Indonesia - Human Rights Watch World Report 1999 Chapter Focus on Human Rights: Indonesia: The Post-Soeharto Period
Background Briefing on Indonesia: Urgent Action Needed to Halt Communal Violence

December 9, 1998: Human Rights Watch calls on the Indonesian government to act immediately to prevent further communal violence. A series of attacks on churches and mosques since November has led to a dramatic increase in communal and religious tension across Indonesia. There is strong circumstantial evidence that some of the attacks were provoked. Although it is widely believed that elements in the security forces may have been responsible for instigating a November 22 incident in Jakarta, no conclusive evidence has been produced thus far. An in-depth, impartial, and fully independent investigation is needed in each of these incidents to ensure that the full facts come out and that not only the immediate perpetrators of violence, but any funders or provocateurs found responsible, are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Human Rights Watch said the Indonesian government also needs to look beyond the immediate causes of the violence to address the long-simmering build-up of communal tensions that has different causes in different parts of the country. In many cases, those underlying causes have little to do with religion and cannot be addressed by appeals to religious harmony alone.

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The burning of a church in Ujung Pandang on December 5 followed a November 30 attack by Christian youths in Kupang, West Timor on mosques as on well as shops and homes belonging to immigrants from a Muslim ethnic group, the Bugis from South Sulawesi. The church attack was apparently sparked by the return to Ujung Pandang of some of the Bugis displaced in the Kupang violence.

The trouble in Kupang violence in turn erupted after a meeting of all Christian youth groups in the city to protest the burning of churches in Jakarta on November 22 in what has become known as the "Ketapang tragedy," after the neighborhood of the capital where it began. Thirteen people died and more than a dozen churches were attacked in that incident, with two of the churches burned to the ground. Human rights groups and the Indonesian press have reported allegations that the violence in both Jakarta and Kupang was provoked; the National Human Rights Commission is expected to produce a report on the first next week.

Christian-Muslim tension in Indonesia has been exacerbated by political and economic factors since former President Soeharto's resignation in May, but the problem goes back much further. In heavily Christian eastern Indonesia, including in places such as Kupang, there has been large-scale migration from other parts of Indonesia for government and military service, jobs in the extractive industries, and trade. The Kupang violence started out as an expression of anger against the government's failure to respond effectively to the Jakarta church-burnings; it erupted into an attack on neighborhoods of Bugis migrants, in which no distinction was made between religious and commercial establishments.

In Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo); Irian Jaya; and East Timor, local people have also been have also been angered by the government-sponsored transmigration program, in which thousands of Javanese and Balinese farmers have been brought in to open up new lands for commercialagriculture or forestry. In addition to the resentment that indigenous people feel toward the newcomers who encroachon their land and resources, many community leaders fear what they call "Islamicization" as migrants, many of them Muslim, build mosques and seek converts in traditionally Christian areas. In Irian Jaya and East Timor, the transmigration programs traditionally had a strong security rationale as well, with the government apparently hoping that an influx of outsiders might dilute nationalist or separatist sentiment.

In heavily Muslim areas of Java and Sumatra, aggressive Protestant evangelism has caused as much resentment as Muslim proslytizing has in Christian areas. Anti-Chinese sentiment, which has increased as the economic situation has deteriorated, has also taken on an anti-Christian cast, particularly in these areas, as many ethnic Chinese, who control much of Indonesia's retail trade, are also Christian.

Another factor has to do with the role of Islam in national politics. Islam is by far the majority religion in Indonesia with its adherents constituting over 87 percent of the population. Cross-cutting divisions, however, of ethnicity, regional background, and political outlook, as well as repression by the Soeharto government of overtly political Islamic organizations, have rendered any kind of Islamic unity difficult to achieve and have left many conservative Muslims feeling underrepresented in the Indonesian political system. Since the fall of Soeharto, some of these groups have been maneuvering to redress this perceived wrong. Their resentment was particularly pronounced during the recent Special Session (sidang istimewa) of Indonesia's highest legislative body, the People's Consultative Assembly. As student groups mobilized to demonstrate to demand that President Habibe step down, many of these Muslim groups joined forces with youth organizations linked to the ruling party, Golkar, to constitute a civil guard to protect the assembly.

