Ethno-Religious Conflict in Maluku

A manufactured war

"Tragically again, of the approximately 20 Christians who were killed [by Muslims] in the village of Benteng Karang, 15 of them were them were burnt alive.  One of them was Mrs Rina Serpiela, a six-month pregnant woman who was killed by having her belly ripped open and the foetus pulled out and burnt alongside her.  This event was witnessed by her husband, Yopy Serpiela.  Meanwhile her two-year old child was kidnapped and used as a shield by the attackers from the rocks thrown by the defending Christians." [1]

In the absence of any other facts, the above passage would -- for most normal people -- inflame the emotions to the point of hatred towards the perpetrators of this violence.  In this case, the perpetrators are called "Muslims".

It has been said that the first casualty of war is the truth.  This is no less true for the inter-communal war currently raging in Maluku.  'Facts' become relative.  Hatred increasingly consumes the partisans, to the point that they find it difficult to believe that the other side could harbour any good human qualities whatsoever.

Maluku -- an archipelago known as the "Spice Islands" in times past -- is a province of Indonesia, comprising about 1,000 islands in the eastern part of the nation, with a population of a little over two million people.  Today, 54% of the population profess Islam as their religion, and 44% refer to themselves as Christian.  Ambon is both the name given to an island, and to the provincial capital.  The majority of Ambonese on Ambon ("central" Maluku) are Christian.  The northern part of the province, predominantly Muslim, was broken off to form a new province of North Maluku in 1999.

Nominally at least, Indonesia is a predominantly Islamic country where nearly 90% of the population carry an ID card (KTP) identifying themselves as "Muslim".[2]  In fact, the proportion of 'practicing' Muslims -- which is to say, the santri or muslimin -- is less than 30%, and most of these muslimin follow a relatively open and tolerant form of the religion.

The recent and continuing problems that have emerged in Maluku are not simply local issues, though they may well have started that way.  The war is inextricably linked to events in Indonesia as a whole, and to the competition between powerful forces located in Jakarta, more than 1,400 kilometres away.[3]  The centres of this war are the cities of Ambon (central Maluku), Jakarta, Makassar (South Sulawesi), and Yogyakarta (Java), and to a much lesser degree, Kupang (west Timor).

The Indonesian Archipelago

There are three main forces at work in Maluku at this moment:

* Local ethnic rivalry between the indigenous Ambonese and migrants from South Sulawesi;

* Imported religious rivalry between Christians and Muslims, in particular modernist Islam;

* Local and imported provocation from elements of the Indonesian military and Suhartoists.

Through a process of coincidence, opportunism and plain old-fashioned reductionism, the protagonists in the war in Maluku are now referred to as "Muslim" and "Christian".  This has had the effect of expanding the conflict into the national and international realms.

Like many communal wars, it is necessary to examine history to properly understand the roots of the conflict.  In the case of Maluku, we must start by looking back to the beginning of the 16th century, when the islands now known as Maluku caught the attention of aggressive and expansionist Europeans seeking wealth from spices.

It was the lure of spices - in particular cloves, nutmeg and pepper - and the desire to cut out the middlemen of the Middle East, which first drew European privateers into the region.[4]  The nature of European impact was highly varied throughout the region, and the force of this impact was very uneven, slow and haphazard.  For some time Europeans were just another nationality entering the markets of the region. [5]

The Portuguese were soon supplanted by the Dutch as the main European presence in the island trade region.  After the seizure of Ambon in the Maluku in 1605 and Banda Island in 1623, the Dutch secured the trade monopoly of the Spice Islands.  A policy of the ruthless exploitation by 'divide and rule' tactics was carried out.  Indigenous inter-island trade, like that between Makassar, Aceh, Mataram and Banten, as well as overseas trade, was gradually paralysed.  By 1817 the Dutch had completely regained control of the islands.  Many islanders converted to Christianity, the religion of their masters.

