Saturday, August 25, 2007

Another threat to Ambon's fragile peace

The Dutch Moluccan community have issued a press release complaining of Indonesian torture on the island of Ambon. They claim 31 Moluccan activists were arrested on 29 June after they waved the banned Moluccan separatist flag in front of the Indonesian president. They claim the 31 were denied jail visits and other arrests have followed taking the total number to 44. The Indonesians may be coming down hard to avoid a repeat of the violent scenes that marred the island between 1999 to 2002 and again in 2004.

The island of Ambon is part of the Moluccas group (west of Papua) now an Indonesian province known as Maluku. Ambon is half Christian and half Muslim. The island and other parts of the Malukus were ravaged by three years of Muslim-Christian clashes that killed more than 5,000 people before a February 2002 peace pact took effect. Sporadic violence has continued and tension between the two communities remains high in Ambon and several surrounding small islands.

Ambon has an illustrious history. From ancient times, the Moluccas were a renowned source of cloves and nutmeg for the world market. The Portuguese were first Europeans to establish a settlement on Ambon in 1521. The first Dutch sailors arrived in the Spice Islands in 1599. In the 17th century the Dutch United East Indies Company, Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie, obtained a monopoly on the export of cloves. The VOC brought almost the entire Indonesian archipelago under its control by the 18th century. They folded in 1789 and passed control of the territories to the Dutch government. As a result of international interest in the islands, the Moluccas were left with a diverse mixture of religions - Muslim, Catholic and Protestant, all blended with local customs.

Ambon was a major battlefield in World War Two. The island was defended by 2,500 Netherlands East Indies troops who were joined in December 1941 by a 1100 strong “gull force” of the 2/21st Battalion, from the 8th Australian Division together with anti-tank, engineer, medical and other detachments. The Japanese were eager to acquire the Dutch oilfields and attacked from the air. They landed on the island on 30 January 1942. After four days of bitter fighting, they overwhelmed the under-equipped and poorly prepared Australian and Dutch. Over 300 men defending Laha airfield were summarily executed and buried in mass graves. Ambon remained in Japanese hands until the end of the war and the island’s POWs were subjected to some of the most brutal treatment of the war. Three-quarters of the Australian prisoners died in captivity and 694 members of Gull Force are buried on the island.

After the war, Indonesia rushed to declare its independence from the Netherlands. A 'War of Decolonization' pitted Indonesia nationalists, mainly from Java against the Dutch supported by the Moluccans. In 1950 the south Moluccan islands declared independence as the Republik Maluku Selatan but was quickly defeated by Indonesian troops. The RMS retreated into an irregular guerrilla war until its leaders were caught and executed in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the Moluccans began a terror campaign in the Netherlands killing a policeman, occupying the Indonesian embassy and hijacking trains.

The islands themselves remained quiet until the end of the century. The problems began with a revival of Islamic radicalism after Suharto’s downfall in 1998. The Moluccas, more than 2,500kms from Jakarta became a huge training camp for Islamic hardline groups, the biggest of which was Laskar Jihad, which had links to Al Qaeda. Ambon's reputation for religious tolerance began to fragment as more Muslims migrated and took jobs in the local bureaucracy. By 1999, tensions had turned to violence. Churches and mosques were destroyed, thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands became refugees.

On 12 February 2002, the eleven point Malino Peace Accord was signed by 80 delegates from the Muslim and the Christian communities of Maluku. The US State Department hailed the agreement as the “key to resolving the conflict in the Moluccas and…an important step in Indonesia's efforts to end violence, re-establish the rule of law and provide for reconstruction in the troubled province". Laskar Jihad, however, refused to attend the peace talks and rejected the Accord as treason.

The peace lasted two years until a Christian hardline group raised their independence flag and marched through Ambon city in 2004. The parade sparked Christian-Muslim clashes, bombings and brought out snipers who took random potshots at police as well as Christians and Muslims causing 40 deaths. The police and military commanders blamed the violence on the Christian separatists. Mainstream Christians argued the separatists were barely 200 to 300 strong and not representative of their community. Although quiet for the last three years, Ambon remains a precarious faultline in the Indonesian religious divide and a possible candidate for another troublesome war of rebellion.

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