A gold rush in Indonesia you've never heard of

Buru Island, once used by Soeharto's New Order regime to house political prisoners, has been swept with gold fever.

Yusuf Ahmad/Reuters/File
Halim and other miners stand on the stones containing gold materials at the site of Poboya gold mining area in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi province April 2012.

I first became aware of the trouble on Bald Mountain a few days ago.

Sitting with a friend here in Ambon and talking about this region's vicious little sectarian conflict a decade ago and the largely successful efforts of Christian and Muslim leaders to heal a fractured community, I asked him about the central government's role in supporting that effort. He gave a slightly grim chuckle. "They'd rather pretend it never happened, and not think about taking steps to make sure it never happens again."

Then he asked me, with a mixture of amusement and frustration, if I'd heard of the Bandera RMS on Buru Island.

First some background. Ambon is the part of the Indonesia with the oldest, deepest Dutch footprint. The Dutch arrived here at the start of the 17th century with the intent to control the production of cloves and nutmeg, which led to this eastern Indonesian archipelago being called the Spice Islands for centuries. Among the legacies is that the native people of Maluku (as the region is now known, or in English, the Moluccas) are split between Christianity and Islam.

In the centuries of Dutch control, local Christians generally had more access to economic opportunities and education than local Muslims (a purely relative advantage of course; the average Ambonese Christian is about as poor as the average Ambonese Muslim today). Though there was plenty of Dutch brutality targeted at local Christians as there was toward local Muslims, by the time of World War II, many Ambonese Christians served in the Dutch colonial army. With the defeat of the Japanese (who had occupied Ambon and the surrounding islands) and the Dutch decolonization process, they were nervous about being integrated into the new nation of Indonesia, overwhelmingly Muslim and dominated by the Javanese.

Independence sentiment was strong in Ambon, particularly among former Dutch soldiers, and in 1950, a group of local notables declared independence as Republik Maluku Selatan (South Maluku Republic, RMS), expecting the Dutch to support their efforts. The Dutch did not, and the RMS was quickly crushed by the new state of Indonesia (though a few holdouts lingered in the wild interior of Ceram island until 1963). More than 10,000 Ambonese members of the Dutch army and their families were forced into exile in Holland (where they were held in squalid internment camps for about 20 years before the Dutch finally admitted they were never going home) by the politics of the time, and those men and their families came to harbor a dream of returning some day to their own independent state from a Holland that didn't want them.

There are still pockets of RMS sentiment among the former exiles in Holland, and here and there in Ambon. But the vast majority of Ambonese long ago accepted an Indonesian national identity, and the RMS exists pretty much as a bogeyman for the Indonesian military and central state, ever vigilant against independence sentiment. During the sectarian war here in 1999 and 2000, rumors stormed through the local Muslim community and among the soldiers and police stationed here from other parts of Indonesia that heavily armed separatist militias were being stood up with Dutch help, a false absurdity that helped add fuel to the conflict.

Which brings us back to the Bandera RMS. "Bandera" means flag in Indonesia, and 17 people were severely beaten and arrested by Indonesian soldiers on the island of Buru, a few hours by ferry from Ambon, for raising the RMS flag this week. It was a strange story. Buru wasn't even a hotbed of RMS activity in its heyday in the 1950s. It is best known for the political prison camp where the Soeharto regime housed many alleged communists and other political prisoners after the 1965 coup that brought him to power, most famously the chronicler of the Indonesian colonial experience Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who wrote some of his best-known works there while serving a decade in detention.

What's more, the detained men were poor wildcat gold miners from Java and South Sulawesi, overwhelmingly Muslim and with no ties to this region's history. It turns out they were fans of the French national soccer team, and had raised a French flag ahead of the World Cup qualifier between France and Spain, which they'd hoped to watch as a respite from their back-breaking toil.

My friend shared the story as example of the paranoia and lack of thought that are so often exhibited by central government authorities and that often end up creating conflicts. The story was apparently picked up in the national press, with speculation that a new separatist push was in the offing, before the sad reality of what happened came to light.

But I'd never heard of gold mining on Buru, and started to ask around. In late 2011, a local man on the island found a large gold nugget on Gunun Botak, or Bald Mountain, so named because of its lack of tall vegetation (such vegetative anomalies are sometimes a sign of mineral deposits). By the middle of last year, the island was seized with gold fever, with scenes reminiscent of the gold rush in the Sierra Nevadas in 1849 or around Bathurst, Australia, in 1851, when men abandoned jobs and farms to head into the bush to start digging their fortunes.

Within months, Buru's population had swollen from 90,000 to an estimated 130,000, with poor Indonesians arriving from all corners. Local residents have abandoned their gardens and rice fields. The mining operations are illegal and unregulated, though locals say the Indonesian military has been taking a cut of the profits in exchange for turning a blind eye (standard practice in my decade in Indonesia between 1993-2003).

They are also very dangerous. Clashes over gold claims left around a dozen people there dead last year, and locals say that hundreds more have died when their rudimentary digs have collapsed.

There is little to no sanitation in the area, and local health authorities are worried about a cholera outbreak. Worst, from a long-term perspective, is the large amounts of mercury being used to extract gold from crushed rocks. Suara Maluku, one of the main daily newspapers here, carries a story today about concerns that mercury is leaching into the islands water supply.

Well, there ain't separatists in them there hills. And there is gold. But there are also the seeds of real trouble.

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