Harvard Asia Quarterly, Summer 2002 Volume VI, No. 3
[A Graduate Student Publication affiliated with the Harvard Asia Center]
Utopian Visions And Kinship Divisions
Ideological Perceptions Of Ethnic Conflict In Ambon
By Kathleen Turner
Kathleen Turner is a Ph.D Research Scholar in the School of Politics & International
Studies at Murdoch University, Western Australia. She completed her Bachelor of
Asian Studies degree at the Australian National University in 1996. Her current
research for her dissertation focuses on ethnic conflict in the Moluccas in Eastern
[Photo credits: Richard Rowat, www.websitesrcg.com/ambon]
The island of Ambon, in the Eastern Indonesian province of Maluku, has been
wracked by prolonged and violent outbreaks of conflict since early 1999. The island
had previously enjoyed peaceful coexistence between local Muslim and Christian
communities as a result of the traditional alliance system known as pela with only
occasional sources of tension based on local land boundaries and property rights.
However, a relatively minor fight on January 19, 1999 between a Christian public
transport driver and a Muslim youth quickly escalated into a violent and polarized
conflict between the Christian and Muslim communities. Since 1999, the number of
casualties in Ambon and the surrounding provincial islands have been estimated at
5,000 deaths and a staggering 700,000 displaced persons which is almost one third of
the population. While there have been mediation attempts by the central government,
including the signing of the Malino II agreement in February 2002, the conflict in
Ambon has continued, exacerbated by the arrival of thousands of Laskar Jihad
Muslim militia forces in mid-2000 and the recent bomb explosion in Ambon in early
April 2002 which killed four and wounded fifty eight people. Throughout the conflict
there have been widespread rumors of provocateurs and third party manipulation, as
well as references to ingrained resentment based on certain economic and power
disparities in Ambon. However members of both sides of the conflict have tended to
depict the dispute primarily as one relating to the Republik Maluku Selatan (Republic
of the South Moluccas, or RMS), a short-lived separatist movement of the 1950s in
National integration has been a consistent goal of Indonesia's succession of
nationalist governments, but this has been impeded by the country's tremendous
diversity. Indonesia's mosaic of differences - in ethnic composition, geographical
spread, religious and cultural disparities, and linguistic differences - have been seen
as inhibiting the achievement of a "national culture" that transcends local and ethnic
boundaries. My approach seeks to explore how the conflict was translated into an
ethnic conflict through ideological constructions of the community and why the
conflict has thus become entrenched through the generation of an emotionally
powerful sense of national consciousness and loyalty.
Ideological constructions in Ambon have formed the basis for people's interpretations
of current events and their beliefs in the possibility of improving social and political
conditions by mobilization. As an ethnic ideology, these interpretations of events have
referred to the past to explain the present. They not only convey a sense of ethnic
identity through a language of kinship and common ancestry, but as an ideology they
have diagnosed contemporary disruptions by providing a comprehensive explanation of
The following will offer an examination of how local elites have reacted to a change in
the status quo by translating societal grievances of specific interests into an
ideological language that refers to the past. Particular focus will be given to the
differing ways in which both the Christians and Muslims have used the RMS and the
events of the 1950s to suit their own purposes. Secondly, attention is paid to the links
between elite and mass concerns and the insistent question of why followers follow.
A "Religious War"
During the initial weeks of 1999 after the eruption of violence on the island, outside
observers depicted the conflict in Ambon as a religious war. Whether religion formed
the basis for the conflict or whether it simply played an ideological function was not an
issue at the forefront of debate at first.
The idea that this was a "religious war" was not a comfortable position for the state
government given its much publicized opposition to SARA, the Indonesian acronym
denoting acts of violence based on religious, ethnic or racial grounds. Comments by
General Wiranto, then Minister of Defense and Security, seemed to suggest an
imminent threat to the nation: "The recent incidents show that our nation's
brotherhood is highly threatened and under a serious test."
Throughout 1999, the Ambonese themselves explicitly dismissed the notion of a
"religious war" between the Christian and Muslim communities. Instead, Ambonese
rationalizations often involved perceptions of exploitation. Many non-Muslim residents,
for example, expressed resentment that important political positions in Maluku were
held by Muslims or accused the government of the failure to protect Christians in light
of the hundreds of church burnings in the last five years. National-level constructions
of the conflict may also have indirectly influenced residents' interpretations of the
conflict. They began to sideline religion, and shift blame and suspicion to alternative
reasons such as discriminatory selection for posts in the local bureaucracy or having
the upper hand in the trading sector. Unequal social interactions prompted individuals
to identify reactively with "us" versus "them" communities.
Developments during conflict aroused an immediate concern to translate passive
complaint into some form of active mobilization. The conflict in Ambon at this stage
(during January-May of 1999 but prior to the 1999 national elections) was extremely
violent, with private sources from Ambon indicating that official estimates of close to
200 deaths should be multiplied by at least ten to provide a more realistic
interpretation of the death toll.
