Monday, November 14, 2011

Lessons from Indonesia's Maluku Conflict

Indonesia: From 1999 to 2002 the conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Indonesian islands of Maluku, including in my region — the island of Halmahera in North Maluku — resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and the displacement of thousands others. The conflict was eventually overcome, and solutions that were implemented at the time may offer insight into inter-religious violence could be contained and prevented from morphing into something larger and more critical. The factors that foster inter-religious conflict generally include economic hardship felt by a particular group or groups, deteriorating relationships between community members, an unstable or weak government and sectarian politics.

In 1998 Indonesia’s economy was in dire straits. The East Asian economic crisis affected people in mid- to low-income brackets, and lasted long enough to create unrest among Indonesians. Seemingly minor events quickly escalated into much larger problems. For example, in Maluku a dispute between a Christian bus driver and Muslim youth sparked a region-wide conflict.

Prior to this, Maluku society, culture and economy had been changing in part due to transmigration programs, modernized education and a nationally integrated economy. Less emphasis was being placed on traditional customs that usually united local groups across religious, geographical and political lines, such as hibualamo (common houses) where Christians and Muslims routinely gathered and pela (inter-community bonds) that established alliances between villages and which transcended religious distinctions. By the time the conflict broke out in 1999, these bonds had fallen by the wayside, especially among youth and migrants.

The conflict in Maluku — which began as a localized event — was exacerbated by outside intervention. Reports that Muslim communities in Maluku were being massacred propelled vigilantes from Java — funded and armed by various parties who wanted to strengthen their political influence and weaken the government — to come to Maluku to defend their fellow Muslims. As a result, the violence escalated. Mediation efforts between Christian and Muslim groups in Maluku did not happen immediately, as they should have. In 1998 Indonesia was undergoing major political reforms as President Suharto’s regime was crumbling. This prevented the government from promptly responding to the crisis. At the time, most hoped the conflict would subside on its own, and so, instead of taking direct action, the authorities decided to adopt a “wait and see” approach.

All of these factors — the economy, a breakdown of local bridge-building institutions, outside involvement and lack of an immediate governmental response — contributed toward a two-year conflict in Maluku. Economic conditions in Indonesia have gradually improved. And even though Maluku was gripped by conflict, internally displaced people were able to resume their lives. Community leaders focused on rebuilding traditional ties between diverse groups, and traditional common houses and inter-community bonds were reinforced at the grassroots level. Political elites vowed to avoid enflaming the fragile situation and armed groups were sent back to Java by Indonesian security forces.

Formally, peace efforts in Maluku culminated with warring parties each signing the Malino II Accord in early 2002. However, implementing the accord at the grassroots level took time. And even now peace activist networks across Maluku are still hard at work to conduct routine community surveillance and rapidly intervene in conflicts that have the potential to spread.

These efforts seem to have paid off.

In late September 2011, inter-religious conflict re-surfaced in Maluku, again triggered by a relatively trivial and isolated incident. The death of a motorcycle taxi driver in Ambon ignited inter-religious violence that killed seven people and destroyed dozens of homes. This time, however, learning from the past violence, various community leaders, hoping to avoid a repeat of the 1998-2002 conflict immediately worked to quell the spread of rumors and acted as grassroots mediators. Even the media was very careful in the language they used to cover the conflict, hoping to avoid further enflaming tensions.

As of now, the conflict seems to have been contained.

Communities in Maluku had to pay a heavy price to learn that maintaining peace requires holistic prevention efforts, rapid response to small incidents with the potential to escalate and decisive leadership in responding to conflicts.
Enshrined in the constitution of Indonesia is the statement that there is no peace without social justice. And as Maluku knows the hardest tasks — long-term rebuilding of communities, strengthening human resources and the economy — come after the conflict is over. By Elektronita Duan winner of a 2011 N-Peace Award, which honours her pioneering work as a grassroots peace activist in Halmahera, North Maluku.

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