Thu, 11 Mar 1999

Peace mission in Ambon

The decision by Armed Forces Commander Gen. Wiranto to send a high-powered delegation to Ambon must come as a relief to many that someone in the government is finally doing something, instead of simply trying to talk their way out of this national catastrophe. Comprising senior and middle ranking officers who hail from Maluku and are members of all major faiths, the team is in addition to the fresh battalion of troops deployed to try to quell unrest in the southern part of the province.

The team can combine persuasion with coercion in its mediation efforts to restore peace in the province, once regarded as a model of harmonious coexistence between people of different religions, more specifically between Muslims and Christians.

Time will tell whether this military team can succeed where local public and religious leaders have failed, but the presence of the team, and of the extra troops, should at least put an immediate end to the senseless killing in the provincial capital Ambon. The death toll since the communal conflict erupted on Jan. 19 has reached more than 170; many were beginning to wonder how many more deaths it would take before the government acted.

Wounds inflicted on both sides run so deep that it is difficult to envisage peace returning overnight. Healing will be a long and painstaking process, and the military team cannot do the job alone. If it was that simple, the problem would have been solved within days of the first clash erupting in January. At some stage, preferably sooner than later, civilian leaders must take over the mediation role from the military and the troops withdrawn, lest the people of Maluku accept the militarization of their province, with all its dire consequences.

The longer term solution does not lie in the province, but in the hands of the central government in Jakarta. The conflict in Ambon is a symptom of the growing distrust the public has of authority. Many people are losing confidence that the government, the police, the military and courts of law could protect them and uphold justice. If the Ambonese had confidence in the authority and the law in the first place, they would have turned to the police at the first sign of trouble in January. Instead, they decided to take the law into their hands.

This problem is not specific to Ambon. We have seen similar signs of distrust in other provinces, albeit on a smaller scale. But that is hardly comforting because it raises disturbing questions of where the next conflict will erupt, how violent it be and the resulting toll in lost lives.

The list of unresolved cases of injustice is growing by the day. We are not simply talking about the piles of abuses -- not to mention miscarriages of justice -- committed during the 32- year rule of president Soeharto. Many incidents that occurred during the 10 months of B.J. Habibie's presidency are unresolved, further undermining what little credibility his government has. Unrest in Ketapang district in Jakarta, Kupang in East Nusa Tenggara, killings in Aceh, East Timor, Irian Jaya, the investigation into the kidnapping of political activists, the shooting of students at Trisakti University and near the Semanggi cloverleaf in Jakarta, the slow-moving corruption probe of Soeharto, his children and cronies, are just some of the recent examples which the government has shown no firm intent in resolving. By doing this, it is sending the tacit message that here you can get away with murder, literally if not figuratively.

Habibie's government was beset by questions of legitimacy from the start. His only redeeming point was credibility. But if Ambon is a real test of this quality, then he has failed miserably. The team sent by Wiranto is a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate that waning credibility.

Although we all pray that peace will soon be restored in Ambon and the surrounding islands, we should not rule out the possibility of bringing in outside mediators should the military team fail in its mission. At this advanced stage of the conflict, every possible channel to pursue peace must be kept open, even if it means sacrificing a little sovereignty. Professions of national pride ring hollow when too many of our people have died at the hands of their compatriots.