In 1945, following the occupation of Maluku by the Japanese during the Second World War, the archipelago formed part of the Dutch-inspired autonomous state of "East Indonesia".  Southern Maluku, led by Christian Ambonese, revolted against the Indonesian government in 1950 and formed the short-lived Republic of South Moloccas (Republik Maluku Selatan, RMS).  Ambonese, those who adopted a Christian identity in particular, had a much closer relationship with their Dutch masters than did the other nationalities of the Dutch East Indies.  For centuries, in fact, Islam was one of a number of weapons used against the Dutch in the war against colonial occupation.  Islam was a point of differentiation with the occupying Europeans.

The closer identification of Christians in eastern Indonesia with the Dutch made them vulnerable to charges of collaboration and betrayal by those in the rest of the Dutch East Indies who demanded independence from the Netherlands.  Sukarno's proclamation of independence, just a few days after the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945, declared all of the area formerly occupied by the Dutch to be a singular and unitary republic called 'Indonesia'.  Many areas of the East Indies did not necessarily identify with this pan-Indonesian view, amongst them, Maluku, especially the more Christianised central Maluku and North Sulawesi (Manado), who were suspicious of domination from both Java and from Islam.[6]

In an attempt to stave off complete independence and a unitary Indonesian state, the Dutch tried to establish a number of smaller dependency states, including one called 'Negara Indonesia Timor' (State of East Indonesia) that joined Maluku and Sulawesi.  This was very much a rear-guard action by the war-weakened Dutch, and by the 21 April 1950, 'East Indonesia' was absorbed into the unitary Indonesian republic.  However, a few days later, mainly Christian separatists in Ambon unilaterally declared a Republic of the South Moloccas.  After a bloody war lasting until December 1950, the Indonesian Republicans finally prevailed.[7]  Over the following decade tens of thousands of Ambonese Christians either fled, or were forcefully deported to, the Netherlands[8] where they remain a distinct community to this day.

For decades afterwards, a lingering doubt hung over the patriotism of Ambonese Christians in a nation where Indonesian nationalism is extremely strong.  The Indonesian military especially has a very long collective memory, and judges especially harshly those who 'betrayed' the Indonesian republic during and just after the war of independence.  Events such as these have become part of the lore of the armed forces, propagated faithfully and continuously for decades to the Indonesian masses by a compliant media.

Starting in the mid-1950's, the Indonesian state began its slow-but-sure descent into demagoguery and authoritarianism, culminating in the coup d'etat led by General Suharto in October 1965, and its subsequent cataclysm.  A massive slaughter of 'communists' ensured, conducted by the armed forces in alliance with members Nahdlatul Ulama, a mass organisation representing millions of traditionalist Muslims mainly in Java.[9]  Estimates of those butchered range from 500,000 to 1,000,000.

In 1966, the RMS set up a government-in-exile based in the Netherlands.  Its influence in Ambon, however, was extremely weak, and serves more as a thorn in the side of Indonesian nationalism rather than an actual threat.  A very few die-hard RMS supporters in Ambon periodically raise the RMS flag, causing consternation amongst hyper-nationalist supporters of the Indonesian state, but that is the about limit of their activity in Ambon.

The passage of laws on local government in 1974 marked an important milestone in the development of the present conflict in Maluku.  These laws severely weakened the traditional pela alliance system, and the raja system of government, and allowed a voice for the ever-increasing number of migrants in the province.  Migration into Ambon -- especially Bugis, Makassarese, and Butonese from southern Sulawesi -- upset the delicate ethnic-religious balance that had previously existed, and gradually over the next decades caused a breakdown in the traditional authority systems.[10]

Before the war broke out, Ambon had long been portrayed in the Indonesian media as a land where relations between Christians and Muslims had always been harmonious, the tranquillity of interfaith relations protected by the pela alliance system.  Under this system, a village of one faith was "twinned" with a village of the other, with both charged to defend the others interests in the event of conflict.[11]  Whilst the reality on the ground was certainly different, the mere belief that there still existed a pela system served to keep the communities in balance.

