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This article was written by Richard Rowat while Field Coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Ambon, Maluku, Indonesia from May 1999 until February 2000. It is intended to present a balanced view of the continuing conflict in Maluku and its origins, (November 1999).

Ambon / Maluku?


There are many reports about how Ambon and Maluku in general went into conflict. Obviously it was not the single incident, an altercation between a Christian and a Muslim, so often attributed with being the beginning.

In fact the first clashes took place in Dobo in Maluku Tenggara (South Maluku) in December 1998.

Tension had been building for a long time before the first open clashes. The likely cause is far more long term and stems to a large extent from the policy of transmigration in effect for more than 30 years, which officially brought more than 100,000 Muslims into Maluku (see transmigration figures) and many more through spontaneous (not reported) transmigration. As the Muslim population grew they became increasingly aware of being excluded from the institutional life of islands. There was a recent trend (5 years old) of intentionally including Muslims in civil service positions, that has caused considerable annoyance in the Christian community where people received fewer jobs and felt they were being discriminated against.

As the more authoritarian rule of Jakarta slackened people found they were able to vent their frustrations more openly. With a little help from religiously and politically venturesome people from outside the Malukus (Jakarta, South Sulawesi?), the pot was brought to a boil and in December 1998 finally spilled over into open, violent conflict.

During the first riots of January and February 1999 many parts of Ambon island were religiously cleansed (on both sides). These areas have since remained peaceful. The continuing conflict is centred on mixed or adjacent communities. Both sides are attempting to create religiously contiguous areas. The pendulum swings back and forth, the Christians were more successful in their attempts in 1999 on Ambon island, particularly in the southern portion of the island. They constitute the majority on Ambon (approximately 60%) and are indigenous Malukans (see Ambon population figures), whereas the Muslims are in the minority and have lost a significant portion of their population due to people fleeing the conflict and returning to their places of origin. In 2000 Muslims have made some gains on Ambon, Seram and Buru islands.

Other factors affecting the conflict are longstanding disputes and dislikes amongst some indigenous (as opposed to transmigrant) communities and petty kingdoms in the Malukus. These may not have been based on religion but under the current circumstances a religious theme is easily adopted. This has been notably true in some areas of the Kei Islands, in northern Ambon island and on Saparua Island. There are also points of contention within the Muslim community. The indiginious Muslim Malukuns see the transmigrants as having put a strain on the economy and having taken jobs and opportunities.

The church burnings in Java prior to the clashes in Ambon, while not a major factor, contributed to the tensions and sensitivities in the Christian community.

The economic crisis has also had an impact, inflation and lack of money have caused a shift in employment patterns. Jobs traditionally held by the Muslim community (cyclo drivers, porters) were infringed upon by Christians. Small business, traditionally a Christian activity, has seen a stronger Muslim participation. This has caused resentment on both sides.

There are numerous other perceived wrongs, rumours and accusations. The fact is that the original causes are no longer relevant to the ongoing clashes. The conflict has polarised the population along religious lines and that is how the conflict is seen by most people, they know better but emotion prevails.

Influences from outside Maluku are frequently alluded to. These include military, government officials and religious leaders. Their motivations cover a wide range, including trying to delay reforms on a national level, wanting to retain 'power' at a local level in the face of a changing political environment, long term financial considerations relating to natural resources traditionally held by influential people and religious aspirations. 1.

Today (Nov. 1999)

It is difficult to see the government controlling the situation. Their repeated pronouncements of steps being taken have proved empty and without substance. Members of the government have even inflamed the situation with statements and actions such as those taken by Amien Rais who openly supported a Jihad or Holy war in Maluku.

The military (who must enforce a peace) are divided into multiple factions with a growing number taking an active role in the fighting. The military's active participation in the conflict has been well documented including film coverage of soldiers providing covering fire while civilian combatants run across a road to attack a residential area.

As with most such situations in Asia you cannot see all of the under currents, players and positions they occupy. Motives and eventual aims and goals are obscure and disguised as something else. Of course it comes down to power, but what kind of power – money, religion, politics. Some of the players want to see eastern Indonesia separate (Sulawesi and Maluku), their motivations are primarily religious and political, they are based in Sulawesi and consider Maluku to be a little brother who has reached a sufficient degree of Islamic influence (population) to annex it and include it in an independent Islamic state of Eastern Indonesia, they are supported by fundamentalist Islamic elements in the military. Segments of the Christian community want to see a religiously pure Ambon and a return to the status quo, before transmigration began. As long as these two groups cannot reconcile their differences there will not be peace. The Christian supporters of continued conflict are willing to pay the price of the virtual total destruction of the society and infrastructure in exchange for the removal of the Muslim population as a threat, they will rebuild when it is over. The Muslim leadership continues to tell the people that this is a religious war (a Jihad) and that historically they have the right to Maluku, in addition RMS is constantly spoken of in the Muslim community as living entity, it may exist in Holland but it does not exist in Maluku other than in the minds of a few individuals.