The actual physical threat posed immediate concerns for public welfare and security,
creating a need to mobilize against the threat. This threat was enlarged by the state's
perceived lack of credibility as a guarantor of security and social justice for its
citizens, as both Ambonese Christians and Muslims claimed that members of the
Indonesian armed forces (TNI) were against them. Fear and insecurity were fuelled by
stories of torture with many residents describing "inhuman" acts of violence.
As structures of family and locality were being disrupted by the violence, the
Ambonese increasingly sought a solution to these feelings of confusion and isolation.
Due to the complexities of the conflict at the time where certain identity labels evoked
feelings of hatred, the Ambonese sought an alternative characterization that would
resolve feelings of isolation by clearly distinguishing different communities.
The Laskar Jihad And National Level Constructions Of The RMS
Perceptions of a religious war by Muslims - who often questioned the fact that the
violence erupted on the feast day marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan - led
to the calling of a jihad in Jakarta in March 1999 against the Christians in Ambon.
Political circumstances at the time echoed Wiranto's statement. Suharto's resignation
after 30 years as President gave rise to expectations that new political leaders would
respond to popular demands.
The RMS was a prominent theme in the Ambon conflict during the middle to latter
periods of 1999. Prominent Muslim leaders in Jakarta and throughout Java such as
Chairman of the Indonesian Committee for Solidarity with the Islamic World (KISDI)
K.H. Abdurrasyid Abudullah and leader of the Muslim Workers Brotherhood Union
Eggi Sudjana, all identified the RMS in a new ideological construction of a Christian
threat not based on religious grounds but from a more secular, nationalistic
They depicted the Christian enemy as a separatist movement subversive to the State
and therefore illegal. This enabled Muslims to justify their position as defenders of
national unity and to participate in the conflict. It was one of the only ways to bid for
the army's support, since the army normally strictly oppose conflicts based on SARA
and would thus under no circumstances be justified in participating in such a conflict.
Separatist suspicions were often based on the fact that the conflict in Ambon
exploded on the 49th anniversary of the RMS movement in 1950 and that the RMS
flag was allegedly sighted in various places on the island. The exiled "president" of the
RMS in The Netherlands, Dr. Frans Tutuhatunewa, acknowledged responsibility for
the flying of the RMS flags. However, he denied that the violence in Ambon was
deliberately instigated by members of his cause: "The conflict in Ambon is another
issue altogether. Our own struggle is concerned with achieving RMS goals." Other
prominent leaders such as Freddy Pietersz, Chairman of the Moluccan Families
Association, voiced the opinion that the RMS was an obvious scapegoat, but
Tutuhatunewa's failure to create a clear distinction between the outbreak of communal
conflict in Ambon and the execution of an apparent RMS struggle, fueled developing
National Level Ideological Constructions -The Expansion Of The RMS Myth
The conflict in Ambon escalated during January and February 2000, with President
Abdurrahman Wahid declaring a state of civil emergency in May. Despite calls from
Wahid to prevent members of the Laskar Jihad from intervening in the conflict, in May
hundreds of Laskar Jihad volunteer fighters, predominantly from Java, arrived in Ambon
and the Moluccas. The result was an escalation in violence and casualties.
During this period, several prominent Indonesian Muslims, including the commander of
the Laskar Jihad forces Ja'far Umar Thalib, publicly discussed the role of the Laskar
Jihad within the context of the violence in Moluccas. Ja'far Umar Thalib's particular
ideology was given impetus by the changing political circumstances within Indonesia
at the time, with renewed expectations of political restructuring and state
responsiveness to Islamic rights. His ideological template was therefore adapted for
contemporary purposes, targeting the events in Ambon through the expansion of the
"RMS myth" and the events of the 1950s.
First, Thalib articulated his opposition to existing government leaders for impeding
social justice and failing to guarantee the rights of the Muslim majority as a result of
the continued existence of the RMS. State elites and their performances began to be
subject to greater scrutiny and became increasingly seen by Thalib and his followers
as one of the sources of disruption. In various sermons given throughout 2000, Thalib
criticized President Abdurrahman Wahid (who is well-known as a liberal Muslim
advocating reform within Islam) and his government for colluding with the RMS and
other Christian movements against Islam. Wahid's opposition to Thalib's plan to send
thousands of Laskar Jihad volunteers to Maluku, for example, confirmed suspicions
for many Muslims that the Indonesian government was intent on defending the RMS
and the Christian community.
Indeed, the rationale for Laskar Jihad volunteers in the first place was that the jihad to
Maluku was an act of protest against alleged discrimination towards Indonesian
Muslims by State authorities, and to reconcile matters where the army and the police
had failed. Thalib specified particular individuals as a threat to the Muslim community
including Benny Doro, alleged military leader for Christian groups ( Panglima Perang
Kelompok Kristen) who he accused of inciting conflict in Maluku. In July 2000,
Muslims in Jakarta staged a demonstration, voicing opposition to military intervention
by foreign nations in Maluku.
