Months of communal and ethnic violence rip the social fabric of Indonesia, damaging its centuries’ old tradition of assimilation and toleration
Crowds of bystanders cheered a display of severed heads of Madurese men in Sambas, about 900 km. east of Jakarta in West Kalimantan. One severed head was displayed atop an oil drum with a cigarette stuffed in its nostril. Malays, Dayaks armed with weapons ranging from guns, swords and spears, to farm tools, carried human ears, scalps and hearts as souvenirs." (Reuters news agency report)
This was the latest and most gruesome violence to rock the archipelago which has been the centre of communal, anti–military, separatist and ethnic clashes since last year. Last year ethnic Chinese had been the targets. This time, the local Malays and Dayaks unleashed terror against the migrant Madurese population in the region, who had been brought to West Kalimantan under a government scheme aimed at relieving the population pressure on the relatively poor island of Madura.
About 176 lives were lost in less than one week in Sambas in West Kalimantan province. As the two per cent Madurese population had gained more employment opportunities, the locals became increasingly resentful. Reports came in of some of the ‘victors’ even cutting open their victims’ chests to eat their hearts — customs rooted in their tribal traditions. More than 23,000 Madurese, left homeless in the carnage, have fled in any transport accessible to them.
The army in the meantime has been accused not only of inaction but even collusion with the rampaging mobs. "Police and soldiers did not intervene as rioters in the town of Sambas systematically smashed and burnt home after home. Security forces have passed severed heads in the road without stopping. They have let armed men roar through the town on motorcycles and in lorries… Police pickup trucks have even given lifts to hitchhiking ‘warriors’." (Agence France–Presse).
The recent violence was not the first such eruption. Similar violence in 1996 and early 1997, had claimed about 500 lives according to human rights groups’ estimates. In a country made up of 13,000 islands, with 300 different ethnic groups, such ethnic violence could simply spell chaos, especially since Indonesia is already on the brink of an economic collapse.
Though the recent ethnic violence was what put Indonesia on world headlines, continuing reports of communal violence have already severely marred the image of Indonesia as a tolerant and pluralistic society, whose Muslims were upheld as an example for Muslims world–wide, India especially.
Since November last year, the country has seen Muslim–Christian riots in and around Jakarta, West Timor and more lately, since January this year, in Ambon. In the earlier bout of violence, 1,000 buildings had been burnt down along with 22 mosques and churches. At the height of the violence, some 20,000 people took refuge at military and police stations as well as mosques and churches. Both Christmas and Eid celebrations were marred by riots and attacks on religious places. Some reports state that up to 60 churches had been burnt down in the past six months in Muslim majority provinces.
However, the death toll was not as high as it has been in Ambon, a Christian majority area, where rioting in the past two months has claimed more than 200 lives. In Ambon, the violence first erupted on January 19, and then spread to five neighbouring islands in Maluku province. The violence is considered a reaction to the earlier riots in Muslim majority areas in and around Jakarta. In Ambon, entire villages have been razed to the ground. Tens of thousands of people have been left homeless. Many of the Muslim inhabitants of this Christian majority area have fled.
"We have nothing left. All was burned or stolen. Our relatives were killed. We are leaving for good", said one Muslim evacuee.
Executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Sidney Jones, said in a report on the clashes, "Neither community has a monopoly on truth and suffering. The death toll is appallingly high for both sides have seen entire neighbourhoods burned down, and houses of worship destroyed."
Some 30,000 people have been displaced and are living in temporary shelters in and around Ambon. The report by HRW, an American human rights group, also contradicted the picture of communal amity that had always been portrayed by the government. Ambon was portrayed as a region where the interfaith relations had been well protected by a system called pela, where for centuries, a village of one faith had been twinned with a village of the other faith; where Christians helped build mosques and Muslims helped build churches. Tensions between the two communities, Ambonese Christians and Ambonese Muslims and other Muslim immigrants, according to the report, have been high since the 1970s.
