After 500 Years: Muslim-Christian Fratricide in Central Maluku

Two earlier posts about Muslim-Christian violence in Maluku, Indonesia, have summarized a three-year retrospective on 1999-2001 by reporters for the Jakarta Post and a ten-year retrospective based on my own travels in the area in 1991. This final post in a three-part series summarizes a 500-year retrospective by Dieter Bartels in an online draft of an article, “Your God Is No Longer Mine: Moslem-Christian Fratricide in the Central Moluccas (Indonesia) After a Half-Millennium of Tolerant Co-Existence and Ethnic Unity” (2000).

In the shadow of the recent carnage of the East Timor independence struggle and the equally vicious ongoing battle for Aceh, other parts of Indonesia are torn apart by pernicious strife and the huge and populous island nation is threatened with disintegration. One of the crisis hearths is the eastern island group of Maluku where there is an ongoing internecine struggle between Moslems and Christians. Some of the most heated clashes have been occurring between Ambonese Moslems and Protestant Christians in the Central Moluccas. Beginning on January 19, 1999 Moslems and Christians, seemingly without warning [but arising from a criminal incident perpetrated by outsiders], started to attack one another, burning down each others houses and killing one another in both the provincial capital of Kota Ambon (Ambon City) and villages on the islands of Ambon, Haruku, Saparua, Buru, and Seram. Similar incidents occurred also in the Northern and Southern parts of Maluku involving not only Protestants but also Roman-Catholics. Thus far, the seemingly senseless confrontation, which became known as kerusuhan (unrest), left thousands of people dead and precipitated the devastation of property worth millions of dollars, wiping out much of the economic progress made in the province since Indonesian independence.

It’s worth pointing out that January 1999 is when former President Suharto’s embattled successor, B. J. Habibie, agreed to an East Timorese referendum on whether to accept wide-ranging autonomy within Indonesia or to go for independence. The vote, in August 1999, was overwhelmingly (nearly 4:1) in favor of independence.

The conflict can be divided into two rather distinct phases: Phase I began in January of 1999 and closed at the end of April 2000. This phase was characterized by mutual attacks of native Christians and Moslems using largely primitive home-made weapons and bombs (rakitan). Generally, there was an equilibrium of strength. Phase II, having began in May 2000, is characterized by the massive arrival of non-Ambonese, mostly Javanese, Moslem vigilante group, called Laskar Jihad (“Holy War Forces”). They brought with them sophisticated modern weaponry and allied themselves with the Moslem personnel of the military which constitutes about eighty percent of the troops. These developments totally destroyed the previous balance, tipping the scale in favor of the Moslems.

From the very beginning, provocateurs, often said to be associated with the old Suharto regime, have been blamed for the unrest. The Army also has been accused playing a key role in triggering and fomenting the fratricidal violence in order to destabilize the Indonesian state as a means of restoring its political might and economic interests. Among the accusers is the Moluccan sociologist Tamrin Amrin Tomagola who believes that continuous riots will not only upgrade once again the status of the military, and tighten its territorial grip, but also derange President Abdurrahman Wahid and the National Commission on Human Rights which has implicated five generals, including former military chief and ex-cabinet minister, Wiranto, in the post-ballot atrocities in East Timor. Tomagola goes on to state that violence in Moslem areas triggers solidarity among Moslems and heightens their negative feelings toward the President and the commission (Jakarta Post 02/04/2000). Calls in January 2000 for a Jihad (Holy War) against Moluccan Christians at mass demonstrations in Jakarta and attacks of Moslem youths on Christian churches in Lombok seem to strengthen Tomagola’s arguments. The use of automatic weapons in the January 23, 2000 attack by Moslem villagers on their Christian neighbors in the villages of Haruku-Sameth on the island of Haruku further points to military involvement.

Bartels then outlines some of the key factors that led up to the recent violence.