However, disillusionment with the capabilities of the state does not necessarily imply
a decline in those capacities. The Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) themselves are still
perceived by the Laskar Jihad as a credible component of the state security
apparatus. The attack by elite armed forces ( Batalyon Gabungan) on a Muslim
medical clinic on Ambon was seen not only as an attack against the Muslim
community but also against TNI forces. Factionalism within the military is associated
with the RMS, who have been accused of using international connections to supply
Christian soldiers with modern weapons. The Laskar Jihad thusoften indicated that
their intervention was a move to take over where state structures had failed.
Secondly, Thalib and other members of allied Muslim organizations promoted the
classification of two separate communities. One was portrayed as a righteous
community of Muslims with ethical obligations to defend members of their religious
brotherhood, with the other side being the RMS, representing the Christians.
Members of the jihad militant group unraveled a story of the RMS conspiracy in
Indonesia dating back to the proclamation of Indonesian independence on August 17,
1945. They suggested that certain members of the government elite were thwarted by
the RMS working in Eastern Indonesia who instigated separatist movements in places
such as Manado and Irian Jaya. At the same time, corrupt elites within the
government facilitated the growth of reactive separatist movements such as the RMS
through policies that transgressed the rights of the Muslims.
The explanation constructs a historical narrative of a politically threatening enemy.
The RMS movement is portrayed as being thwarted by Muslim and state groups loyal
to the nation-state and are also symbolic of the oppression of Muslims and
transgression of their rights in the history of Indonesia, as manifested by the policies
and actions of corrupt governmental officials. The community is thus united against
the threat of the RMS. This form of ideological support, the sense of being part of a
homeland among those who possess common attributes, fulfilled the individual's
emotional search for identity and security. By providing a diagnosis to the conflict and
offering a solution to end the disruption, individuals found appeal in the various
formulations of the nationalistic vision.
Local Level Ideological Constructions
As mentioned previously, escalating violence in Ambon during 1999 and 2000 created
massive dislocations of people and deaths on an unprecedented scale. The
Ambonese were struggling to rationalize the prolonged conflict as many put forth
varied theories of third-party provocateurs, cultural polarization, disparities in local
government, and others. Local communities were divided depending on which
explanation one subscribed to. With immediate disruptions of the families' social
welfare being of predominant concern, residents wished to diagnose and resolve the
conflict as State security forces were clearly unable to do so. As one private source
indicated in 1999, "The Ambonese community, both the Christians and the Muslims,
have admitted that they are tired of living in fear in an atmosphere of hostility."
Muslim Construction Of The RMS
Local perceptions of events often echoed ideological constructions by actors at the
national level. Information and propaganda from Muslim actors in Jakarta and
throughout Java were constantly disseminated through affiliated local Muslim
organizations and media institutions such as the Moluccan Islamic Defence Front, the
Moluccan Institute for the Existence of Islam (LEMM), and the Moluccan Islamic
Voice of Struggle (SPMM), all located in Ambon. The latter operates on behalf of the
Laskar Jihad and has been extremely vocal about an alleged RMS conspiracy in the
Moluccas, especially after the first arrivals of Laskar Jihad volunteers in May 2000.
Other local affiliated agencies adopted a similar attitude as evidenced by their frequent
use of the term "Christian Moluccan Republic" ( Republik Maluku Serani) as opposed
to the "Republic of the South Moluccas" in a reconstruction of the original RMS
acronym. Maluku Republik Serani was a term most prominently used by Muslim
intellectuals in Jakarta after the 1999 elections when Abdurrahman Wahid was
democratically elected president of Indonesia. Others declared emphatically that a
South Moluccan separatist movement never existed. They indicated that
geographically it was a ridiculous concept when Ambon was not strictly located in the
south Moluccan region.
Other resident Ambonese Muslims articulated in detailed precision their version of the
history of the RMS and the events of the 1950s within the context of contemporary
events in Ambon. Many not only reflected Thalib's rhetoric of a wider RMS/Christian
oppression of Muslims but also the public expressions of local Muslim leaders such
as Chairman of Raya Al-Fatah Mosque Association in Ambon, Hi. Abdullah Soulissa,
Chairman of the Association of Muslim Youth in Maluku, Lutfi Sanaky SH, and M.
Nour Tawaninella of the Institute for the Existence of Islam in Maluku. These leaders
were vocal critics of the RMS and were revealing in their historical explanations of the
RMS's existence in Ambon and the development of a Christian scheme to oust Islam.
Many Ambonese Muslims likewise unfolded stories of the RMS but in a specific
context of local historical processes.
