Sat, 15 May 2004

Separatism in Ambon, homework for government

M. Azis Tunny, Ambon, Maluku

The presence of the Maluku Sovereignty Front (FKM) in Maluku has been a source of controversy since it was established on June 15 four years ago by Dr. Alex Manuputty.

The organization, which aspires for an independent Maluku Island or the South Maluku Republic, was set up only one year after bloody sectarian conflict broke out in Ambon. It was founded against a background of the central government's failure to overcome the bloody sectarian conflict that rocked the Maluku island, killing thousands of people and forcing hundreds of thousand to flee the island.

The organization, of which most of the members are Christians, has been small since its establishment, with only hundreds of members. There have also been Muslim members in the organization. Despite its small size, the presence of the FKM has been a pebble in the shoe for the government in bringing peace in Maluku.

Executive director of the Maluku Interfaith for Humanity Institute Reverend Jacky Manuputty claimed that the issue of separatism could still trigger further conflict, as other issues such as religious conflict in the Maluku islands had largely come to an end. Religious conflict in Maluku subsided after the signing of the Malino Peace Accord two years ago, and in September last year, the civil emergency status was even lifted.

Sadly, Ambon was again rocked by violence in April.

"The latest conflict in April was shocking, but thank God, people are no longer easily provoked. It was not sparked by religious issues. The issue that may still spark conflict in Maluku is separatism," he told The Jakarta Post at the Maluku Protestant Church (GPM) Crisis Center secretariat on Tuesday.

He was referring to the latest melee in Maluku in which 39 people were killed and hundreds of others seriously wounded. The two weeks of conflict began on April 25, sparked by the celebration of the 54th anniversary of the South Maluku Republic by the FKM.

The separatist celebration sparked anger among certain Muslims, who then went on a rampage.

Despite the rampage, Muslims and Christians were largely unprovoked. Religious conflicts did not break out on the island, as it could be noticed that many of fatalities in the melee were the killed by snipers. There were also no reports of widespread fighting between Muslims and Christians. The situation was totally different from the one in 1999, when Muslims and Christians attacked and killed one another.

The shift in the issues behind the fresh outbreak of violence raised questions about the root cause of the conflict. Most blamed the FKM and the inability of security personnel to prevent the conflict from escalating in Ambon, while others even questioned whether the conflicts were intentionally orchestrated by security personnel.

Many, mostly Muslims, questioned why the FKM was not disbanded, creating an impression that it received preferential treatment as opposed to the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement in Aceh or the Free Papua Movement in Papua.

"Is it purely a case of separatism in Maluku per se or is it conceptualized to avenge and prolong the conflict? People also questioned why Alex Manuputty, who was sentenced to prison, was able to flee to the U.S. after the sentence was imposed, and there was no official explanation from the government," said Jacky, the Christian delegation signatory to the Malino accord.

He said that since the conflict broke out in 1999, the issue of separatism as the sole cause of the conflict had been propounded by several government officials and politicians.

The conflict continued and Maluku Christians were stigmatized by an emerging perception that being a Maluku Christian was the same as being a member of the RMS as nearly all of its leaders and members in Maluku are Christians.

"Not all Christians are separatists. We felt cornered as RMS was twisted into meaning "Republik Maluku Sarani" (South Maluku Christians). There was conflict within the minds of Christians who tried to resist being provoked by the stigma, because as a consequence we would be confronted by our Muslim brothers and the Indonesian Military or police personnel," he said.

Similarly, the executive director of the Ambon Case Settlement advocating team, Zairin Salampessy, a Muslim, blamed the conflict in Ambon on April 25 on the actions of security personnel. According to him, the conflict was intentionally allowed to develop.

"It was clear demonstrated on the eve of the ceremony. Even until the flag was hoisted, security forces were nowhere to be seen near the location. Only after the flag was hoisted, followed by the singing of the RMS anthem and speech by FKM secretary- general Moses Tuwanakotta, security personnel showed up at the location," he said.

The riot which was sparked by the FKM/RMS parade, according to Zairin, was not the main trigger of the conflict. According to him, the police's inability to anticipate the flag-hoisting ceremony, even the impression created by the police escorting the parade to the police headquarters, was deemed as the cause.

"Moreover, upon reaching the police headquarters, only 24 people who claimed to be FKM/RMS members were detained, while a large part of the crowd was released and walked home in groups. On their way home, they were confronted by groups claiming to be Indonesian supporters, who later swelled into a mass concentration of people and they attacked one another," he explained.

He suggested that during the post-conflict lull, the government should immediately facilitate dialog between religious and community leaders.