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AMBON - Three years ago, a petty dispute between a local and two migrants in the Ambon capital of Maluku degenerated into a full-scale sectarian riot which up to this year has killed 9,000 people and forced more than 500,000 people out of their homes.
The involvement of outsiders and provocateurs in the ensuing violence worsened the tension among what was once a harmonious community of various races and religions. The community became divided by blood, rage and deceit.
It all began on Jan. 19, 1999 at 3 p.m. local time when local public minivan driver Jopi Leuhery, from Ahuru, Central Maluku, became involved in a quarrel with two male migrants from Bugis-Makassar, named Nursalim and Tahang.
The two men apparently tried to extort money from Jopi at the Batu Merah bus terminal and threatened to slash him with sickle.
Upset by their action, Jopi ran back to his house, picked up a machete and along with several friends went after the two extortionists.
In their account before the court, where they were being tried for a purely criminal offense, both Nursalim and Tahang said they fled to the predominantly Muslim Batu Merah Kampung area near the bus terminal and yelled: "There is a Christian who wants to kill us".
Asked by the judge in the case why Nursalim shouted such words, he said that a policeman told him it would attract attention and ensure help. During the trial, the unidentified policeman was called "Mr. X".
The trial was held in March and April 1999. Jobi, Nursalim and Tahang were each sentenced to three months in prison. After they served their sentences, they were not heard of again.
Nursalim's action on that fateful day led to a fierce communal brawl, in which a group of angry Batu Merah residents went after Jopi, but failed to find him. The mass then burned a welding shop and a house belonging to a Christian in the border town of Batu Merah and the predominantly Christian Mardika area.
At around 5 p.m. local time on Jan. 19, 1999, the first place of worship, the Sinar Kasih Church in Waihaong, was set alight by rioters.
Rumors spread and tension began to take hold in the area, and unidentified people roamed the streets, spreading rumors of attacks. Who they were and what their roles were in the riots are still unknown.
Angered by the attacks, Mardika people with the rest of the Christian community conducted retaliation assaults on mosques in the area.
On the morning of Jan. 20, 1999 a false rumor spread that the Grand Al-Fatah Mosque was on fire. By this time people were already divided in their own respective areas according to their religion. People donned bandannas to signify their religion: red for Christian, white for Muslim.
The following days, and years, were full of rage and violence, as houses, markets, schools and business centers were either burned or vandalized by people from both Muslim and Christian communities.
"The Ambon riots actually started from a pure criminal case," then National Police chief Gen. Roesmanhadi said.
Analysts have said that if the security forces and the intelligence units had been quick to respond to the situation in the early stages of unrest in 1999, widespread communal conflicts could have been avoided.
From a criminal dispute, the Maluku riots developed into sectarian conflict that was loaded with economic and political interests, while the players in the conflict freely roamed the islands.
The involvement of outsiders such as the Jihad Force, which pledged to wage a holy war in Maluku, and small elements of the outlawed South Maluku Republic (RMS) separatist movement, have also contributed to the already complex strife.
Frustrated by the prolonged violence and losses in both Maluku and North Maluku, in a desperate effort the central government imposed a state of civil emergency in the territory on June 27, 2000.
Maluku and North Maluku were previously one province -- Maluku -- before the government split the area into two provinces in 1999 in a bid to curb the unrest and to obtain administrative and security control over the vast island territory.
The implementation of the state of emergency, if not too late, was undermined by the fall of the police base in Maluku during the Tantui incident on June 23, 2000, by which time security forces on duty in the province were already divided by religion.
More than 1,000 firearms and thousands of rounds of bullets were plundered by rioters from the police arsenal in Tantui. The police housing complex, hospital and everything on the base were burned to the ground.
Soon after the state of emergency took effect, the Maluku police chief, Brig. Gen. Firman Gani, and the Pattimura Military chief, Brig. Gen. I Made Yasa, were installed.
Massacres and conflict were reduced under the state of emergency, but the territory, especially Maluku, is still considered restive.
"The drastic decrease in conflict was mostly due to the deployment of neutral security forces in both provinces, comprising elite and professional soldiers.
"Had they been deployed sooner, peace would have been restored to Maluku as soon as the troops had the capability to quash armed rioters and at the same time enforce stability and law," a local journalist said.
Maluku Governor/Civil Emergency Administrator Saleh Latuconsina said on Wednesday that the state of civil emergency in North Maluku province and in parts of Maluku province would soon be lifted.
Observers claim that North Maluku province is relatively calm since most of the Christian have either gone or have been killed. Latuconsina, however, revealed that there were still security threats in Maluku province since many areas, such as the Ambon islands, were still targeted by armed rioters.
"There are some parties and outsiders here (in the Ambon islands) who do not wish peace to return," the governor added. In a bid to bring an end to the ongoing conflicts, a team of top Cabinet ministers and security officials will visit Ambon on Jan. 21 to Jan. 23. Among the entourage slated to attend the meeting are all three coordinating ministers, the minister of defense, the TNI commander and intelligence chiefs.
Whether peace will finally return to Maluku is up to all elements of society, the local administration and the central government. "We want peace ... and we want to be able to live side by side again regardless of religion, race or ethic background. But the wounds have cut too deeply," a local resident said. (As told by Novi Pinontoan in Ambon to Edith Hartanto, Jakarta)