They indicated that the RMS oppression of Muslims commenced when the Muslims
in Ambon began to educate themselves and occupy prominent positions in public
institutions after 1962, the year which saw the demise of the RMS with the capture of
Soumokil (co-founder of the RMS and later RMS President) by the Indonesian Armed
Forces. According to several Muslim versions of history, the RMS re-infiltrated Ambon
shortly afterwards through positions in local government and in higher educational
This oppression was heightened in 1994 when the Christians, often in states of
inebriation, instigated attacks on Muslim groups during the Muslim fasting month of
Ramadan. The Muslim claim is that these events marked the beginning of frequent
clashes between Christians and Muslims which culminated in 1998 when the RMS
deliberately announced that one of the Christian churches ( Gereja Petra) had been
burnt by Muslim groups. The violence that began in early 1999 and continues to this
day represented for many the defense of Muslims against an RMS plot. The claim is
that the Christian enemy can only be defeated by destroying the RMS, who have been
seeking a Christian resurgence ever since its defeat by Indonesian forces in 1950.
Christian Construction Of The RMS
While the Muslims saw the RMS as a Christian army of exiles intent on a "Christian
resurgence" since 1950, members of the Ambonese Christian community possessed
an alternative version of history. Rather than being seen as the "mastermind" of the
RMS plot, Soumokil, the first president of the RMS, is seen as a figure with little
political experience whose political career as Minister for Justice in the NIT (Federal
State of East Indonesia) was clouded by controversy and debate. They claim that
after the demise of the NIT, Soumokil was more or less "forced" to proclaim the RMS
on April 25, 1950 to save the precarious position of the KNIL (Dutch East Indies Army)
soldiers, many of whom were Ambonese, and who were threatened by their
incorporation into the newly formed Indonesian Republic.
In Christian narratives the RMS was not solely a Christian manifestation. Instead,
members of both the Christian and Muslim communities were united in support for a
separate Moluccan state. This is symbolized by the claim by members of the
Ambonese Christian community that the RMS forces formed by Soumoukil and his
new government consisted both of Muslim and Christian Moluccans. As one
Ambonese stated, "This proves that the RMS is not owned or is not a product of just
the Christian community, but also the Muslim community." Many Christians also
describe a large base of RMS supporters consisting of Muslims who reside in the
This interpretation of events depicts the relationship between Ambonese Christians
and Muslims as one that was initially equal and reciprocal, but the latter's
denouncement of the Christians as carrying out the diabolical RMS plot of the 1950s
led to alienation of the two groups. From the perspective of many Christian
Ambonese, the RMS is "a thing of the past"; no Christians today wanting to align
themselves to a separatist movement, let alone a Christian one. Contrary to popular
Muslim conceptions, even the Moluccan Sovereignty Front (FKM) is seen as simply a
"Moral Force" ( Gerakan Moral) by the Christians, especially on issues concerning
the integrity of the armed forces. Allegations that the relationship between Christians
and Muslims was already strained due Christian resentment of the economic success
of Muslims migrants were hotly denied by many Ambonese Christians community
members. Many have alleged that the conflict in Ambon was ignited by two Muslim
youths who demanded money from a Christian public transport driver. From one of
their perspectives, the monetary crisis of 1997/1998 severely affected the local
Muslim community whereas the Christians were largely supported by the churches
and church related organizations.
They also claimed that very few Muslims were enrolled in local educational institutions
simply because the Muslims opposed Western learning and considered the West as
their enemy. These myths reflect the Christian recognition that the relationship
between the Christians and the Muslims had indeed developed into an unequal one,
indicated by the division of labor in the workplace and certain economic disparities.
However for many Ambonese Christians the conflict was not based on these types of
rivalries for position and wealth.
In the face of these complex considerations of community grievances, conflict
theories and widespread social disruption, new formulations of the nationalistic vision
by local elites offered a resolution to the stress and anxieties engendered by the
conflict. The extreme violence demanded a language that was able to grapple with this
new phenomena and at the same time create a sense of "oneness" and familiarity.
An Ethnic Community Of Common Ancestry, Kinship And Homeland
In opposition to the Laskar Jihad is the Laskar Kristus or Army of Christ whose
followers claim to be warriors defending the faith as God's soldiers. As early as March
1999 the militant Laskar Kristus was led by a local Ambonese leader Agus
Wattimena in a crusade-like mission against what they deemed as the "evil
oppressors." Despite his claim of a "popular army" consisting of approximately 20,000
members, there had been widespread controversy regarding support for this
movement on the basis that Wattimena recruited units of young children to serve as
front-line Christian soldiers. Some adolescent Ambonese Christians have expressed
fervent enthusiasm for militant action but many Christian leaders and members of the
Moluccan churches wished to focus instead on local efforts to restore peace and
condemned the militant action.
