Clashes between members of Muslim and Christian communities in the Moluccan island region of Indonesia have led to more than 200 deaths since June 21. Official government sources, which in the past have often underestimated casualty figures, report that nearly 3,000 people have been killed since communal conflict first broke out in the region in January 1999. Over a half million people have been displaced by the conflict and humanitarian aid agencies report that the most recent outbreak of violence has displaced tens of thousands more. Law and order have broken down in many areas and relief agencies can no longer reach many of the people hardest hit by the violence.
The communal conflict, which began in January 1999 with economic and ethnic as well as religious undertones, quickly polarized into Christian-Muslim conflict. Although there have been occasional lulls in the violence and and weak attempts at mediation by the central government, the clashes have always resumed and the situation has steadily deteriorated. Unarmed civilians have often been the targets as increasingly well-armed Christian and Muslim partisan mobs launch indiscriminate attacks on villages identified with the opposing side. Observers report that the level of anger and vengefulness among members of Christian and Muslim communities in the region is tremendously high at present and the situation remains highly volatile.
The situation has been exacerbated over the past two months by the arrival of an estimated 2,000 members of Laskar Jihad (Jihad Militia), most of whom reportedly came from Java. Eyewitnesses report that members of Laskar Jihad have participated in a number of recent clashes. There have also been widespread rumors and unconfirmed reports of unidentified provocateurs instigating violence. Indonesia's President Abdurrahman Wahid has alleged that still powerful supporters of former President Soeharto are behind the continued conflict but has yet to produce evidence to support his claims.
In response to the renewed bloodshed, President Wahid declared a civil emergency on June 26, giving him and civilian authorities in the affected provinces many of the powers that military leaders would have under martial law. The President has issued a decree prohibiting outsiders from entering the region. Security authorities have imposed a night curfew, banned gatherings of more than ten people, and ordered all residents to surrender weapons by June 30. On June 26, a Balinese Hindu, Col. I Made Yasa, was named military commander for the region in apparent hopes that the appointment of someone neither Christian nor Muslim would help diffuse tensions.
Declaration of a civil emergency alone is unlikely to do much to diffuse tensions in the region. Distrust of security forces is widespread, in large part because some members of military and police units have broken ranks and taken sides in the conflict. There have long been reports that army and police weapons and ammunition have found their way into the hands of partisans, but reports of direct participation in the violence by members of the armed forces are now increasingly common, with Christian soldiers supporting Christian groups and Muslim soldiers supporting the Muslim side. In attacks in Ambon this week, eyewitnesses reported that a military-issue armored vehicle ("panser") was used in Muslim attacks on Christian communities. Sources in the region report that some soldiers from the East Java-based Brawijaya Military Command have supported the Muslim side, and that some riot police units (Mobile Brigade or Brimob units) have supported the Christian side. The governor of Maluku province, Saleh Latuconsina, has accused a retired general, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Rustam Kastor, of whipping up Muslim sentiment and provoking violence. Partisans on both sides have successfully raided police and military arms depots and are now better armed and more dangerous.
In the meantime, the situation has grown worse for civilians displaced by the violence or in need of emergency assistance. Although international relief agencies are already involved, some of the leading agencies have had to suspend operations in the face of the recent violence and many of the hardest hit areas are without assistance. Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) reports that local medical facilities are under great strain and are running out of essential supplies like drugs and blood bags.
Human Rights Watch recommendations:
- Humanitarian aid corridors should be the first priority.
Human Rights Watch endorses MSF's call for Indonesian authorities to open humanitarian aid corridors so that assistance can reach people displaced by the fighting and others in need of relief. The prohibition on outsiders entering the region should not apply to the staff of agencies delivering humanitarian aid.
- Internally displaced persons should be protected.
The Indonesian government should guarantee the physical safety and basic rights of internally displaced persons, as set forth in the "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement" issued by the office of the U.N.'s Special Representative on IDPs.
- Cleanse army and police ranks of disloyal troops.
Members of the security forces suspected of directly or indirectly taking sides in the conflict should be immediately suspended from duty and removed from conflict areas pending full investigation and, where appropriate, prosecution.
Troops/special police units should be regularly rotated out of the region so that members of the security forces do not develop sympathies with local partisans. Army officials have said that they would relieve some 1,200 soldiers who have been in the conflict zone for nearly a year. All troops should be regularly rotated out.
The performance of new territorial military commander, Col. I Made Yasa, should be evaluated according to specific criteria that include how quickly the armed forces are able to facilitate the flow of relief to victims, disarm militias, discipline soldiers who side with combatants, and locate and apprehend suspected provocateurs.
Foreign governments currently providing assistance to the Indonesian military should suspend all such assistance -- including aid, equipment, and training -- until there is no longer a risk that such assistance is contributing to human rights violations and exacerbating the communal violence in the Moluccan island region.
- Find and prosecute any provocateurs.
Provocateurs and members of Laskar Jihad found to have engaged in violent acts should be expelled from the conflict areas and be tried for their crimes. Members of Laskar Jihad, most of whom entered the region from Java over the past two months, have been directly implicated by eyewitnesses in several recent attacks and have interfered with delivery of humanitarian aid. President Wahid and others alleging that provocateurs are playing an important role in fueling the conflict havea an obligation to make public the nature of their evidence and make every effort to ensure that those individuals are found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
- Leaders of militias involved in attacks must be identified and brought to justice.
Indonesian justice officials should consider appointing a special prosecutor to conduct investigations and prosecute perpetrators on both sides of the Moluccan conflict. In areas where basic order has been restored, ringleaders of the communal violence should be tried for their crimes. At present, no one is being held accountable for the violence and there has been an unending cycle of vigilante attack, revenge attack by the opposing group, revenge counterattack, and so on. Leaders of vigilante groups feel their acts of terror are justified because of previous acts by the other side. They should instead be identified, apprehended, and prosecuted.
- Basic free expression rights should be protected.
It is particularly important that the press continue to have unhindered access to conflict areas so that abuses by militias and wayward security units can be brought to light. Civilian communications should not be restricted unless there is clear evidence that the communications are being used to whip up hatred and violence is imminent; if restrictions are imposed authorities must use the least restrictive means available and lift the restrictions as soon as violence is no longer imminent. To counter the prevalence of one-sided, partisan accounts of the conflict, the Indonesian government should make clear in all public pronouncements that both Christian and Muslims continue to be perpetrators of abuses and that both continue to suffer terrible losses.
- Donors and friends of Indonesia should increase their support for relief efforts.
The recent deterioration of conditions has meant more injuries, fewer doctors and fewer medicines to go around, more displaced people, more people without food and water. Donors should increase support for relief efforts accordingly.