From 1980 and into the nineteen-nineties, there was a steady rise in influence of migrants in Ambon, which also corresponded to a 'greening' of Indonesia under the New Order regime giving Islam a much more central place in the life of the state.  The migrants moved into the commercial sectors, especially transportation, displacing many Ambonese in the process.  Increasingly also, Ambonese Christians were being pushed out of their traditional employment in the civil service, schools, and police.  The Bugis in particular organised themselves into tight associations with strong political clout.[12]  The Christian Ambonese were being effectively 'swamped', both ethnically and religiously; a situation that suited the revengeful ABRI[13] and New Order government.

Communal relations, clearly, were extremely poor even before the violence erupted, with street fights regularly occurring between Muslim and Christian villages in Ambon.[14]

The political, social and economic chaos that hit Indonesia starting in mid-1997 significantly increased the ethnic and religious tensions in many parts of Indonesia, Ambon included.  Suharto was politically crippled by the economic collapse, and by May 1998 he was forced to resign after months of violence on the streets of Jakarta.  During the Jakarta riots thousands of mainly-Christian Chinese were slaughtered and/or raped, and there is much compelling evidence implicating the army in provoking this violence as part of a last-ditch effort to shore up the regime.

Suharto's handpicked replacement was BJ Habibie, a "Dan Quayle" vice-presidential figure who had the Indonesian presidency dropped into his lap.  Habibie was previously the head of an important and (then) prestigious Islamic organisation called ICMI (Organisation of Islamic Intellectuals) formed by Suharto as part of his Islamisation of the New Order state, and as a counterbalance to traditionalist Muslims like Gus Dur.[15]  BJ Habibie is a Makassarese (South Sulawesi), and, as is the tradition in these parts, filled his cabinet and high government posts with people from his home province.[16]

It was against this background that the stage was set for an outbreak of open hostility in Maluku.  Two events triggered the outbreak.  The precursor event happened on the 22 November, 1998, when anti-Christian/Chinese riots in Ketapang (Jakarta) caused the deaths of 13 Christians, six of them Ambonese.  Twenty-two churches were also burned or damaged.[17]  In apparent retaliation, and with the suggestion of provocation from Suhartoists, reprisals took place in predominantly-Christian Kupang (West Timor), causing damage to at least six mosques, but not resulting in any deaths.[18]

The second trigger event occurred on the 19 January 2000, towards in the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.  A seemingly inconsequential dispute between an Ambonese bus driver and two Bugis street thugs turned into a conflagration, firstly engulfing Ambon, and then other islands of Central Maluku.  Dozens were killed, both Christian and Muslim.

Over the next few months the incessant violence in Ambon left hundreds dead, and forced tens of thousands flee to other provinces.  The army and police were (and remain) completely ineffective in controlling the violence, and in fact became partisan participants.  In February, the first calls were heard for a jihad to be conducted to 'save' Maluku Muslims from the Christians.  Jakarta-based Ambonese gangsters with strong links to the Suharto family have been reported as being behind these calls.[19]  False reports of Muslims being killed at whilst prayer inside a mosque widely circulated by Indonesian media, provoking violent responses and massive demonstrations from Islamists around Indonesia.[20]  Muslim youth groups throughout Indonesia, but especially in Java, called for a jihad and started a campaign of signing up members to fight in Maluku.[21]  By April 1999 the violence had subsided somewhat, taking a breather ahead of the Indonesian elections held on the 7th of June, and coinciding with an escalation of activity in East Timor by TNI-backed militias.

On the 27th of July, the war re-started in earnest.[22] However, the attention of Indonesia and the world generally was shifting to other hot spots, in particular, East Timor.  In the middle of August, a few weeks after the plebiscite, TNI-backed militias in East Timor started their destructive rampage.  For many Indonesians, the message sent by this destruction was unmistakably clear: provinces daring to break away from the Indonesian state would suffer terrible consequences in terms of loss of life and property.

By mid-September, Indonesian hysteria over East Timor had reached very high levels.  A few days before Australian troops entered East Timor on the 20th of September, the Indonesian military renounced the security treaty it had with Australia, and Habibie dutifully followed suit by formally revoking it.  A month later, Gus Dur assumed the Indonesian presidency, to the great despair of Megawati's supporters.

Meanwhile, the violence in Maluku continued, spreading more intensely to other areas of the Maluku archipelago.  In the newly-proclaimed province of North Maluku from the beginning of November to the end of December 1999, almost 1,000 people died.