With new waves of violence in 2000 after the intervention of the Laskar Jihad, there
were renewed cries from the Ambonese for reconciliation efforts, with both Christians
and Muslims expressing fears for their security. In an unprecedented move in
December of that year, Agus Wattimena shifted his militant approach to join four other
prominent local Moluccan leaders to publicly declare "The Unanimous Declaration of
the Moluccan People - Voices of the Islands", Moluccan Sovereignty Front (FKM).
Alexander Manuputty, who was affiliated with "Nunusaku", a human rights
organization based in Ambon, expressed a desire for independence in the Moluccas
in June 2000. He indicated that several Moluccan leaders and residents were already
keen for independence due to disillusionment with the Indonesian government, which
was accused of transforming Indonesia into an Islamic State. The establishment of
the FKM was prompted by the Laskar Jihad's arrival in Maluku, which was seen as an
indication that Islamic hardliners in the government were willing to let the conflict run
in order to further their own political agendas.
In December 2000, Manuputty realized these sentiments when he and five others
issued a press release declaring the formation of the Moluccan Sovereignty Front
(FKM). With Manuputty sworn in as the FKM's Chairman of the Executive Branch,
Agus Wattimena as "Grass-roots Representative", and with representatives in
Jakarta, Europe and New York, the FKM declared the right to dissolve existing State
structures, pointing to Indonesia's constitution which says "sovereignty is in the
hands of the people". Embedded within their nationalistic discourse was a clear
aversion to the existing state and its institutions: "The history and track record of the
present government of the Republic of Indonesia is a record of repeated abuses,
injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute
Tyranny over the Moluccan people.The Human [sic] tragedy that occurs in the
Moluccan islands in the past two years was the result of a collaboration and
conspiracy organised by the Indonesian government by using the Indonesian army
and the Jihad vigilantes as a means to fossilise the Moluccan people."
By articulating grievances towards the State as stemming from the State's failure to
recognize the legal position of the RMS, the FKM constructed a sense of community
in ethnocultural terms - one which focused on belief in common ancestry and related
perceptions of homeland and origin, similar to Hatuniasa Sonauwe's visualization of a
Moluccan republic. In civic terms, the FKM also referred to the "internal colonialist"
exploitation of the Moluccan people by a government intent on the formation of an
Islamic state. This "exploitation" was attributed to the Laskar Jihad, Muslims intent on
ridding Indonesia of its secular form of government as opposed to those Moluccan
Muslims who were against the concept of an Islamic State and were allegedly forced
by the Laskar Jihad to fight their Christian counterparts.
Since subversive movements are illegal under Indonesian law, the FKM was careful to
avoid demanding independence and calling itself a "separatist" movement. Any
affiliation with the RMS was based on their shared belief that Jakarta illegally annexed
southern Maluku in 1950 and is thus technically independent. The FKM also stressed
that the FKM was not a Christian movement and shifted its emphasis on the identities
and values of the local Muslims who had until then were perceived to lack close ties
to the core constituencies of the FKM elite. The FKM adopted an ideology similar to
the 1999 conflict in the Kai Islands of the southeasternmost of Maluku where religious
war gave way to a peace process that stressed common ancestry.
In an interview with Siwalima, a local newspaper in Ambon, Wattimena pointed to
Thamrin Ely, a prominent local Muslim official, as an example of the need to form a
communal identity in the face of the complexities and political turmoil. Firstly, he
indicated that Ely's alleged manipulation of local Muslims to engage in the conflict
was victimizing both sides of the dispute. Secondly, Ely's request to the Indonesian
security forces to eliminate people of "Alifuru" descent (indigenous people of the
Moluccas) was essentially a request to do away with people of the same ancestral
The construction of an "Alifuru-nation" was used by Manuputty prior to the declaration
of the FKM in June 2000 in calling the international community to support their claim
to building a sovereign nation. In his construction of this fixed homeland community,
Wattimena evoked the emotional appeal of the Moluccans by providing a sense of
uniqueness and permanence of the community. The belief in the nation involves an
attempt to recreate a sense of "oneness" by denying difference and seeing the nation
as a community of cultural sameness. Wattimena further endowed the concept with a
new legitimacy: ".this country was given to the Moluccan people by God. What does
the name "Alif" actually mean? Number One or the First Person."
Wattimena representated the nation as the homeland of the Moluccan ancestors
whose collective immortality has survived destruction. Here the rational defense of a
way of life has been intrinsically linked with the non-rational; a constructed distinction
between a virtuous "us" sanctioned by a Supreme Being - that is, God - and the
"them" or the "outsiders" who have engendered stress and humiliation and threatened
the emotional and physical security within their homeland.