For them, Habibie, who before his elevation to president was head of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI, in its Indonesian acronym), represented the best hope for realizing a Muslim political agenda. As Ahmad Sumargono, a man involved in mobilizing Muslims for the civil guard, remarked to a reporter, "The faithful saw the the anti-Habibie people as anti-Islam."

Thus, the civil guard, or Pam Swakarsa as it became known in Indonesia, had as its largest elements a composite group known as Brigade Hizbullah, consisting of over 100,000 youths from thirty-two Muslim organizations and Furkon, a Muslim youth group linked to conservative ICMI members and to the Indonesian Committee for International Islamic Solidarity or KISDI, led by the above-mentioned Sumargono.

The fact that students from Jakarta's main Christian universities, including Atmajaya, Trisakti, and the Indonesian Christian University, played a major role in the demonstrations (more from the geographic location of their campuses than from the religion of the students) reinforced the KISDI view of the demonstrators as "anti-Islamic," even though the the majority of the latter were also Muslim.

The people behind this conservative coalition were also responsible for a resolution that emerged from an Indonesian Muslim Congress held in early November that the next president of Indonesia had to be a Muslim male. In doing so, they effectively declared absolute opposition to the possible election of Indonesia's most popular opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno. (Sumargono insists that if Megawati wins a presidential election, KISDI will respect the results, but they will do their best to ensure that she does not win. He likewise has characterized another popular pro-demcoracy politician, Abdurrahman Wahid, head of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama, as someone who has sacrificed the faith to excessive tolerance.)

A final factor and a not insignificant one is the impact of the economic crisis that has left millions of unemployed throughout Indonesia. Many of the unemployed are young, angry, and easy to mobilize. There is widespread suspicion in Indonesia that continued civil unrest in any form may be in the interest of elements in the army who wish to reassert control over the political system at a time when the military's prestige is at an all-time low. But the fluidity of the political situation also means that rumors of provocation are all to easy to spread and all to easily believed by any group that wishes to discredit another.

The Ketapang Violence

The Ketapang incident in Jakarta started, according to the most detailed account available, key elements of which have been confirmed by Human Rights Watch, with a fight at a gambling club called Paradise, reportedly one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Most of the hundreds of security guards employed at the club were from Ambon, and most Ambonese are Christian. One of Jakarta's best-known thugs had been trying to extort a monthly protection fee from the owner, but the latter refused to pay. Beginning in late September, according to one report, groups of young people, allegedly belonging to a student group but one no one had ever heard of before or since, began trying to rouse community sentiment against the club on religious grounds. Shortly before the mob violence erupted on the night of November 21, a fight broke out between the security guards and four unknown thugs. It was settled briefly, but then about 2:00 a.m. on November 22, several groups of unidentified people, each organized under a leader, returned to the area around the club and began throwing stones at houses, breaking windows, and causing other damage, including breaking the window of a small mosque. Word spread that a mosque had been burned down by "infidels" from eastern Indonesia, although the surviving guards swear that none of them was involved in the assault. Nevertheless, a mob quickly formed (and there are allegations of people being trucked in here, as well) who surrounded the club and burned it down, while some of the Ambonese guards were lynched by the mob. Credible reports indicate that the Jakarta police simply stood by. The mob then began a systematic attack on local churches.

The incident clearly needs investigation, and there are many different possible explanations of who might be responsible and why. The government quickly offered to help rebuild the damaged mosque and the burned churches. But the perception left in places as far away as Kupang was one of lack of interest in getting to the heart of the matter and leaving no stone unturned to identify the perpetrators. With economic and political tension at an all-time high and instant communication from one end of the archipelago to the other, it was at least highly likely that a retaliatory incident would occur.

The Kupang Violence

The best description of the Kupang violence comes from a letter written by Dr. Tom Therik, rector of the Christian University in Kupang. The letter in its entirety is attached, with the permission of Dr. Therik. As in Jakarta, the systematic torching and stoning of Bugis neighborhoods on November 30, 1998 began when truckloads of people whom no one recognized came into the city. The fact that some spoke Tetun, the language spoken in East Timor, led to instant speculation that they were pro-overnment East Timorese youths, but many people in the eastern part of West Timor also speak Tetun. Who those people were and why they suddenly appeared must be a central part of any investigation.