Highlights and phase of Maluku conflicts

* January 1999 - July 1999
The bloody conflicts continued to spread during this period, tension was a bit degrading after the June 7, 1999 General Election but intensified again in July, 1999.

* August 1999 - December 1999
The pivotal, major unrest broke out on Dec. 26, 1999, known as "Bloody Christmas". Armed rioters ransacked and burned the predominantly-Christian Pohon Pule area in down town Ambon and also destroyed the houses and business center in the Trikora area in the heart of Ambon. The Christians in Maluku considered the Bloody Christmas incident as the tragic fall of humanity, marked with the burning down of Silo Church, one of the Protestant's icon churches, by heavily armed attackers.

* April 2000 - July 2000
Months before and shortly after the implementation of civil emergency status in both Maluku and North Maluku provinces on June 27, the yerar 2000 witnessed the worst bloody incidents and demolition of the territory. Among the highlights were:
1. Security forces' incompetence in dealing with the conflicts and partial stance of troops to the warring camps (of Christians and Muslims) due to segregation by religious sentiments came to its peak on June 23, 2000.
On that day, the elite Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) base in Tantui, some five kilometers from down town Ambon, was attacked through land and sea by rioters and rogue officers. The assailants went on a rampage and burned the whole compound, including police housing complex, arsenal, hospital, provincial and high-ranking officers residences.
Brimob deputy commander in Maluku Maj. Edi Susanto was shot dead in the Tantui incident while the rioters got away with more than 1,000 weaponries and huge rounds of ammunition looted from the arsenal.
2. The mass attack and the burning of three neighboring villages of Poka, Rumah Tiga and Waai for three consecutive days starting on July 1, 2000 by armed rioters. Waai village eventually razed to the ground on July 6, 2001. The attackers were wearing white robes and some of them were also in military-style uniforms. The target villages were happened to be predominantly-Christian area. "The sky was red, reflecting the raging blaze.. we lost everything," a witness said tearfully.
3. On the same day of the attack to the villages on July 3, 2000, the rioters also burned and destroyed the 30-hectare Pattimura University compound, including the port, gymnasium, libabry, worship place and all facilities, causing some Rp 500 billion in losses. The university comprises eight faculty and one poly technique school.
Analysts, based on witnesses account and reports from the fields, have also concluded that the conflicts in Maluku is deteriorating with the interference of outsiders groups, such as Laskar Jihad which pledged to wage the holy war and defend Muslims in Maluku. The Laskar Jihad's arrival in large numbers have been detected since May 2000, entering Maluku via ports and beaches all over the islands.
Few months before their arrival in Maluku, the group's military- style training camps in Bogor, West Java, and its base in Yogyakarta have been put under media spotlights for practising war training.
The commander of Laskar Jihad, Jafar Umar Thalib, however, said that their goal in Maluku was not necessarily waging war, but more on social aspects to help their fellow Muslims.
4. Post July 2000, the conflicts take a new turn with the implementation of civil emergency status. The riots were no longer involving mass crowds and face to face combat but more on bombings and sniper attacks. Frequent drive-by shootings on the Maluku water towards ship passengers or speedboat travellers were evident. The condition, however, was relatively calm after almost two years of civil emergency status being impemented in the area. The area of Maluku and Seram islands, however, were still rsetive.

Posted in Maluku conflict @ 23 January 2002 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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