Tue, 30 May 2000

After Ambon, Medan?

The bomb blasts that jolted Medan, North Sumatra, on Sunday and Monday morning bring to attention some disturbing similarities with those that rocked Ambon, in Maluku, a few years ago. North Sumatra Governor Tengku Rizal Nurdin, for example, told reporters he had been informed they were "of the same type" as those in Maluku.

There are other similarities. In both provinces, the Muslim and Christian populations are more or less equal in number, both are regional centers of commerce and industry, and in both, religious tolerance so far has been good.

Little wonder that the authorities in Medan were quick to notice on Sunday the parallels and acted swiftly to prevent any further repeat of the Ambon tragedy in the North Sumatran provincial capital.

A meeting was called between police and military leaders with local administrative and religious leaders, after which North Sumatra's Police chief Sutanto told the public to remain calm and not to fall prey to provocation. The incidents, he said, were clearly the work of provocateurs trying to stir up sectarian violence similar to that in the riot-torn province of Maluku.

The secretary-general of the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI), A.R. Pardede, and the chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), Mahmud Azis Siregar, also called on the public to refrain from blowing the incidents out of proportion.

Which is, of course, the only right thing to do. In the case of there being some hidden grand scenario behind the bombings, religion, after all, has little to do with the actual violence. But religion being a factor with such huge emotional potential, lends itself perfectly to being used as a means to trigger violence -- a fact that many Indonesians still fail to realize.

But whether or not the blasts that occurred on Sunday and Monday were indeed the work of provocateurs, as the authorities seem to believe, is something that only an investigation can prove. So far, not a single provocateur has been unmasked, although certainly it is difficult to see how anyone with a sane mind could plant bombs, unless he or she had some definite objective in mind.

The swift initial action on the part of the security officers and the apparent calm with which the public in Medan seems to be taking these latest incidents, therefore, deserve to be lauded. One may recall how, in Ambon, it was a simple personal argument between a local minibus driver and a resident -- a settler -- that appeared to have sparked the conflagration that, up to this day, may have claimed as many as 3,000 lives. It always pays to be prepared.

It is interesting, meanwhile, in this context, to consider the Soeharto factor as yet another element that may or may not have something to do with the blasts. Every time Soeharto is made to suffer an indignity, so the theory goes, something happens.

In this instance, it is the constant student demonstrations and the proposal to move the former president from the comfort of his house in Central Jakarta to a safer place that is supposed to have moved his mysterious supporters to act. From the string of incidents that have happened so far, one would almost be led to believe that such a relationship indeed exists.

Be that as it may, let us hope that Indonesians in Medan and elsewhere have learned from the lessons of Maluku and also of Sulawesi and Kalimantan. It is time this nation learned to accept diversity as a blessing and an asset, rather than a liability that must be eliminated. Only by doing so, will it be possible to prevent upheavals similar to those that have happened -- and are still happening -- in Maluku and elsewhere in this archipelago.