In opposition, other resident Muslims in Ambon based their umat or community on
particular ethnic traits of religion, custom and history. Independent of national-level
constructions of a larger umat community, unity and belonging were related to a more
specific Muslim Moluccan community based on these ethnic attributes. Local Muslim
leaders often argued that the Muslim claim to be the indigenous peoples of Maluku
could be drawn from history where Islam was the first religion to be introduced to the
Moluccan people by the Arabs and the Indians since the beginning of the fourteenth
century. It was emphasized that Islam represented the indigenous religion of Maluku
and a people that could all claim ancestral heritage from the prophet Abraham (
In contrast, Christians were said to be culturally inferior and their claims to a
community based on common ancestry lacked legitimacy. Muslim groups refuted
claims by Christians that Christians were the original habitants of several villages on
Ambon island, and argued instead that the ancestors of these villages were Muslims
who then converted to Christianity. Christian residents, they said, could not claim that
this was their homeland because they were originally migrants from other islands
proof of which could be found in their foreign family names. The FKM's claims to a
community or family of common ancestry therefore contained fundamental flaws.
Ideological myths of ethnic identity were invented by local elites to try and make
sense of the massive scale of destruction and death in Ambon. The expression of
societal grievances by residents that were based on issues of economic disparities
and local power rivalries developed into a process whereby these calls for greater
representation in local government, increased employment opportunities and others,
became translated into a belief in common ancestry, kinship ties and homeland.
Muslim and Christian constructions of identity were generated by diffuse feelings of
insecurity and uncertainty rather than the pursuit of specific material interests. The
complexities of these processes and the anxieties that they generated caused those
involved to search for ideological formulas offering a sense of certainty in these
turbulent circumstances. The attraction of these ideological "myths" is that they offer
a complete shift from feelings of isolation and powerlessness to a sense of total
empowerment and security. This transition to a sense of self-assurance and
self-confidence was aptly exemplified in an interview when one Ambonese said, "We
have great spirit. You need to know the true facts, what really happened."
1 The traditional system of pela refers to ceremonial bonds of friendship and mutual
obligation established between two or more villages, often both Christian and Muslim.
It is conceived of as an enduring and inviolable brotherhood; an alliance that has to be
renewed regularly through important ceremonies and solemn oaths. Generally villages
in a pela relationship are obligated to assist one another in times of crisis and in
undertaking community projects such as the building of a church or mosque. For a
detailed explanation of pela see Bartels, Dieter (1977), Guarding the Invisible
Mountain: Intervillage Alliances, Religious Syncretism and Ethnic Identity among
Ambonese Christians and Moslems in the Moluccas, University Microfilms
International, England. Also Frank L. Cooley, Village Government in the Central
Moluccas, in Indonesia, April 1967, No.7. pp.139-163.
2 Von Benda-Beckmann, Franz and Taale, Tanja (1996), Land Trees and Houses:
Changing (Un) certainties in Property Relationships on Ambon, in Remaking Maluku:
Social Transformation in Eastern Indonesia, ed. Mearns and Healey, Special
Monograph No.1, 1996, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Territory
University, Darwin, pp.42-57.
3 With the population of Ambon consisting of 42.4 percent Muslim and 57.5 percent
Christian, Ambon experienced relatively peaceful coexistence prior to the eruption of
violence in 1999. Both groups coexisted in separate quarters especially in the rural
areas where the institution of pela remained strong. In this respect the relationship
was characteristically separate but not hostile. Colonies of non-Ambonese from
elsewhere in the archipelago (such as the predominantly Muslim Javenese and
Butonese from Sulawesi) have resided in Ambon since the time of the Dutch East
India Company (VOC) in the seventeenth century. Spontaneous migration to Ambon
and the Moluccas has continued, producing much rivalry with the indigenous
communities in trade and commerce. The eruption of violence in January 1999
seemed to indicate a conflict between Bugis migrants from Sulawesi and local
Ambonese Christians, but the violence soon spread to encompass the general
Ambonese Muslim population. Within days of the initial outburst, hunreds of people
from both sides of the conflict were killed and many villages from Ambon and the
neighboring islands were destroyed. Within the following few months, the violence
spread to other areas of Maluku including South and North Maluku, escalating the
numbers of casualties and forcing thousands to flee the area.
4 The RMS was a separatist movement established in Ambon on April 25, 1950
largely supported by Ambonese members of the Royal Netherlands Indies Army
(KNIL) who were predominantly Christian. After a campaign by the Indonesian armed
forces, the RMS was quickly eliminated that same year. Dr. Soumokil, the President
of the RMS was captured in 1964 and sentenced to death two years later. An RMS
government- in-exile was established in the Netherlands in 1953 but was later
wracked by factional movements. It has achieved very limited international recognition,
with the Indonesian government perceiving the RMS issue officially as a problem for
the Netherlands rather than for Indonesia. It has been argued that Ambonese society
emerged from the RMS era deeply divided and with strained relations between Muslim
and Christian communities.
5 "Wiranto Calls Meeting on Violence", The Jakarta Post, 25 January 1999.
6 Greg Acciaioli, "Principles and Strategies of Bugis Migration: some contextual
factors relating to ethnic conflict", in Masyarakat Indonesia: Majalah Ilmu-Ilmu Sosial
Indonesia, No.2, 1999.