Letter from Kupang

December 3, 1998

Over the last two days, Kupang has become a dead city. Oesapa [a village on the outskirts] has been blocked off from Kupang by barricades set up by the youths. The military itself has to ask permission to pass. There are more than 100 barricades made with tree branches cut down and in some cases even with electrical cables. Over each barricade a cross has been hung, sometimes with a picture of Jesus. In Kuanimo, they put a coffin in the road, and every person without exception had to place flowers on it, that the youths had already prepared. Every car (military or government) that had been allowed to go through and every motorcycle had to put on its lights and lay flowers as a sign of mourning. Everyone passing by, whether Muslim or another religion, had to say "Shalom" unless they wanted to be interrogated. There was one soldier and his wife who were forced into a large gutter, together with their motorcycle, because they didn't go along with this game. There was another soldier who was held up, and the youths very politely said, "We're going to burn your motorcycle." He could only stand by and watch as it burned. Likewise with cars and personal belongings, including money, that were dragged out of houses, not be looted but to be burned in the middle of the street.

Let me give you a little chronology. On November 27, the Shalom Church in Airnona held a meeting to draft a statement in connection with the Ketapang tragedy [a violent outbreak in Jakarta on Nov.22 in which 13 people died and more than a dozenes were burned by mobs, probably provoked.]

I was invited as a resource person. Youths from other churches also attended. All agreed to a very hardline statement, asking Habibie and Wiranto to apologize to the Christian faithful for all the incidents of church-burning that now total more than 500. In addition, they also demanded that all of the perpetrators be prosecuted in a transparent fashion. These two things they regarded as critical because the government has never done them. They accompanied this with a threat, that if the government did not act accordingly, they would retaliate.

At the same time the Kupang branch of the Indonesian Christian Student Movement (GMKI), the Indonesian Association of Catholic Students (PMKRI), the Movement of Christian Youth (GAMKI), and Kupang Catholic Youth together issued a statement and held a press conference about the Katapang incident. They warned that if their demands that the perpetrators of the church-burnings be prosecuted were not met, and I quote, "We Christian soldiers will join ranks to reconsider the whole concept of a unified state."

The atmosphere was extremely militant. Many youths demanded that no more statements be issued, it was time for action. And what they meant by action was to do something so that the government would understand that Christians were an integral part of the nation and were as much Indonesian as anyone else.

I tried to tell them that the Muslim community was not what they thought. All of these cases have been engineered by a small group using religion to destroy the state. In the ensuing discussion, the youths, together with members of the four groups mentioned above, agreed to a day of mourning. They decided it would be on November 30, from 6 am until the next day, December 1. At 7 am on December 2, an ecumenical memorial service would be held, and all public activities would be brought to a halt. This decision was communicated to the governnor, the head of the provincial council, and the police. All agreed.

On November 30, the day of morning began at 6 a.m. Suddenly, there appeared a number of trucks, full of youths and preceded by a convoy of motorcycles that paraded around the city. At 10:30, the convoy passed the Christian university campus (UKAW) in Oesapa. Just in front of [a friend's] house, they stopped and began throwing rocks at kiosks owned by Bugis people. About 50 meters further, they starting stoning shops, restaurants, and beauty salons owned by Bugis or Javanese. Then the trucks headed for Kupang. As it went along, those on board hurled rocks continuously, and indeed these rocks had been prepared beforehand and collected in the truck.

About noon, a motorcycle went around Oesapa (behind the UKAW campus, there are dormitories of students from other universities in Kupang) saying that a number of churches in Kupang had been burned. Some youths and other people in Oesapa gathered, forming a sea of people in a very short time, to attack a mosque on the Oesapa beach. Fortunately, there were community and youth leaders who were able to control the emotions of the crowd, and the attack did not materialize. Meanwhile, we heard that some mosques, restaurants, and Bugis-owned kiosks in the Naikoten market had been burned. We also began to hear that "opposition" was being mobilized in the Solor area of the city, the majority of whose inhabitants are Muslim.