Fanatical Islamists in Jakarta started a massive campaign calling on Muslims to jihad in Ambon.  Thousands heeded the call, signing up enthusiastically.[23]  On the 17th of January, anti-Christian riots start in Lombok that were strongly suspected to have been started by a group calling itself "Laskar Jihad" ("Holy War Militia"), a private Islamic militia formed specially to intervene in Maluku.[24]  There is strong evidence of involvement and backing by certain New Order figures along with the ambitious Sultan of Ternate (in Northern Maluku).

Between January and April of this year (2000), Maluku was relatively quiet, though still extremely tense and dangerous, due mainly to a massive military deployment and a purge of army units known to be siding with the Muslim side.  However, this was not to last.

By early May, Laskar Jihad were entering Maluku.  According to some reports, at least 2,000-3,000 are now active in the province, with thousands more in reserve at the organisations headquarters in Yogyakarta.  The war flashed again to full intensity, and at the time of writing shows very little sign of abating any time soon in the near future.  An estimated 6,000 people have so far been killed since the war started 18 months ago.[25]

It is undeniable that there existed considerable ethno-religious tension in Maluku before the outbreak of open hostilities on the 19th of January, 1999.[26]  However, it is increasingly clear that the protagonists, Muslim and Christian, are being played like puppets, with the strings stretching all the way to the dalangs in Java.

The traditional consociational pela system that had existed for hundreds of years up until the mid-seventies kept Christian-Muslim tensions between Ambonese in a relatively stable state.  Whilst far from perfect, and while the benefits and operation of this system was often far short of its expressed ideals, it nonetheless worked well enough to maintain a semblance of social peace between two rather incompatible worldviews.

Tension between the two communities, Ambonese Christians on the one hand, and Ambonese Muslims and Muslims from various migrant groups on the other, was so high that it would have taken very little provocation to ignite an explosion.  Once the violence began, however, it quickly fed on itself, dragging out historical grievances, creating new injuries, and generating new, deeply felt communal suspicions.[27]

The steady and increasing influence of external factors into Maluku -- starting with the events that occurred during the Indonesian anti-colonial war through to social displacement by immigrants from a traditionally hostile ethnic group into the Maluku environment, along with central government interference in traditional systems of conflict resolution and social control -- all contributed to the conflagration presently occurring.

Even given all these factors, however, the war on the scale being witnessed at the moment could have been avoided if it were not for actors outside Maluku callously using the situation to further their own power agendas.  If it were not for this outside interference, there may well have been hope to retrieve the situation.

Given what has occurred in Maluku over the past 18 months, with all the death, savagery, destruction, fear, suspicion and complete breakdown in trust, it seems that a resolution of the conflict will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve.  A return to the pela alliance system will be impossible.  Current central government efforts to resolve the conflict have concentrated on the use of deadly force to keep combatants apart, but this has not slowed the conflict; on the contrary, it seems to feed it.  Amazingly, real political solutions have yet to be explored.

Some kind of partition will eventually be required to stop this war; the formation of the North Maluku province may be part of an as-yet unstated strategy by Jakarta to territorially separate the protagonists. 'Ethnic cleansing' of Christians is presently underway in this new province.  Central Maluku is more problematic, given the more even numbers of Muslims and Christians.  Forced or unforced removal may not be an option here, so some form of internal partition will probably be devised at some point.

Interestingly, Christian Ambonese support for a new state of South Maluku is now evident.  This was not at all the case just a few years ago.  Separatist pressures have probably developed as a consequence of the complete failure of the central government to protect Ambonese Christians.  With disintegrative pressures on the Indonesian state at an all-time high, the next few years may see the formation of several new states on the periphery of Indonesia, and the Republic of South Maluku may well be amongst them.


