Violence stuns weakened Indonesia

Sun Journal

Peril: Whether by design or out of weakness, the Asian nation's pervasive security forces have been unable to stop the horrifying clashes. In some cases, they may have perpetrated them.

May 05, 1999|By David Lamb | David Lamb,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Over the past few months, simmering tensions have exploded into horrifying and bewildering violence in a string of Indonesian provinces, threatening the national elections next month as well as the stability of Indonesia itself.

In West Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, a local photographer took pictures of dismembered bodies with their hearts cut out, and CNN videotaped boys playing soccer with a severed head. In Ambon, Christians and Muslims who had lived peacefully together for years have killed each other with spears and machetes and burned churches, mosques, homes and villages. Others have met unspeakable deaths in East Timor, Atjeh and Irian Jaya provinces.

More than 1,000 Indonesians have died in the bloodletting, the victims of nationalist movements, religious and ethnic tensions, growing poverty that has turned unemployed young men into bands of roaming criminals and, some say, provocateurs who have a stake in destabilizing Indonesia to protect vested interests.

"There is still more that holds Indonesia together as a nation than pulls us apart," says an Indonesian human-rights activist in East Timor, "but things are clearly out of control. And neither the government nor the military seems to have the will or the ability to restore security and civility."

Forced migrations

The eruptions have no single cause, sociologists say. But they agree that one important factor is the past policy of forced relocation -- or transmigration, as it is called here -- of people from Java, the country's crowded main island, to more remote and sparsely populated areas. The shift upset traditional ethnic, religious and economic balances.

The policy began under the colonial Dutch in the 1920s, often carried out with no concern for ethnic sensibilities, and was promoted by then-President Suharto in the 1960s. The World Bank was among the international lenders that financed transmigration in Indonesia, a Muslim-dominated country with more than 300 ethnic groups.

Social structures were altered. In the Moluccas island chain, for instance, the Christian Ambonese were privileged citizens under the Dutch. The newcomers were Muslims, who gradually took over the economy and became a new elite favored by Jakarta, Christians say. Religious rioting in and around Ambon, the Moluccas' major city, has claimed 400 lives and resulted in the flight of 75,000 ethnic Bugis back to Celebes (Sulawesi) Island.

Natural migration outside government control also has occurred, such as that of the Madurese from islands off Java to West Kalimantan, where the new settlers became aggressive traders and came to economically dominate the indigenous Dayaks and Malays. In March, the natives turned on the first-generation settlers.

After his house was burned and his neighbor was decapitated, Amidi, a 31-year-old Madurese farmer, gathered his wife and child and fled into West Kalimantan's tropical forests, pursued by a mob of ethnic Dayaks and Malays and a pack of their howling hunting dogs.

"We were hunted like pigs," Amidi told an Asiaweek reporter.

Unlike some of the 30,000 who have fled West Kalimantan recently, Amidi and his family survived -- they spent a week hiding in the jungle, eating bark and snakes -- and were picked up by an army patrol and taken to a refugee camp run by the military on their island.

The migration of Javanese also upset delicate balances in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that Indonesia unilaterally annexed in 1976. The Timorese ended up as second-class citizens in their own land as the Jakarta-supported settlers controlled the best jobs, the professions and the economy. Thousands of the settlers have hurried back to Java in the wake of killings that have wracked East Timor since early last month.

East Timor -- where a 30-foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary towers over Dili, the capital -- is predominantly Roman Catholic. Most Javanese are Muslim. But unlike Ambon, Timor's root cause of violence is nationalism, not religion. The province will vote Aug. 8 whether to remain part of Indonesia but with greater autonomy or to become independent.

"While large influxes of outsiders create a latent potential for explosive conflict," says Jeffrey Winters, an expert on Indonesia at Northwestern University, "it is important to realize that in nearly every instance of violence now rocking Indonesia, there are signs of provocation and engineering by civilian and military elites.

"Rumors are started, conflicts are ignited and logistics are sometimes supplied to raise what had been merely simmering tensions to a boil. This is a sign of fragmentation within the [Jakarta] regime and within the military."

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