APSN Banner

Q&A: Trying to find answers to the Maluku conflict

Straits Times - June 23, 2000

There seems to be no end in sight for the wave of sectarian violence plagueing the Maluku islands for the past 18 months.

Why is the Indonesian government apparently unable to get the situation under control and just how serious is the latest violence in the Maluku islands? An edited BBC interview with Nugroho Wisnumurti of the Indonesian Foreign Ministry and BBC's South-east Asia Correspondent Jonathan Head tried to find some answers.

Q: WHY is the government unable to control the situation in Maluku islands?

A: Actually, the government is indeed trying very hard to control the situation by various means. Not only by dealing with the security threat at the moment where conflict is still going on but institutionally, we are trying to promote reconciliation among the different communities, especially the Christians and Muslims.

Q: But not with very much success, it would seem?

A: It takes time because it's very complex. As you know, there was the group of radical Muslims who succeeded in entering Ambon and the Malukus to stir further problems. It was very difficult because they entered into the islands from different parts of the archipelago. We are now trying to deal with the problem. The Muslim communities rejected the entry of these people because they only cause further bloodshed.

Q: Let's broaden it out then, for a moment. How worried is the government now that the sort of communal strife, which has been seen in the Malukus now for really quite a long time, is going to spread throughout Indonesia, because there have been signs, haven't there, of similar problems occurring elsewhere?

A: We are not very concerned about the spread of this intercommunal conflict, simply because different situations have different conditions for a threat to the security and Ambon is basically not a inter-religious conflict. It is more of a conflict triggered by the economic disparities between the locals and the migrants and this is something very unique to that particular island.

We are trying to deal with it by promoting reconciliation among our community leaders as well as among our religious leaders in the Malukus. We have also reinforced the police force in Ambon and have replaced the military commander there, simply because this former commander was seen to be taking sides against one of the groups on the island. We are trying to comply with the requests of the local Muslim community that these people be expelled from Ambon.

Q: So is there now a growing fear in the region that Indonesia may be under such strain because of these different problems that there is a genuine risk of it just falling to pieces?

A: Well, there's a lot of concern among Indonesia's neighbours, but to be honest, they've watched Indonesia unravelling for the last two years and I don't think they feel there's anything they can do. It's not a matter of the country splitting up and breaking up, despite the focus on separatism. It's much more that law and order is breaking down quite catastrophically.

The Malukus are a very extreme example of it, where local communities have taken the law into their own hands, but we are seeing it in many other parts of Indonesia, not just where there is religious violence.

You only have to look at Jakarta, the capital, where more than a hundred people have been either bludgeoned to death or burnt to death as alleged criminals by local communities and the police have often just stood by and watched it happening and this is really what we are seeing.

I don't believe that the whole military is taking sides in this religious conflict in the Malukus. I suspect the majority of them don't want to, but when Muslim soldiers, who are demoralised and underpaid and have lost faith in their commanders, are faced with a well-armed Muslim group appealing to religious solidarity, they are very unlikely to do anything to stop them and that's exactly what we have seen in the Malukus.