 2000).

In several cases, Moluccans were intentionally killed and their bodies dumped into the sea during voyages to and from Ambon (see Appendix I). Such type of executions are similar to the ones applied to dozens of Timor Lorosa'e students on a state passenger ship, KM Dobonsolo, before and after the UN-supervised referendum (ETHRC 1999: 15, 20).

In addition to the death toll, up to 860000 people have been displaced, with around 280000 persons living in refugee camps in Southern Maluku and around 78000 persons in North Maluku. The only totally mixed shelter in Halong Naval base, six kilometres east of the city of Ambon, accommodated around 10000 refugees (Tempo, August 7-13, 2000; Jakarta Post, August 29, 2000; Indonesian Observer, September 20, 2000).

The majority of the refugees fled to the neighbouring islands, with North Sulawesi being the main destiny for Christian Moluccans. Muslims displaced from Maluku were predominantly Bugis and Makassarese migrants and have returned to their respective homelands in South and Southeast Sulawesi. The number of Butonese returnees have swollen to 107000 people, around 22% of

the pre-existing population (Collins 1999; Antara, May 17, 2000; Jawa Pos, June 16, 2000;, April 6, 1999). Meanwhile, the total number of Christian Moluccan refugees in North Sulawesi have reached 16,293 persons.

After Jihad ('Holy War') fighters from Java and other islands began to ransack Christian villages on Ambon, new waves of Christian Moluccan refugees have fled their home islands. Between 18000 and 30000 refugees fled to West Papua (South China Morning Post, July 29, 2000; Kompas, July 31, 2000; Tempo, August 7-13, 2000), and about 4000 refugees fled to East Nusa Tenggara. The Netherlands is now home to between 500 to 600 Moluccans who fled on tourist visa (Infomaluku, August 8, 2000), and a family of five fled on a 25-metre fishing boat to Australia and is currently living in Adelaide (The Age, July 27, 2000).

This sectarian violence has left a deep scar on the social fabric of the people that inhabit the archipelago: the new province of Maluku, which covers the former Central and Southeast Maluku districts, and North Maluku, which covers the four sultanates (Ternate, Tidore, Bacan and Jailolo) that once dominated the entire archipelago and the Northwestern coast of New Guinea (Ellen 1986: 57).

The violent social upheavel has created severe effects on the Moluccan children. It has left many families fatherless, or separated fathers and other able-bodied males from women and children, many of whom live as refugees in the forest and in refugee camps in the towns of Maluku. As has happened in nearby Timor Lorosa'e (Galvao-Teles 1999; Aditjondro 2000a, 2000b), the intense militarisation of Moluccan society has inflicted a culture of violence, with elementary and secondary school children becoming skilled producers of crude yet deadly weapons from commonly available materials (Australian Financial Review, Canberra Times, Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, 1999). Between 2000 to 4000 children aged 7 to 12 years have also taken part in raiding "enemy" villages and protecting their own villages from "enemy" raids. They are known as Pasukan Agas, or 'sandfly troops,' and have fought lethal battles on both sides of the community (Tapak Ambon & LERAI 2000: 31; AP, February 24, 2000; Tempo, January 23, 2000: 23).

This adverse psychological impact on the psyche of young Moluccans has been aptly illustrated by an architecture student, Umelto Labetubun, 25, as follows: "Everyone has become hard. Even girls don't play with dolls any more; they play with guns. In the future, when we have disputes, we will

sove them with guns. All of us in Ambon have experience now in defending ourselves in a hard way. Even me, I am sorry to say, I can tell you now, that's the sound of an M16, that's the sound of an AK47." As Roman Catholic priest Agus Ulahayanan further added, describing the despair that have driven so many people into religious warfare: "No one can stop them any more. A boy goes and burns down a house and he come to me and says proudly. 'I burned down a house.' And already for him the burden is lifted from the frustration and depression. There is nothing left for me to say to him" (Mydans, 2000a).

Tertiary education has also badly suffered. Muslim villagers supported by Jihad fighters and soldiers have destroyed the campuses of the Maluku Christian University (UKIM, Universitas Kristen Indonesia di Maluku ), the state-owned Pattimura University (UNPATTI) and the Pattimura Polytechnic University (Tapak Ambon 2000; AFP, June 23, 2000).