The influx of Muslims into Christian majority Ambon and their domination of the commercial scene has left the Ambonese Christians extremely insecure. The HRW report also cites the ‘Islamisation’ that Muslim migrants brought as they built mosques and sought converts to Islam in Christian dominated areas. In heavily Muslim areas of Java and Sumatra, aggressive Protestant evangelism has caused as much resentment as Muslim proselytising has in Christian areas.
Another facet of the communal tension, according to the report is that sections of the Christian population had identified more with the Netherlands than with the Indonesian nationalists at the time of independence from the Dutch in 1945. They mounted a short–lived separatist movement after independence called the Republic of the South Moluccas (RMS). Several of the Muslim villages that have figured prominently in the recent conflict were razed by RMS forces in 1950. In the recent fighting, Muslim leaders had accused the Christians of working with the RMS, thereby portraying them as both militarily organised and disloyal.
Allegations have arisen against the army’s role in the riots as well. A huge demonstration was held against the army, by 3,000 Muslims in Ambon city, accusing the local military commander, Col. Karel Kalahalo, who is a Christian, of displaying anti–Muslim bias. Muslims and Christians have both periodically made such allegation against the army. However, the troops have also been criticised for using extreme measures to break up the riots. HRW points out that while the deaths upto February were a result of the traditional weapons used by rioters, most of the subsequent deaths had been a result of brutal shooting by the 5,000 security forces deployed on the island. The organisation has primarily been demanding investigations into rogue elements in the army, who they suspect were deliberately provoking trouble at former President Suharto’s behest, in order to disrupt the preparations for elections scheduled for June 7 this year and create conditions for a return to military rule.
While officials claim that it is the economic crisis that is fuelling the violence, it is obviously not the only factor, as the economic crisis is not as severe in Maluku, where Ambon is situated, as in some other Indonesian provinces.
One of the key factors in the rising insecurity amongst the minorities of Indonesia is the rise of various fundamentalist Muslim political organisations in the country.
Suharto had repressed overtly ‘Islamic’ political organisations with an iron hand throughout his reign. In the 1990s, however, the Suharto regime began to appoint Muslims over Christians to civil service jobs as part of its campaign to create a political base for itself among Islamic groups. After Suharto’s fall, these organisations have found support amongst the youth base in Indonesia, who are frustrated with the social and political situation prevalent in the country. In fact, many of the youth and student organisations that had played a significant role in toppling the Suharto regime and calling for economic reforms have allied themselves with Islamic organisations. On March 7, an estimated 1,00,000 Muslim students and their supporters took part in a demonstration in Jakarta calling for a holy war (Jehad) against Christians and for the resignation of defence minister, Wiranto, due to the riots in Ambon, which had claimed more Muslim than Christian lives.
Not long ago, many Muslim groups joined forces with youth groups to constitute a civil guard to protect the People’s Consultative Assembly, the country’s highest legislative body. The largest element in the civil guard is the ‘Brigade Hizbullah’, consisting of 1,00,000 youths from 32 Muslim organisations and ‘Furkon’, a Muslim youth organisation linked to the conservative Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI) and to the Indonesian Committee for International Islamic Solidarity (KISDI). Acting President, B.J. Habibie, was himself a member of the ICMI earlier. Thus, the conservatives look towards him with hope for finally realising their dream of an Islamic Indonesian state. Though Habibie has ruled out any declaration of Islamic state, the alliance of religious parties has only gained strength. Those behind this conservative coalition were also responsible for a resolution in early November that declared that only a Muslim male would be acceptable as the next Indonesian President. This not only barred leaders from any minority community from the premier position, but also the popular opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri of the National Awakening Party (PKB) and daughter of freedom fighter Sukarno. Even fellow opposition stalwart, Abdurrahman Wahid, echoed the conservative stand on March 24, and declared that she could not become President as they were tied down to Islamic law in mainly Muslim Indonesia and she should settle for vice presidency or house speakership.
Archived from Communalism Combat, April1999, Year 6 No. 53, Special Report