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No borders in Spice Island clash

Year-old tensions spread out from Indonesia's east - claiming a tourist

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 2000


Maureen Patiasina-Pietersz's white-washed cement house, with its teal-blue window frames and lace curtains, looks as peaceful as can be, tucked away on a verdant island hillside overlooking the sea.

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But last August Ms. Patiasina-Pietersz lost her husband, her job, and her church to a year-old conflict that has turned neighbor against neighbor and Christian against Muslim in this far-flung part of Indonesia. "It happened so suddenly," she says of the violence, sitting under a picture of Jesus praying at Gethsemane. "I don't know why."

Many experts, diplomats, and political leaders in Indonesia share her perplexity, but there are few doubts about the seriousness of what is happening here in the Maluku islands. Christians and Muslims are caught in a cycle of killing that illustrates the volatility of modern Indonesia and the complexity of bringing democracy to an archipelago long held together by force.

Islamic groups in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, are vowing nationwide reprisals against the Christian minority if the government does not halt the violence in the Malukus. This week Muslims in Lombok, one of the country's top tourist destinations, have burned churches and pillaged properties abandoned by frightened Christians.

Beyond religion

Nearly everyone also seems to agree that the crisis in the Malukus is not purely a religious war. "Religion is only a mask to cover up the real problems," says Lili Mapuasate, a junior-high school teacher who took a speedboat between two Christian-controlled parts of Ambon island yesterday in order to avoid traveling by road through Muslim areas. The underlying issues, she said, are politics, social standing, and "the gaps between rich and poor."

It is not too much to say that the state of the global economy depends in part on a quick resolution to the Maluku crisis and some of Indonesia's other political problems.

If ethnic, religious, and political disputes force the breakup of the world's fourth most populous nation, the impact on the stability and prosperity of Asia will be severe. Several regions of Indonesia are already agitating for independence and diplomats in Jakarta sometimes debate whether it is the breakup of the Soviet Union or of the former Yugoslavia that offers the better illustration of how things could fall apart in this country.

This is not the first time that global fortunes have turned on the Malukus, which used to be called the Moluccas and more colloquially, the Spice Islands. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Portugal, Spain, and Holland fought bitterly to control these tropical islands, source of the lucrative cloves, nutmeg, and other spices that enlivened what was then the dreary cuisine of Europe.

Muslim traders had reached the islands first, in the 14th century, and used the opportunity to spread Islam. Then the Portuguese and Spaniards promoted Roman Catholicism and the English and Dutch pushed Protestant faiths.

Indonesia has long been predominately Muslim, but in the 1960s and 1970s a large, prominent Christian minority in the Malukus managed to maintain high social status without too much resentment from the Muslim majority.

Until recently, the two million people who live in the Malukus rarely allowed their religious and ethnic differences to turn violent. "Before all this happened," says Edi Masinambow, an anthropologist at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, "the area was a model of religious coexistence. It was [the islanders'] proud achievement." In the southern part of the Malukus, Muslims built their neighbors' churches and Christians in turn constructed mosques. Intermarriage encouraged familial ties that cut across religious boundaries.

In the last two decades, however, Muslims have gained political, demographic, and economic power at the expense of their Christian counterparts. Nearly 100,000 Muslim migrants from other parts of Indonesia - part of the government's attempts to unify the country - arrived in the Malukus. Traditional systems of mutual support between paired Christian and Muslim communities faltered. Local politicians began to promote and benefit from rising Muslim aspirations.

These changes took place during the reign of former Indonesian President Suharto, whose regime offered little opportunity to discuss inter-religious tension. "When Suharto fell in disgrace [in May 1998], all of this resentment exploded," says Azyumardi Azra, rector of an Islamic college in Jakarta.

As of the mid-1990s, just under 60 percent of the population in the islands was Muslim; just under 40 percent was Christian. But the distribution is uneven and in some areas one group has outnumbered the other.

In January 1999, an altercation between a Christian minivan driver and a Muslim youth in Ambon city, the capital of Maluku province, quickly turned into rioting. The outburst was the first of three waves of street fighting, church- and mosque-burning, and sometimes indiscriminate killing in this city of low-rise buildings, corrugated metal roofs, and lush foliage.