The situation in Kupang had become very tense. I went behind the UKAW campus to see what the situation was like and whether there were any indications of preparations for violent actions that I might be able to calm. Up until about 5:30 p.m.on November 30, there were no manifestations of undue frustration among the students, and everything seemed to be functioning as normal. At that moment, some students heard news on television that something had happened that was being given the name of the "Kupang tragedy", a name that was analagous to the "Ketapang tragedy."

About 8:15 p.m., I got home. [A friend] called me and asked if it was true that there was a big fire on East Timor. The distance between my house and the students' housing complex, not far from where the firing was raging, was no more than 30 minutes. But I saw no signs of panic anywhere.

The first fires were set at the store of a Bugis, followed by houses being set on fire along both sides of the main street leading to Atambua (East Timor Street). It was appalling, the whole sky had become red. The stores there sold gasoline and wood. Everything was torched. Many large trucks belonging to Bugis also exploded after they were set on fire.

All the students and other residents of Oesapa just panicked. When they were asked, who started this, not one person knew because suddenly, there were hundreds of people whom no one knew who in an extremely organized and trained fashion started these fires. There was information from a teacher at the state university that people with muscular bodies and clearly trained were setting the fires so that in a relatively brief time, many homes were burned.

Underneath the emotions of people about the tragedy of Ketapang and the feeling that the many cases of church-burnings had gone unresolved, there was the hidden conflict between the Bugis, whose economic status is better than that of the inidigenous residents of Oesapa, so that some of the latter took part in burning and wrecking the homes and kiosks of Bugis people.

Then the situation got out of control. They called for the burning of all Bugis neighborhoods along the coast, including the two mosques. People got even more heated at rumors that the Bugis were going to "resist." Women were evacuated by boat to Paritiwhile the men stayed behind.

Almost every house was set on fire, and you could hear explosions as they burned. I didn't count them, but the explosions seemed to go on and on. The crowd that had come from neighboring areas thought that the Bugis people couldn't stand things any longer so they were setting off bombs to defend themselves. I knew there wasn't a shred of truth in this. They didn't have time to make bombs because things erupted so suddenly that they didn't have time to escape with their money or belongings. The explostions were in fact caused by ammunition used by the Bugis fisherman to illegally set off explosions to catch fish. The fires went on until about 2 a.m. on December 1.

At this point, many people appeared to feel "satisfied" and were going back to their homes. But according to news from one credible source whose home was near the beach, about

4 a.m. a motorboat approached and threw a molotov cocktail toward the beach. This set off the crowd again. They began to attack the homes of people along the beach. At this moment, the mobile police brigade [Brimob, that acts as the anti-riot unit], from headquarters in Kupang who had been there since thenight before released tear gas and shot rubber bullets into the crowd.

About 6 a.m. a youth was hit in the leg with a rubber bullet, and I helped treat him and get help so he could be taken to the hospital.

This action of Brimob only inflamed the crowd. They cried, "Brimob is defending the Bugis." People began to get so heated that even the Brimob couldn't control the atmosphere. It was only then that they sought help from the army. I met with the army commander when people hit by rubber bullets were being treated. The commander said the Brimob had asked their help, and he had immediately helped transport victims to the hospital. The army's presence served to help restore horder. About 1 a.m. the situation was more or less quiet, but hatred toward "Brimob Kupang" had already been planted in the hearts of the local people.

About 2 p.m. the mayor of Kupang and members of the district council visited the location. This was the first visit of officials to Oesapa because hitherto the roads had been blocked. I and the rector of the UKAW university met with the officials on site. The people openly voiced their hatred toward Brimob because of their use of tear gas and rubber bullets.