7 "Asia: Terror in the Spice Islands", The Economist, 06 March 1999.
8 Thank you to Ed Aspinall for his comments in this regard.
9 Nugroho, Kelik M.; Taufik, Ahmad; Madjowa, Verrianto, "Ambon Mencari Juru
Damai", Tempo, 08 March 1999.
10 Thank you to Ed Aspinall for his insightful comments in this regard.
11 Putuhena, Husni M. SH (1999) Tragedi Kemanusiaan dalam Kerusuhan di Maluku:
Sebuah Prosesi Ulang Sejarah Masa Lalu, Lembaga Eksistensi Muslim Maluku
(LEMM), Ambon, p.19.
12 Herry Mohammad and Heddy Lugito, "Ambon Menangise", Gatra, 30 January
13 Ibid. " Peristiwa Ambon itu soal lain. Perjuangan kami sudah pasti, sampai
cita-cita RMS tercapai."
15 The Laskar Jihad and other allied Muslim groups such as KISDI already
possessed well-known ideological templates of Christian conspiracies to destroy
Islam and undermine the Indonesian nation.
16 Many Muslim modernists, especially members of the Indonesian Association of
Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) founded in 1990, have harshly criticized the government for
its perceived favoritism towards Christians in the bureaucratic employment and the
influence of Christian-led think tanks such as the Centre for Strategic and International
Studies, and Christian run newspapers such as Suara Pembaruan and Kompas. See
Adam Schwarz (1999) A Nation in Waiting, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, pp.181-182.
17 Wijayanta, Hanibal W.Y. and Almarwan, Usmar A., "Laskar Jihad, Kekeruhan
Politik, dan Nasib Gus Dur", Forum Keadilan, No.3, 23 April 2000.
18 This was reportedly in response to the fact that several Moluccan residents had
approached the American, British and Australian embassies in Jakarta requesting
their immediate assistance to send troops into the region. "Ja'far Umar Thalib:
Amerika Tidak Pernah Menang, Kecuali di Film Rambo", Forum Keadilan, No.16, 23
19 David Brown, Contemporary Nationalism: Civic, Ethnocultural & Multicultural
Politics, Routledge, London (2000), p.43.
20 "Pasukan Bayaran Yon-Gab 90% Beragama Kristen", Maluku Pekan Ini, Edisi 15
-21 June 2001, FKAWJ Malang.>
21 The collective association of the Christian Church and the RMS movement has
been a prominent theme in Laskar Jihad rhetoric.
ComAmq@Ambon.wasantara.net.id, Crisis Centre, Centre Diocese of Amboina, The
Situation in the Ambon/Moluccas - Report No.169. In early 2001 the allegation by
Muslim groups of a collaboration between the RMS and the Moluccan Protestant
Church (GPM) was exacerbated by the hoisting of the RMS flag in Ambon on April 25,
2001. The local Muslim radio station " Suara Perjuangan Muslim Maluku" (SPMM)
has accused the GPM of being responsible for joint action in the ceremonial raising of
the RMS flag. The radio station made further accusations that the United Nations
Mission in Ambon was also an integral component of the "RMS conspiracy" based on
the observation that the UN flag was hoisted together with the RMS flag at the UN
Bureau in Ambon.
22 Ja'far Umar Thalib has indicated in a speech entitled " Jihad: The Final Solution to
End the Christian Separatist Violence" that the birth of the Indonesian Republic was
opposed by counter Christian elements such as the RMS whose basic principles
were to 1) Christianize the whole of Indonesia as the second Christian nation in
Southeast Asia after the Philippines; and 2) if the first fails, to separate themselves
from the Indonesian State.
23 During the New Order government under Suharto, Islam was regarded as the
nation's leading religion, but he was not keen to make it a central feature of the
political system as it was still considered a potent political force. For this reason,
despite the fact that over ninety percent of the population claims Islam as their
religious faith, Islam in Indonesia has maintained a rather modest presence compared
with the role of Islam in many Middle Eastern countries. Sucipto Wirosardjono, the
former vice-director of the government-run Central Bureau of Statistics, indicated in the
early 1990s that there were strong feelings of deprivation among Indonesian Muslims
in terms of their representation in politics and business.
24 For an insight into these constructions of events, see M. Husni Putuhena SH
(1999) Tragedi Kemanusiaan dalam Kerusuhan di Maluku: Sebuah Prosesi Ulang
Sejarah Masa Lalu, Lembaga Eksistensi Muslim Maluku (LEMM), Ambon.
25 Dr. Chr. R.S. Soumokil was born on 13 October 1905 in Java. He was educated at
European schools in Surabaya and Semarang before completing his secondary
education in Holland and studying law in Leiden. He obtained his doctorate in 1934.