[1] Yayasan Salawaku (1999), "Kronologis Kerusuhan Maluku (Ambon)", September 1999 at  Translated by Gary Dean.
[2] Religion in Indonesia has been effectively compulsory since 1965; a person not professing a religion is branded a communist, which is a very dangerous thing to be in Indonesia, even in this age of 'reformasi'.
[3] Claudia Gazzini (1999), "Ambon: Government and military stir hate, says Bishop", Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 1999.  "'The problem is not in Ambon, it is in Jakarta,' the Roman Catholic Bishop of Ambon, the Most Reverend P.C.  Mandagi, said."
[4] Milton Osborne (1990), Southeast Asia: an illustrated introductory history, 5th ed., Allen & Unwin, North Sydney: 84
[5] Osbourne (1990): 62
[6] MC Ricklefs (1991), A History of Modern Indonesia Since c.1300, 2nd ed., Macmillan Press, Hampshire: 233
[7] Ricklefs (1991): 233
[8] Ricklefs (1991): 242
[9] Nahdlatul Ulama was later to be led by Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid).
[10] Human Rights Watch (1999), Indonesia: the violence in Ambon, March 1999 at
[11] HRW (1999)
[12] HRW (1999)
[13] ABRI (Indonesian Armed Forces) was broken up in 1998 to become TNI (Indonesian National Forces, comprising the Army, Navy/Marines, and Air Force), and Polri (Indonesian Police).
[14] HRW (1999)
[15] The successful depoliticisation of Indonesia after the 1965 coup made Suharto more dependent on the armed forces, which was no longer kept in balance by a credible civilian political force.  To strengthen his hand Suharto also needed some form of civilian backing, thus his playing of the "Islamic card" in the form of ICMI.
[16] Two of these ministers, his closest allies, were later to be implicated in rather spectacular corruption cases, first involving the Attorney-General who was caught red-handed accepting a bribe to derail the Suharto corruption investigation, and the other involving the Bank Bali scandal where funds where redirected to buy votes in the People's Legislative Assembly to elect Habibie as president.
[17] Jonathan Head (1998),"Call for calm in Indonesia: More than 20 churches were burnt in Jakarta last week", BBC, 01 Dec 1998
[18] Straits Times (1998), "Mosques burned in reprisal attacks: Kupang's day of mourning for the victims of Jakarta's anti-Christian riots turns into one of vandalising Muslim property in the remote town", 01 Dec 1998
[19] Atika Shubert (1999), "Indonesia's Hellish 'Heaven': Nation Imperilled As Religious War Divides Muslims And Christians", The Washington Post, 11 March 1999, page A23
[20] South China Morning Post (1999), "Muslims take to the streets", 8 March 1999
[21] Laskar Jihad is now headquartered in Yogyakarta after being pressured out of Jakarta.  They are a daily sight on all intersections of the city, dressed in white Arabic-style clothing and Army boots, collecting money to fund their war in Maluku.  Curiously, despite them being here for more than six months now, I have yet to see anyone at the intersections actually donate money, including modernist Muslims in similar dress.  It seems the vast majority of Yogyakarta's muslimin are not at all impressed with this call for jihad, whatever they may think about the situation in Maluku.  The question remains, therefore, where is the money coming from to fund these expensive para-military activities?
[22] Coincidently (there are many coincidences in Indonesia) the riots restarted on the fifth anniversary of the storming of the PDI offices by Suhartoists in which a number of activists were killed.  This was a seminal event marking the beginning of the end of the Suharto regime and the rise of Megawati Sukarnoputri as an opposition figure.  Christians in Indonesia generally strongly support Megawati and her PDI-P party, and Ambonese Christians are no different in this respect.  There may have been an attempt by Suhartoists to deflect attention from this anniversary by provoking violence in other parts of the country.
[23] Jakarta Post (2000), "FPI to hold more rallies for Maluku", 12 Jan 2000
[24] BBC (2000), " Tourists flee Indonesian resort", 18 January 2000
[25] IndoEmail (2000), "Island jihad's menacing turn", published by the Australia-Indonesia Business Council (no author), 20 May 2000.  Note that other media reports at this time claim lesser numbers of deaths, ranging upwards from 3,000.
[26] Straits Times (2000), "Suharto's supporters blamed for unrest", 02 June 2000.  "The Defence Minister alleges that the former president's loyalists are causing violence to 'anger and confuse' Gus Dur's government."
[27] HRW (1999)