Mon, 10 Apr 2000

Standoff in Maluku

The government is gravely mistaken in assuming that the sectarian conflict in Maluku has ebbed or even been resolved just because there have been fewer clashes between Christians and Muslims in recent weeks. Ambon and the surrounding islands are only experiencing an eerie peace which has been imposed by the layers of troops segregating the two communities. For most people in Maluku, life has barely returned to normal. They can hardly expect to return to the days when Muslims and Christians lived harmoniously side by side unless they find answers to some of the riddles that have troubled the nation ever since the first clash erupted in Ambon in January 1999.

To this day, no one has come up with a satisfactory answer to the question of why the conflict erupted. Nor do we have any reasonable answers to how the two communities, who had coexisted peacefully together for generations, could fight one another, killing more than 2,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands of people in the space of only 15 months.

The calm prevailing in Maluku today is the result of a standoff which can only be temporary. The two communities are still not interacting with one another. It is anybody's guess to how long this situation will continue. Judging by recent reactions from Muslim organizations in Jakarta, some people are running out of patience.

Intimidating as it is, the call for jihad (holy war) by a Muslim group in Jakarta last week highlights the public's growing frustrations at the lack of progress the government is making in restoring real peace in Maluku. We have yet to hear the results of various government and independent investigations about the reasons for the conflict. Results are essential not only to bring the perpetrators responsible for the thousands of deaths to court, but also to address the root of the conflict.

We have heard several theories for the conflict, including one given by President Abdurrahman Wahid that has drawn sharp criticisms from Muslim groups. The President said the violence in Maluku was a reflection of the frustrations of Christians who felt they had been shoved aside in governing the territory by the influx of Muslim migrants over these past few decades. Another theory explaining the violence in North Maluku says the conflict was the result of centuries of rivalry between the Ternate and Tidore sultanates and has nothing to do with Muslim-Christian rivalry. The government's favorite theory, which is also the most puzzling, is the presence of mysterious provocateurs from Jakarta who are inciting the two communities to kill one another.

While we seem to have enough theories to explain the violence in Maluku, there is a dearth of action on the part of the government. There have been very few arrests, and even fewer court convictions in connection with the violence. Restoring peace and order alone is not enough to normalize life in Maluku. The authorities must also be seen as being active in upholding justice. This is the only way to regain the confidence of the people and to heal their wounds.

If progress has been lacking that is because the government appears to have done nothing at all on this front. This could lead to more frustration, as already shown by some people in Jakarta, which in turn could erupt into another round of clashes. If that happens, we will go back to square one in what seems to be an endless vicious cycle. Only the next time round, the violence will likely kill much more people.