He returned to Java where during the war he worked in a legal office. He was interned
in Burma and Siam by the Japanese which was crucial in developing his special
relationship with Ambonese soldiers. In 1946 he worked in a military court for war
criminals before moving to Makassar where he became Minister of Justice and
became a patron of and adviser to several Ambonese organizations. See also
Chauvel, Richard (1990) Nationalists, Soldiers and Separatists, KITLV Press, Leiden,
26 For some Muslim residents, these events exemplified the Christians' lack of
commitment to the traditional system of pela symbolized by the fact that the
aforementioned church had been built by both Muslims and Christians from villages
pledged to this pela tradition.
27 "RMS Bukan Hanya Kristen", Jemaat Indonesia, No.117. 09 July-15 July 2001, p.6
28 The FKM or the Moluccan Sovereignty Front was a separatist group established on
18 December 2000 in Ambon. Alexander Manuputty who was affiliated with
Nunusaku, a Human Rights Organization based in Ambon, was sworn in as the
29 Paul Dillon, "Deadly Day's Play for Child Soldiers", The Australian, 21 June 2000.
30 Agus Wattimena, a Christian, was shot dead in Ambon on Tuesday 20 March
2001 by an unknown person.
31 The children soldiers were commonly referred to as agas or "gnat" epitomizing the
small size of the children and the ease with which they could infiltrate Muslim lines.
32 Tricia Fitzgerald, "Separatist Group Banned in Indonesia's Maluku Islands",
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 23 April 2001. Email newsletter from
33 "Ambon is a City Riven by Hatred and Fear", The Irish Times, 21 June 2000.
34 "Front Kedaulatan Maluku - FKM to Declare Independence from the Republic of
Indonesia", Press Release, 18 December 2000. From Ambon Berdarah Online
http://www.oocities.com/Maluku67/fkm1812y2k.htm. Accessed 23 February 2001.
35 It is interesting to note that Manuputty may have been already familiar with
Moluccan narratives of origin. The name of his organization Nunusaku is the name of
the legendary mountain in West Seram and the source of the Three Rivers, the Eti,
the Tala, and the Sapalewa. It is traditionally regarded as the source and the destiny
of life. Cooley, Frank L., Village Government in the Central Moluccas, in Indonesia,
April 1969, No.7, p.154.
36 "Independence calls in Indonesia's strife-torn Malukus", Agence France-Presse, 23
37 "Voice of Quiet Rebellion", South China Morning Post, 27 January 2001.
39 "Front Kedaulatan Maluku - FKM to Declare Independence from the Republic of
Indonesia", Ambon Berdarah Online, 18/12/2000
http://www.oocities.com/Maluku67/fkm1812y2k.htm Accessed 23/02/2001.
40 Hatuniasa Sounauwe established his own RMS government in exile in the early
1990s with intentions to collaborate with the United Nations. He managed to place the
Moluccas on the agenda of the United Nations working group on indigenous peoples.
41 "Front Kedaulatan Maluku - FKM to Declare Independence from the Republic of
Indonesia", Ambon Berdarah Online, 18 December 2000
http://www.oocities.com/Maluku67/fkm1812y2k.htm Accessed 23 February 2001.
42 "Voice of Quiet Rebellion", South China Morning Post, 27 January 2001.
43 The concept of "Alifuru" refers to the Seramese mountain tribes who were seen as
the prototypical inhabitant of the Moluccan State. Once having negative connotations
for a primitive people, the term has reemerged during recent events as a positive
symbol of Moluccan ancestry and culture. The concept was popular with the exiled
Moluccans in the Netherlands. Other exiled Moluccan migrants often concealed or
adapted any divergent cultural attributes to the Alifuru concept in their allegiance to
the cause of the RMS. See Aone van Engleenhoven, "Epithets and eptiomes:
Management and loss of narrative knowledge in Southwest Maluku (East Indonesia)",
Paideusis, Journal for Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Studies, Volume 1/1998.
44 "Independence calls in Indonesia's strife-torn Malukus", Agence France-Presse, 23
45 David Brown, Contemporary Nationalism: Civic, Ethnocultural & Multicultural
Politics, Routledge, London (2000), p.24.
46 " .negeri ini Allah berikan untuk orang Maluku. Nama saja Alif artinya apa? Orang
nomor satu atau orang pertama." "FKM Telah Dikampanyekan Thamrin Ely",
Siwalima, 25 February 2001.
47 "Klaim Kristen RMS Merupakan Ketidakjujuran Intelektual", Maluku Pekan Ini,
Edisi 14 July - 20 July 2001, FKAWJ Malang.
48 " Mereka ingin hendak mamadamkan cahaya kita dengan ucapanucapan mereka.
Tapi kita ini punya nyali besar. Anda perlu tahu kenyataan-kenyataan yang faktis,
yang benar-benar terjadi." Interview in Malang, Indonesia, 24 July 2001.
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