Finally, Maluku and the island and city of Ambon, and even the shipping service linking Maluku with the rest of Indonesia have become a society segregated by religion. Christians have to board ships from the state shipping company, Pelni, which are considered to be save for Christians, such as KM Dobonsolo, while Muslims have to board KM Bukit Siguntang and KM Lambelu. Practically, no Christian Moluccan dare to sail on those so-called 'Muslim ships', after several Christians were stabbed to death and their bodies thrown overboard from KM Bukit Siguntang.

This form of 'religious apartheid' also applies to the use of speedboats and ferries in and around the city of Ambon. Being on a ship, ferry or speedboat, however, does not fully guarantee one's safety, since gun battles have also been fought recently between passengers and people on land, especially when a vessel associated with one religion passes too close to land marks associated with the opponent's religion.

To deal with this complicated and sensitive subject, I have constructed this chapter in the following order. After outlining my research methodology, I will outline the background of the inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence in Maluku. Then, I will outline the main outside actors which channeled the inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions into an ever-widening spiral of violence. Consequently, I will expose the agenda of the security forces in maintaining this so-called 'low level insurgency,' and conclude the chapter with recommendations for further action and research.


Conducting research about such a sensitive topic has not been easy, especially being based outside Maluku. In addition, having Christian background makes being labelled as "biased against Muslims" a challenge which I continuously have to face. To overcome those obstacles I have complemented my library research with attempts to elicit information from as many and as varied respondents in Maluku as well as among Moluccans living outside their homeland, employing two levels of cross-checking.

First, I cross-checked each important piece of information from each key informant by asking for confirmation and further elaboration from other key informants unknown to the first one, also making sure that information coming from Christian respondents have been cross-checked by Muslim respondents and vice versa.

Then, I further cross-checked information from Moluccan respondents with human rights activists and academics who are either knowledgable about the situation in Maluku or are knowledgable about similar cases of human rights violations in Indonesia and Timor Lorosa'e. I collaborated in particular with journalists and social scientists associated with Tapak Ambon (Team Advokasi Penyelesaian Kasus Ambon), or Advocacy Team for the Resolution of the Ambon Case, an alliance of seventeen non-governmental organisations in Jakarta and Ambon, which takes a non-partisan humanist approach to the whole issue.

Tapak Ambon has been assisted in their field investigations by members of AJI (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen), or the Independent Journalists Association, and two human rights watchdogs, namely KontraS (Komisi untuk Orang Hilang dan Korban Tindak Kekerasan), or the Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence, which was then led by a young dedicated lawyer, Munir, and LERAI (Lembaga Rekonsiliasi dan Perdamaian Indonesia ) or the Institute for Reconciliation and Peace in Indonesia, which is led by Tamrin Amal Tomagola, sociology lecturer at the University of Indonesia, who hails from North Maluku. This enabled me to benefit from the data that had already been collected and analysed by AJI, KontraS and LERAI activists.

This 'interactive' and 'snowballing' mode of open-ended interviews were carried out mostly through email and partly through phone interviews, with one in-depth face-to-face interview with a key human rights activist conducted during the 'Conflicts and Violence in Indonesia' Conference organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Department of African and Asian Studies of Humboldt University in Berlin on July 3-5, 2000. In addition, my media articles about the political economy of the violence in Maluku as well as my media interviews about this topic enabled me to widen my circle of information as well as my increasing number of diehard critics.


The background of the violence has to be found in Maluku as well as in Jakarta with its large Moluccan diaspora. In this section I will first deal with the internal conflicts in Southern Maluku, what is now the new province of Maluku, then with similar factors in Northern Maluku, and finally with tensions between Christian and Muslim Moluccan gangsters in Jakarta, which eventually 'spilled over' to their homelands.

Southern Maluku:

By the end of 1999, Maluku - then still a united province -- was a powder keg waiting to explode, ridden by numerous vertical and horizontal conflicts. The previous year, Ambon, the provincial capital, had been rocked by student protests which had lasted for months. Echoing the demands of the student-led reformasi movement in Java which had forced General Suharto to step down, the Ambonese student movement also demanded an end to the military's political role (Bhakti 1999: 175).

These student demonstrations reached its climax on November 18, 1998, involving up to 7000 students from several institutes of higher education, including Unpatti, Ukim and the Institute of Public Administration (STAIN). This massive demonstration in front of the headquarters of the Pattimura Army Resort Command, or Korem 174 Pattimura ended in a physical clash between students and soldiers, injuring 63 students, one academic staff, 24 soldiers, and three bystanders. One student activist eventually died. The Army, however, also suffered a blow to their reputation in Ambon. Its Javanese army commander, Col. (Inf.) Hikayat, was reprimanded by provincial officials and religious leaders at the Governor's office. Hikayat was eventually replaced by an Ambonese officer, Col. Karel Ralahalu (Ecip 1999: 49; Kastor 2000: 185, 197-207; Hohe and Remijsen 2000; Kelompok Solidaritas Reformasi di Maluku (KSRM) Press Release, November 25, 1998; Berita KontraS, No. 3/1999: 12).