The central government (provincial level) has never been strong, regency (sub-provincial) leaders (Bupaties) having considerable independence of action and often ignore directives from higher authorities. Even at the regency level Bupaties are often disliked and ignored. The Malukuns are a fierce independent people with an island culture, they have a strong history of isolation, inter-communal conflict and self-reliance.


Advocating for stronger action on the part of the authorities runs the real risk of different factions of the military/police coming into open conflict in Ambon, this would constitute civil war. This is happening now on a low level. For example I have observed fully armed and armoured (body armour) military personnel inciting and leading Muslim clash participants into clashes and I have seen the military withdraw from an area where hundreds of armed Christian fighters were massing in preparation for a clash. I have had multiple soldiers and officers standing between clash participants in conflict areas tell me that they come under sniper fire from both sides and that their positions are almost untenable. The military is demoralised and confused about their role in this conflict. They see other military units or individuals supporting one side or the other and this can only lead to the questioning of authority and a breakdown in discipline as was the case when an ARMED 8 soldier went on a shooting spree in the Christian part of Ambon city, this was followed by a unit of ARMED 8 opening fire on a crowd of Christians in Mardika causing multiple fatalities.

There is also the risk of the civilian population (Christian) turning on the authorities. They have been making arms for more than 6 months and are capable of waging a guerrilla war that could render the military ineffectual; they are already doing so on a low level, attacking Muslim communities, with the intention of avoiding military casualties. After the shootings (mentioned above) the military withdrew all personnel from the Christian part of the city. As of Dec. 9, 1999, they have only returned to the fringe areas and keep a very low profile.

Reality – The Muslim population on Ambon is declining (65-70,000 to Butan alone) because of an exodus from Ambon and all islands of central and south Maluku (primarily transmigrants from Buton and South Sulawesi). On Ambon, Saparua and Seram this is accomplished by a constant pressure from Christian fighters on isolated Muslim communities; the transmigrants still have strong family ties in their places of origin and therefore, faced with a constant threat of violence, they opt to return to their families.


There will not be peace in Ambon and most other areas of the Malukus until the two religious groups physically separate. This is happening now, both in terms of communities and things like markets, transportation and government offices. This is a sad commentary but in the absence of a long term committed security presence there is little prospect for the two communities to reconcile. The Christian success in their strategy of constant pressure and the external influences in the Muslim community (religious, military and political) will fuel the conflict for at least the next year, probably more.

There are a number of possible scenarios for Ambon:

  1. The conflict will continue as it has for another year after which time the Christians will have taken control of the southern portion of the island (the developed areas) leaving a diminished Muslim population occupying the northern part of the island.
  2. The government will attempt to show resolve and take the steps necessary to halt the religious conflict and restore secure conditions for the population. This attempt will degenerate into open conflict between the military/police forces involved. The insurrection in the military may or may not be contained and controlled in Ambon. The disarray and lack of cohesiveness in the military may be more widespread than is immediately apparent and the civil war could expand.
  3. The government will show resolve and successfully take the steps necessary to halt the religious conflict and restore secure conditions for the population.
  4. There will be an external intervention in the conflict, either with or without the approval of the Indonesian government. This will create another Kosovo like situation.


So what do we do?

  1. Advocate for the authorities to restore law and order for the benefit of the population? It is unlikely the authorities could or would do this, there are too many players involved, both in the open and behind the scenes. This could result in the implementation of DOM, a potentially repressive military administration. This was in place in Aceh for more than 10 years.
  2. Accept the status quo? This puts us in the position of passively observing a process of religious cleansing ostensibly justified and disguised by the claims of continued aggression from one side or the other.
  3. Advocate for an international presence? This may in fact help the authorities who want to act more decisively and restore order. The probability of this being accepted by the Indonesian government is very low.

Nothing is ever black and white, there are no good guys here amongst the combatants. Any statement about one community or the other should not be seen as a blanket condemnation of all people in the community. The fact is that most people are sick of the conflict and just want to get on with their life. This is not possible because of a minority who want the conflict to continue for their own reasons.

This report has drawn criticism from both Muslims and Christians. Both consider themselves to be the aggrieved party only reacting to provocations and attacks from the other, therefore it must be close to the truth.

Richard Rowat

Past Field Coordinator

MSF-B Ambon

* - A 2002 example of the spider web that entwines powerful government officials and frequently brings them into a conflict of interest is - As long as Flores is part of NTT, it is required by provincial decree to buy certain goods, such as cement, from Kupang, as a way of protecting provincial industries. Makassar produced cement is of much higher quality; the leading company is Basowa Cement, is owned by Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla. 

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