Violence Flares Again in Ambon, Indonesia

Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Renewed violence since flag-raising ceremony on April 25 leads to deaths, church burnings.
by Geoff Stamp

LONDON, May 4 (Compass) -- Sectarian violence has erupted again in Ambon, South Moluccas, Indonesia, dealing a blow to the tentative Muslim-Christian dialogue that brought relative peace to the area in February this year.

The flashpoint came last Sunday, April 25, when the independence party FKM-RMS (Moluccas Sovereignty Front) celebrated their 54th anniversary by hoisting banned flags. The ensuing violence has left more than 80 wounded and 26 dead.

Muslims see the RMS as an arm of the Christian community, seeking independence from the central government. Churches have denied any involvement with the RMS, and have condemned their activities, but their denials have gone unheeded, leading to renewed fighting between Muslim and Christian communities.

Two churches were destroyed in the recent violence, the most recent being the Nazareth church, which went up in flames on Sunday night, May 3. The Christian University in Ambon city, largely rebuilt after attacks in previous conflicts, was set afire on Tuesday, April 27.

National television broadcasts showed Christians gathering outside police headquarters with tears in their eyes, singing national songs in an attempt to demonstrate their allegiance to the undivided Republic of Indonesia. Spokesmen for the crowd said Christians were not second-class citizens and should have their rights protected against activists and criminals.

A meeting of national religious leaders took place in Jakarta on Tuesday April 27, according to the Jakarta Post. “Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian leaders from the Indonesian Committee for Religion and Peace said that “provocation” by “third parties” was the best explanation for the recent violence in Ambon.

Sigit Pamudji of the Bishops Council of Indonesia (KWI) said he believed “certain parties” had provoked this conflict for their own benefit and were trying make other people think that the Moluccan people could not solve their own problems.

Religious leaders also met with Ambonese authorities and political leaders on April 27 to discuss strategies to end the conflict. Christian leaders were quick to point out that the small independence faction FKM-RMS was not at the center of the violence; its protests were peaceful and members had no resources or arms for such activity.

However, Mozes Tuanakotta, the general secretary of the FKM-RMS, was detained by police after the flag-raising incident.

Some observers believe activists are taking advantage of the confusion to burn, kill and loot in order to halt the peace process in the South Moluccas. At present, the violence appears to be restricted to the city of Ambon and has not spread to outlying villages.

The Jakarta-based newspaper “Republika” quoted Ja'far Umar Thalib, the leader of Laskar Jihad (a banned Muslim activist group), as saying he was ready to send his men to Ambon to protect the undivided Republic of Indonesia if police and other security forces could not control the conflict.

Thalib’s intervention with Laskar Jihad troops in the previous conflict prolonged the violence, rather than resolving it.

The death toll has now risen to 26, with more than 200 homes burned down. Hundreds of Muslims and Christians have fled their homes in the still-divided city, leaving them at the mercy of wandering arsonists. Last week, small groups armed with machetes and sticks stood guard at hastily erected street barricades at the entrance to the Muslim and Christian sectors of town. Only a few stalls in the market dared to open for business, selling only the essentials.

Thirty-one doctors have been sent to Ambon to help with the crisis. A contingent of 400 military police was also brought into the area, three of whom are now numbered among the casualties. The government also planned to bring in approximately 600 soldiers as reinforcements.

Authorities are still coping with the after-effects of sectarian violence that first erupted in 1999. They have built housing for a large number of the estimated 36,000 refugees still living in refugee camps in the South Moluccas. However, camp residents say the new houses are too small for families, and water and electricity supplies are inadequate. Many of them have refused to leave the refugee camps, which they claim have better amenities.

Refugees have been warned to leave the temporary camps and move into the new housing within the next two months or face eviction. An influx of new refugees from the current fighting may cause further headaches for local authorities.

Father Kees Bohm of the Roman Catholic Crisis Center in Ambon said many had begun to hope for a permanent end to the killing and destruction of property in the South Moluccas. The recent outbreak of violence is a definite setback to the fragile peace process.