This 'anti-state' uprising, which echoed the December 28, 1977 protest of about 600 Pattimura University (Unpatti) students against the killing of a Muslim Unpatti student, Abdul Kadir Nurlete, by the son of an army police (Salemba, January 23, 1978), also has its roots in the three decades history of Maluku's economic marginalisation under Suharto's New Order. To understand this history, it is important to contrast the treatment of Maluku by the central government under Sukarno and Suharto (see Aditjondro 1990, 2000a).

After crushing the South Maluku Republic or 'RMS' (Republik Maluku Selatan) rebellion in Ambon in 1950, Sukarno located several national development projects in Maluku, namely the Wayame shipyard on Ambon, the Oceanography Research Institute at Poka, Ambon, and the huge sugar mill at Makariki, on Seram. Also, Sukarno appointed several top Ambonese Christian intellectuals in his cabinet, and named Indonesia's first research nuclear reactor after an Ambonese engineer, Siwabessy.

After Suharto replaced Sukarno, Jakarta's attitude towards Maluku changed radically. One by one, Sukarno's 'prestige projects' in Maluku, according to the New Order, were dismantled and moved to Java. The Wayame shipyard was moved to Surabaya, East Java, and became the Navy shipyard, PT PAL. The Makariki sugar mill was dismantled and re-installed at Jatiroto, also in East Java. Finally, the status of the Oceanography Institute in Ambon was reduced to become a station of the Jakarta-based National Oceanography Institute (LON). Construction of the institute's main laboratory in Ambon was discontinued.

Consequently, Suharto-linked conglomerates began to feast on Maluku's abundant natural resources (Aditjondro 1990; Aditjondro & Marlessy 1987). The Banda Sea, abundant with its tuna fish, was leased out for 25 years to a Japanese fishing cooperative, but was discontinued after eight years after protests by local fisherfolks, environmentalists, and nationalists (Marten et al 1987).

This is when the Moluccan intelligentsia began to feel deprived and marginalized, becoming 'stepchildren of progress' and guests in their own house. Strong regionalist feeling began to emerge, and Ambonese intellectuals began to join environmental watchdogs, after Suharto began to use environmentalism to woo young radicals away from campus-based and Jakarta-oriented politics.

Unfortunately, while this emerging environmental awareness was fully endorsed by the State Minister of Environment, Emil Salim (Aditjondro 1983), it was differently perceived by the military in Maluku. In 1988, Pattimura University academics who assisted local villagers in defending their land rights against economic interests of the Djajanti Group, were arrested and accused of being members of the outlawed 'RMS' movement (Fakta, July 15, 1988: 44-45).

In addition to exploitation by Suharto-linked conglomerates, such as the previously mentioned Djajanti Group which has Suharto's cousin, Sudwikatmono on its board (IBRA 2000), the Barito Pacific Group which cooperated closely with two of Suharto's children (Brown 1999: 14-16) and the Banda Sea fishing fleet of Suharto's middle son, Bambang Trihatmodjo, with his business partner, Tomy Winata, and a Taiwanese company (Swa, August 22-September 11, 1996: 128-129), Maluku's wealth was also syphoned away by two Javanese generals appointed to govern the province, namely Brig.-Gen. Sumeru (Tempo, June 4, 1975: 22, July 12, 1975: 5, January 21, 1978: 38) and Brig.-Gen. Hasan Slamet (AMP 1980). These generals were both from the Brawijaya Army Command in East Java.

These vertical conflicts let to the horizontal conflicts. According to Dieter Bartels (2000), five internal factors created the fertile ground for the ongoing Muslim-Christian fratricide. First, the influx of non-Ambonese Muslims; second, the destruction of the traditional village government system based on local customs (adat ) with the introduction of the Village Government Law No. 5 of 1979; third, the increasing land scarcity caused by urbanization; fourth, the emergence of western-style gangs among less-educated Ambonese youngsters; and fifth, the erosion of the traditional Ambonese inter-village alliance system called pela.

