No borders in Spice Island clash

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

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.

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.

Near Patiasina-Pietersz's house there are sad monuments to the second wave, which began in August. Separated by a narrow river, a mosque and a church are in ruins. Christians in the area say Muslim attackers killed 24 men who were guarding the church on Aug. 11. Two days later, Theo went off with a sword and a group of young men to protect his community, says his widow, when he was killed by soldiers attempting to stop the two sides from fighting.

She and her husband worked for a Muslim-owned fish company, so she subsequently lost her job when the owners moved away from Galala, where Christians predominate. Today she works in her home, as a seamstress, to earn money. She cannot say if the two communities will ever rebuild the peace. "It's too early to know."

In Ambon city, there are more sad monuments, this time to fallen Muslims.

Near the port, a martyr's cemetery is slowly filling up with the bodies of young people who have been killed in the fighting. The other day family members worked on the graves of those killed in the third wave, which began in late December.

From Oct. 15 until Dec. 27, 285 people died in Ambon hospitals from the violence, according to Richard Rowat, field coordinator for Mdecins Sans Frontires, the international charity that won last year's Nobel Peace Prize. Throughout the region, as many as 2,000 may have been killed, but solid statistics are hard to come by.

The violence has spread to many of the islands in the Malukus, including some where no outside observers have yet visited. Muslims in Jakarta are particularly outraged by unverified reports of massacres in North Maluku.

But neither Muslims nor Christians, as Human Rights Watch said in a report last year, have "a monopoly on violence or victims: Both sides have endured appalling losses."

At this stage it remains unclear whether one group is more responsible than the other for the violence. Mr. Rowat says the Christians have been more aggressive, perhaps because they are on the losing end of the social changes under way.

The Indonesian military is working harder than ever to control the situation - a shoot-on-sight order was issued this week - but local residents on both sides and independent observers say the troops and police often take sides with their co-religionists.

The Indonesian Army's role

Rowat says the most pressing need is "a neutral army," but Brig. Gen. Max Tamaela, military commander for the Malukus, insists his troops are impartial. He admits there are reports to the contrary, but says there are "no eyewitnesses, no proof so far."

Rahman is a Muslim vendor who has set up a sidewalk business selling video-disc players along the charred, shuttered emptiness of Ambon's main shopping street. "All I care about is making my living," he says. Who does he blame for the conflict? "Both are wrong. Both Christians and Muslims are responsible."

The question of blame is unsettled and, to many analysts, unsettling.

Beginning with President Abdurrahman Wahid himself, many Indonesians detect the work of mysterious people intent on instability. Brigadier Tamaela says the cause of the crisis "is an accumulation of factors that has just exploded because of provocations."

But no one has been able to identify the provocateurs. Extremist Muslims or Christians may be operating with a local agenda; Some critics believe the military may have an interest in destabilizing some parts of Indonesia in order to justify their own political role; some Muslims portray the Maluku crisis as another example of a global conspiracy against Islam.

They see a double standard in the world's concern for the victims of human rights violations in Roman Catholic East Timor, compared with the lack of awareness about the Malukus. Islamic leaders are demanding that the government halt the violence at all costs. "If it does not," says Mr. Azra, the rector, "the result will be continued radicalization among certain young Muslims. It could lead to violence elsewhere."

Although the roots of the Maluku crisis are not in religious antagonism, at present the communities here are deeply divided. Indonesia, with its hundreds of ethnic groups and its religious and cultural diversity, can little afford politics based on divisions and differences.

"Since the declaration of independence [in 1945], Indonesia has only managed to achieve political integration, not economic or social integration," adds Tamrin Amal Tamagola, a University of Indonesia sociologist who comes from North Maluku. "Many ethnic groups live in their own small world and what is called 'Indonesian culture' is only a dream."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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