  • The influx of Moslems from outside the area, especially Bugis and Makasar migrants from Sulawesi into Ambon City, and Javanese settlers (‘transmigrasi‘) into rural areas. Initial Christian attacks were against these outsiders, not fellow Moslem Ambonese.
  • The failed model of religious tolerance. “As recently as November 1998, during Moslem-Christian clashes in Jakarta, then President B. J. Habibie had singled out the Moluccas as the model of religious tolerance.” Moluccan exiles in the Netherlands and elsewhere “asked what happened to the traditional Moslem-Christian brotherhood and its safeguards like pela, the traditional inter-village alliance system.”
  • Creeping religious polarization. “Actually, the only thing that should be surprising about these clashes is their vehemence and unbridled violence.” Some of this was visible even during the 1970s.
  • The legacy of different colonizers. “The successive colonizers, Portuguese, Dutch, and Japanese, all tried to manipulate Moslems and Christians, as did the latest, and current, rulers of the Moluccas, the Javanese.” However, “throughout most of colonial history, it seems that, at least at the village level, Moslem and Christians have coexisted in a climate where cooperation seems to have been more common than polarity and discord. Under duress, they have frequently closed ranks and as far back as the Portuguese period and in the early Dutch era, Moslem and newly converted Christian villages allied themselves against the foreign intruders who tried to force a spice monopoly onto them. Again, during the so-called Pattimura uprising in 1817, both religious groups were united in a last, failing effort to rid themselves of the Dutch yoke.”
  • Christian rise to superiority in late colonial period. The Dutch favored “Christian Moluccans as soldiers and administrators, allowing them a certain amount of western schooling denied to the Moslems…. In some cases, Christian villagers had Moslem children live with them in order to give them access to schools denied to Moslem commoners by the Dutch while raising them according to Moslem customs.”
  • Moslem ascendency during Japanese occupation. “During the Japanese occupation, the Christians suddenly saw the roles reversed as the Japanese seemingly favored the Moslem population. Christians accused the Moslems of collaboration.”
  • The proclamation of an independent Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS) after Indonesia declared independence after WWII. “During the ensuing struggle with the Indonesian armed forces, Christian guerrilla forces attacked some Moslem villages which were suspected of being Indonesia sympathizers. There were also instances in which Christian soldiers prevented such attacks when their home village had an alliance with the Moslem village in question.”
  • The breakdown of the pela alliance system. This is elaborated further below.

Some of these inter-village alliances have their origins in the distant past, long before Europeans invaded the Spice Islands in search of cloves and nutmeg. It probably started as an alliance system in the context of head-hunting, but during the Portugese and Dutch conquests in the 16th and 17th centuries, the system was utilized to resist the foreign intruders, and to help each other in times of need. As a matter of fact, quite a few of the still existing pela pacts were founded during that period, often binding Moslem and (recently converted) Christian villages together. Many new pela arose during the last desperate struggle against Dutch colonialism, the Pattimura war at the beginning of the 19th century. After this struggle was lost and the region experienced an economic depression, pela was utilized as an instrument gaining access to foodstuffs when many poor villages of Ambon-Lease established ties with the sago-rich villages of West-Seram. In the first three decades of Indonesian rule, pela was still in full bloom, mainly as a vehicle of Moluccan identity in the pan-Indonesian state and also to further village development without governmental aid….

Most alliances are between Christian villages but a considerable number are between Christian and Moslem villages, thus spanning religious boundaries. Purely Moslem pela do not exist. In contrast to Christians who use adat [local custom] rather than their common religion to establish formal ties between villages, Moslems consider themselves all part of the Islamic community (ummat) and thus find no need to further strengthen the ties among one another. However, there are a few pela, all based on genealogical ties, involving several Christian and Moslem villages and in this case the participating Moslem villages also consider each other as pela partners….