As Bartels points out, Protestant-Christian Ambonese had long been apprehensive about the large influx of Muslims from other parts of Indonesia, as were the small minorities of other Protestant denominations and Catholics. In the 1970s, this apprehension was also shared by many Ambonese Muslims. This influx of non-Ambonese Muslims, which was officially encouraged by the nomination of Central Maluku's largest island, Seram, as a transmigrasi destiny, did not only skew the population balance in favour of Muslims, but also added to the already critical urban and rural population pressure on land.

The swelling numbers of non-Ambonese Muslims also contributed to diminish the traditionally strong influence of Christian Ambonese in the provincial political structure. This, in turn, aggravated the power struggle on provincial level. During the Sukarno era, the Christian political elite could be satisfied by the appointment of two governors and one military commander from their ranks. In the Suharto era, their loss of power is symbolized by the fact that no Christian Ambonese was ever appointed to these two key positions. In total, the Muslim Ambonese have had three governors, two of them the most recent ones, with the latest appointment being made during the transitional period of Suharto's immediate successor, B.J. Habibie.

Beyond its symbolism it does not really matter, since the power of provincial leaders was quite curtailed by the central government in Jakarta. Also, with the introduction of Law No. 5/1979, Moluccan provincial leaders became even more uprooted from their own local constituency.

Increasing population density caused by natural growth and migration from other islands increased the pressure on land in urban and rural areas, which have been indicated by an increasing frequency of inter-village feuds over border disputes and ownership of real estate. How important land is in the current struggle is pointed out by Bartels in the following example from Saparua: in the Muslim village of Iha, the village secretary lamented Iha's land loss in the 17th century when they were defeated by the Dutch who then divided most of Iha's land between its neighbouring Christian villages which had allied themselves with the Dutch. The village official called for a conference between the Dutch and Indonesian governments to restore some of the land to Iha, even though centuries have passed.

Another internal factor which Bartels mentions is the emergence of Western-style gangs among the less-educated youngsters in various districts of Ambon City which fought one another. After the social upheaval, these gangs, according to Bartels, metamorphosed themselves into 'freedom fighters' defending their neighbourhoods against outside attacks and invading those of their enemies to burn them down. Before the upheaval, these youngsters hedged resentment against their parents, teachers and the government but had to repress their feelings because of the social strong control in the Suharto era. In the freer atmosphere that followed the period of Reformasi , says Bartels, they felt free to rebel against traditional values of adat, politics, and religion.

This description gives the impression that 'western-style gangs' had to operate clandestinely during the Suharto era, and could only surface after the former dictator had been forced to step down. This is quite different from the picture which I have obtained through my library research and interviews with sources in Ambon and elsewhere, namely that gangs of thugs have been operating 'normally' during the Suharto era in Ambon and in other cities with high concentrations of Ambonese migrants. In fact, these gangs later provided the excellent cover for professional trouble-makers, recruited from the Indonesian army and the Suharto family's 'private army', to initiate the spark that blew the Moluccan powder keg up. In other words, it was the presence of these thugs - in Ambon and in Jakarta - which enabled the masterminds of the Moluccan violence to 'indigenise' - or more accurately, 'Ambonise' - the state-sponsored violence in Maluku.

Contrary to Bartels' image, this use of violence is deeply rooted in popular Ambonese culture. It is embedded in the Pattimura cult, developed by Indonesian independence fighters to symbolise one of the earliest resistance against Dutch colonial rule, but was equally embedded in the Captain Jonker cult, used by the Dutch colonial army, KNIL (Koninklijke Nederlands Indische Leger ) to recruit Ambonese soldiers (Nanuilaitta 1966: 90-116).

Also, contrary to Bartels' belief, Suharto's New Order did not repress the emergence of gangs, but rather transformed them into instruments of political thuggery. This, in turn, has its roots in the Indonesian military practice of using civilians to advance its political ambitions, dating back from the failed coup d'etat of October 17, 1952, which was successfully repeated thirteen years later (Pontoh 2000: 165-171, 174; Aditjondro 2000: 10-11).

During the Suharto era, the most well-known political thugs were organised under the banners of Pemuda Pancasila, or Pancasila Youth. Political thuggery is also not limited to the Suharto family, but practically all main political actors - including the current President Abdurrahman Wahid and Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri - are involved in this practice (Loren 1998; Hadar 2000; Simanjuntak 2000).

continued to part 2

From: (George J. Aditjondro)
Subject: GJA: Guns, pamphlets & handie-talkies (1)

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