Religious Struggle Highlights Crisis in Indonesia’s New Regime


Clashes between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas, a chain of a thousand islands in the east of the Indonesian archipelago, have grown into another major crisis for the post-dictatorship regime. In the recent flareup that began on Dec. 27, reportedly around 300 people have been killed. Over the past year about 100,000 people are said to have fled to neighboring islands.

The new government, which claims to represent a democratic alternative, has been unable to adopt any clear policy for dealing with the problem. The vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the major personality of the old bourgeois opposition to the “New Order” dictatorship of General Suharto, has offered nothing.

The president, Abdul Rahman Wahid, has said that he does not want to institute military rule on the islands, although the London Times of Dec. 30 reported that the military had in fact taken over.

In the Indonesian bourgeois press itself, fears have been expressed that the army is too corrupt and discredited to be able to maintain peace between the two communities. It is not even clear to what extent the government controls the army.

For example, the most prestigious journal that covers the area, The Far Eastern Economic Review, has said that the dictatorship’s military commander, General Wiranto, still dominates the armed forces. The pogroms launched under the aegis of the Indonesian army in East Timor after the vote for independence also put into question who is in charge and what their agenda is.

Leaders of the Christian community themselves have appealed for UN intervention. Thus, the Indonesian daily Suara Pembaruan reported in its Dec. 31 issue:

“Christian groups in Ambon repeated their appeal on Wednesday (Dec. 30) to the United Nations to send peace keeping forces to prevent open warfare from spreading further on Ambon and Malut. This call was issued because they are disturbed about the inability of the peace-keeping apparatus to overcome such bad situation.”

The idea has even been raised of partitioning the islands between Christians and Muslims in a way reminiscent of the forced population shifts in the former Yugoslavia. Government spokespersons said that such a solution would only be a last resort and only temporary. But they have indicated that they are considering it.

In the Dec. 31 Kompas, Akbar Tandjung, speaker of parliament and one of the main leaders of the former ruling party, Golkar, said:

“If it is a temporary solution, that is all right, but it is not correct as a long-term solution.” In fact, in the same issue of Kompas there is an interview with Professor Nurcholish Madjid discussing whether Indonesia could go the same way as Yugoslavia. Madjid denied that was a possibility but his arguments were hardly convincing: “There is no ethnic hatred in Indonesia comparable to that in Yugoslavia.”

The truth is that there has been chronic ethnic conflict in Indonesia since independence and local civil wars in a number of areas that have persisted for decades and have been exacerbated by military atrocities in the accustomed style of the “New Order” dictatorship. In the Aceh region of Sumatra, the independence forces are fighting a real war against the Indonesian army. There are reports of deaths almost every day.

The new government has promised that it will grant additional rights to the regions, including the rebel peoples. But it still refuses to grant any real rights of self-determination.

In the Jan. 1 Kompas, Abdul Rahman Wahid was quoted as telling the people of Irian Jaya that he considered it his duty as president “to maintain the unity of the country as defined in the [unitary] constitution of 1945.”

Thus the problems of ethnic conflicts and separatist movements remain central to the political situation in Indonesia. After the UN intervention in East Timor, the call for the Christian communities in the Moluccas for UN “peacekeepers” indicates the danger that these conflicts can serve as pretexts for widening intervention by the imperialists aiming to restabilize their control of the archipelago.

The answer of the heirs of the New Order, both the bourgeois democrats and the leftovers of the military dictatorship, is repression ( fostered by provocation), which can only obstruct the development of democracy and exacerbate the ethnic conflicts.

The revolutionary forces will have to find political answers to these problems based on respecting the right of self-determination and organizing the masses themselves to prevent pogroms.

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