The system as described above worked still very well in the Central Moluccas from the end of World War II until about the 1980s. Attempts of the Indonesian government of political centralization and cultural uniformity since Independence led to a general fear of loss of a distinct Ambonese ethnic identity. Both Moslems and Christians had also become quite conscious about the threat that the ongoing religious polarization posed for Moslem-Christian unity. While urban politicians were fighting for the spoils offered by the new system, people at the grassroots level reacted to the twin threat of loss of identity and social disunity through placing a renewed emphasis on pela, whose dense web spanning across the islands and religious boundaries was traditionally the major force of integration. The earlier listed economic incentives, based on reciprocal mutual aid, further helped to cement the interfaith relationship.

  • Elevation of global religion (agama) above tradition (adat). Increasing Christianization and Islamization after independence.
  • Indonesization of Ambonese social system: Replacement of traditional village leadership. Globalization in a manner that benefitted the urban (often outsider) elite. Large-scale relocation of (Moslem) ‘transmigrasi’ from Java. Overpopulation, land scarcity, feuding and fission. Urbanization, with outsiders dominating commerce.

Bartels tries to find some hope for the future in his final section.

Mending the Torn Fabric

Once the fighting stops, Moslem and Christians will indeed have to come together and redefine their relationship and strive for a new intra-ethnic symbiosis in a contemporary context. First and foremost, the intertwined problems of overpopulation, land shortages, and immigration have to be solved. As a next step, it seems likely that the Ambonese in the Central Moluccas will have to do what the Ambonese exiles in the Netherlands have been doing ever since they arrived in the Netherlands in 1951, namely engage in a continuous process of reinventing adat to reflect contemporary socio-political reality. Pela on the village level can still have its uses in restoring overall harmony. Before visiting the Central Moluccas in June and July 2000, I was very pessimistic about the survival of interreligious pela. Most people who don’t have pela with a Moslem village believe that these pela are forever destroyed. However, people who do have such pacts are not as ready to pronounce their alliances dead. This was certainly the case in Haria. Villagers from Samasuru (Seram) who have pela with Islamic Iha on Saparua do not dare stay there overnight as they did before when visiting Saparua but it seems they do it more out of consideration for Christian villages adjacent to Iha but are still in communication with Iha. They had given Iha land in the 1960s which was laid to waste during the unrest by outsiders. Iha insisted that Samasuru was innocent and that their alliance is still intact. The heavy attacks and counterattacks between Moslems and Christians in North Saparua occurring between September 22 and 24 were apparently instigated by the Laskar Jihad. As a result, many villagers from Iha fled to some of nearby Christian villages, seemingly to trying themselves to escape the Laskar Jihad. Their peaceful reception in these villages is perhaps one of the indicators that not all bridges have been burned.

The following story also shows some hope, though it may not immediately apparent: After the total destruction of Christian Kariuw on Haruku in the early phase of the conflict by neighboring Moslem villages of Pelauw and Ori, their Moslem pela partner Hualoi (Seram) sent a delegation with food to the village of another partner in the same alliance, Aboru (Haruku), where many Kariuwans had found refuge. The wounds were still too fresh and the food was rejected. Hope also can be found in the example of Wayame, a non-traditional, mixed Moslem-Christian settlement across the bay opposite Ambon City, which thus far which had been untouched by the conflict until late November 2000. Even then, it was not an internal conflict but an attack from the outside by Laskar Jihad forces. However, attempts by surrounding Moslem villages to officially declare Waai, a Christian village destroyed in July 2000, as a Moslem village and the intention to rebuild the mosque at exactly the same spot where it supposedly stood in 1670 when Waai was still Islamic, will inflame passions again. The suggestion was made by the chief commander (panglima) of the Laskar Jihad, Ja’far Umar Thalib, and thus it is quite likely that this declaration was made under duress….

Perhaps, and rather ironically, the simultaneous suffering of the Ambonese Moslem community under the reign of terror of the Laskar Jihad and certain army factions, may soften the existing bitterness and hatred between the two indigenous groups and facilitate ethnic reconciliation.

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