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Military eyes wide shut on Indonesia's latest unrest

Theories abound on lack of reaction to Christian-Muslim violence in Malukus.

By omission or commission, the evidence is mounting that elements of the Indonesian military are reigniting the religious conflict in the Maluku islands.

The motive? Political payback, perhaps.

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As government prosecutors prepare cases against dozens of officers alleged to have ordered killings on the opposite ends of the archipelago in Aceh and East Timor, aid workers, analysts, and even members of President Abdurrahman Wahid's own Cabinet claim soldiers have done little to stop a renewed wave of killing between Christians and Muslims.

An estimated 160,000 people have been driven from their homes, and aid groups say that hundreds have been killed in just the past month.

Touching off the latest bloodbath has been the arrival of Islamic extremists based on the island of Java, led by a secretive commander who claims to have fought and trained in Afghanistan and to have financing from the Middle East. The little-watched conflict has become deadlier than East Timor or Kosovo.

"If it goes on much longer like this, you'll have once-mixed communities completely segregated into different parts of the island,'' says an aid worker. "Once that happens, you don't get peace easily.''

Though the roots of the conflict around the island of Halmahera are complex and tied into tribal politics, it has boiled down to its least-common denominator in the past two months: Christian versus Muslim. Though part of the same island chain as Ambon, which has been split by Muslim-Christian fighting for almost a year, the local political, ethnic, and religious dynamics are very different.

Warning to back off

Some of the president's aides allege the deteriorating situation - particularly the recent influx of Islamic extremist fighters into the area - is being encouraged by officers and politicians as a warning to Mr. Wahid to back off on human rights and corruption investigations.

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The president "wants to get rid of the military, and of course they're resisting," says Hasyim Wahid, a younger brother and close adviser of the president. He adds that Maluku's problems have evolved from local to national ones as a result.

A Cabinet minister points out the new fighters are well armed: "The only source of guns in Indonesia is the Army.''

The theory may be hard to believe, but analysts point to the military's rampage in East Timor last year (see related story below) and a legacy of massacres in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya. Military analysts also point out that the military is now deeply divided, with the command structure barely operational in the field.

Fighting first flared in North Maluku at the end of last year. It was a straight-ahead power struggle between the followers of the sultan of Ternate and the sultan of Tidore, the two volcanic islands and ancient rivals on Halmahera's west coast which controlled the world trade in cloves and nutmeg for hundreds of years.

Though the sultans' economic power was broken by the Dutch in the 19th century, they remained locally powerful until last year. Though Muslims themselves, they were traditionally tolerant of other religions, so much so that most of their subjects were Christians. But then the power struggle evolved into something darker.

Mostly Christian ethnic groups in northern Halmahera began to turn on the mostly Muslim ethnic groups that had flooded into the area over the past 20 years, in many cases as the result of a government resettlement policy.

After a wave of Christmastime killings by Christians, the Muslims got organized on a national basis. Still, the violence had cooled until the last half of May, when a more violent, better organized group of Islamic militants began to assert themselves.

Now the Muslims have the upper hand, conducting well-coordinated raids by land and sea on predominantly Christian villages, which are well armed and dug in. Aid workers estimate the death toll has averaged 40 a day for the past two weeks.

Well-financed paramilitaries

The goad to the latest fighting has been the Laskar Jihad (Jihad Paramilitary), led by Dja'far Umar Thalib, an Islamic preacher from Java who fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and also has ties to Pakistan and Yemen.

His well-financed paramilitaries from Java and Sumatra have taken control of the Muslim organizations on Ternate in the past month, snuffing out what little hope there was that the conflict could be pulled back from the sectarian brink.

Military pullback

The arrival of the Laskar has coincided with a disturbing pullback by the local military, particularly the Navy. Wahid had ordered a naval blockade to prevent the arrival of the jihad fighters. "Until May, the Navy seemed to be doing their job," says a military analyst. "Now they're nowhere to be seen."

Sources on Ternate say sea-borne raids have been originating from the island since the end of May, with no interference from the local military command. Mr. Thalib himself freely moves between Ternate and Java without interference from the government.

In early April, Thalib emerged from obscurity, warning Wahid in a meeting that he would take matters into his own hands if the president didn't do more to help Muslims in Maluku. Wahid angrily dismissed him as a dangerous fanatic.

There has always been a real threat of the Maluku conflict spreading, particularly to the large island of Sulawesi to the west. Sulawesi is mostly Christian to the north, mostly Muslim to the south, and Maluku refugees have gone to the island, choosing locations on religious lines. Both Muslim and Christian communities have sent fighters back to Maluku in sympathy. Violence has already spread to smaller islands to the north and south of Halmahera.

Juwono Sudarsono, the defense minister, said last week that he suspects supporters of fallen President Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for 32 years and is currently under threat of a corruption trial, are funding the jihad fighters. No high-level military officer has responded yet to Mr. Sudarsono's comments.

For Indonesia, it's a dangerous game. Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation (about 90 percent of its 215 million people describe themselves as Muslims) and has long prided itself as being one of the world's most religiously tolerant. But there has always been a hard core of extremists. The more they're allowed to take root and left free to act violently, analysts fear, the more polarized Indonesian society will become.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society