Wed, 28 Jun 2000

Last chance in Maluku

The imposition of a state of civil emergency in Maluku and North Maluku on Monday may be too little and too late. This is certainly the case for the 3,000 people who have died in, and the hundreds of thousands of others displaced by, the sectarian clashes which first began in January 1999.

Both former president B.J. Habibie's and President Abdurrahman Wahid's governments have done very little to try to end the violence. President Abdurrahman showed his gullibility when, at the start of his presidency in October, he insisted that the Maluku problem was essentially a local problem that required local solutions. Thus for the last nine months, he has virtually let Muslims and Christians on these islands kill one another, with minimum attempts of interference from Jakarta.

Now, the conflict has escalated to a point where even the United States, at the risk of being accused of meddling in Indonesia's internal affairs, last week made a strong appeal to Jakarta to take firm action in the Maluku islands. President Abdurrahman's failure to stop the violence has raised questions about his ability to govern, not only from the Indonesian public, but also, and increasingly, from the international community.

Time will tell whether the imposition of a state of emergency will end the ugly conflict on the Maluku islands. But at the very least, this token gesture is a sign that the central government has finally come to its senses and realized the gravity of the problem.

Under a 1959 law, the President as head of the Civil Emergency Authority is given virtually unlimited powers to do whatever necessary to restore peace and order. These powers include imposing curfews, news blackouts, banning public speeches and gatherings, isolating regions and arresting people. Whether or not these measures can stop the senseless killing in the Maluku islands, however, depends to a large extent on the credibility of the local authority entrusted with enforcing them.

The President could have declared a military emergency, which would have given him essentially the same powers except that their execution would have been in the hands of the military. The fact that he opted for a civil emergency underscores the lingering public suspicions of anything that gives too much power to the military, an institution that has a long history of human rights abuses. But giving the power of execution to the local civil authorities in the two provinces will mean little if they too no longer command the respect of the people they govern.

The declaration of a state of emergency by itself will not likely be effective in stopping the violence. This is especially true if the source of the conflict, as the government has repeatedly stated, comes from people in Jakarta, or more precisely, from supporters of former president Soeharto. The presence of Laskar Jihad members in Maluku may have complicated or widened the conflict, but it is not the real problem. Isolating Maluku and shipping these warriors back to Java may ease the situation slightly, but it will not end the fighting.

If the government is serious about ending the conflict, then it must have the courage to clamp down on those "provocateurs" whom it says are behind the campaign to destabilize the country. To this date, in spite of making repeated accusations, the government has not even had the courage to reveal their real identity beyond simply defining them as Soeharto supporters.

For all intents and purposes, imposing a state of emergency may be Jakarta's last opportunity to shore up its respect and credibility. If, after a reasonable length of time, the killing continues, then there will be serious questions about the ability of the central government to rule. If that is put in doubt, not only will we have to consider bringing in an international peacekeeping force, something already being sought by some sections of the warring communities in the Malukus, but we will also have to reconsider the ability of Jakarta to govern effectively this vast archipelago.