At that moment, three truckloads of reinforcements from the East Timor Brimob arrived in Oesapa from the east. Hearing that Brimob had come, thousands of people who had gathered in the streets started waving spears, knives and other weapons, shouting that they refused to have any Brimob presence. Apparently among them, however, were some who knew that these Brimob were from East Timor. This group shouted, "These are our friends!" The Brimob members who came were very sympathetic, shook hands with people, gave out cigarettes, spoke warmly with people, and as a result, the crowd opened the way for the trucks to pass through. Meanwhile, part of the mob went toward the Brimob who were based in Kupang and ordered them to go back, because people didn't want to have them around any longer. In this way, security was basically taken over by the Brimob from East Timor and the situation began to calm down.

People reported to me that they were hiding Bugis families in their homes, and it would be dangerous if people found out because people were still so angry. [A friend] was also hiding one Bugis widow and her two children in his house. The army commander very carefully and quietly helped evacuate people in army trucks. After they were on board, I was asked to accompany them in the hope that members of the mob who knew me would not question or seek to find out what was in the truck. We passed the mob, who in fact were somewhat sympathetic with the army, in safety. There were one or two people who jumped up to see what was in the truck, then shouted, "There are Bugis inside!" But their voices couldn't be heard because they were drowned out by the crowd yelling, "Shalom!" We were able to go to [the friend's] house and very carefully evacuate the family that he was sheltering. The trucks went on to the police commnd, but I didn't go any further with them. There were about 20 people altogether in the truck, although I didn't count them exactly, and there were some soldiers there as well to guard them.

That night, the people began to panic again because of rumors that the Bugis were planning a revenge attack. At the same time, there were rumors that Muhammadiyah students were going to attack the university. Even though I considered the rumors nonsense, many people took them seriously. People began to evacuate their families and take them out of the "crisis area." The university itself was sheltering about 40 women, elderly people, children and infants.

So that was the situation as of the time I wrote the letter. I hope that telephone lines are working again soon so I can send out e-mails.

As for my observations about the site of the fires on December 2: in the neighborhood along the Oesapa beach, there were two mosques, one located on the eastern side, one on the western side. Both were the centers of the two Bugis communities. The community on the east was populated by the original Bugis migrants; they were surrounded by indigenous residents of Oesapa. The western side had the relatively new arrivals and formed a kind of Bugis ghetto. In addition, there were houses and kiosks of Bugis along East Timor Street and in the area of the student dormitories (behind the UKAW campus and on the southern side of East Timor Street).

The fires were only set along East Timor Street and in the Bugis ghetto. There were no fires in other areas because the houses were protected by other members of the community.

My impression is that what happened in Kupang reflects more the ethnic tension between Bugis and Timorese than religious tension. Still, not all Bugis became the target of the crowd's fury, but only those in the ghetto.


Because at the time I was writing this letter, the telephone lines were still down, let me just note some of my observations about what took place after December 2, 1998. Through December 2, rumors that Bugis were going to attack from the sea continued to circulate among the people. The youths set up security posts along the Oesapa beach. About 10:00 a.m. began to sound as a sign that there was danger. Those guarding the beach saw three boats heading for the shore. The head of the area went closer, and it turned out there were three boats filled with Bugis refugees coming toward shore to ask for rice because they had no food. The residents didn't let them land, so the boats lined up in the middle of the sea. We tried to get food assistance through the East Timorese Brimob.

Around 12 noon, some community leaders, youths, and Muslim leaders were invited by the village head to a reconciliation meeting to try and bring life in Oesapa back to normal. The deputy commander of the provincial police asked to attend together with the commander of the Brimob from East Timor, namely Lt. Muchsin. The deputy police commander and with great arrogance took over the meeting and began by trying to indoctrinate people as officials do, telling people not to listen to rumors and saying that Christians, who teach compassion should put those teachings into practice. He also asked that once order was restored, the people should receive back their Bugis brothers who had fled.

This appeal drew a sharp rejection from those present.

Their response was as follows:

1. The Kupang incident cannot be separated from the burning of churces in Java, an issue that has never been properly addressed.

2. Why was it only after the incident in Kupang that Habibie issued a condemnation against the perpetrators.

3. A minister from Oesapa rejected any lessons from the deputy police commander in "compassion" because the people of Oesapa already had done much to protect their Bugis brothers, if they couldn't prevent the attacks by the mob which, it should be noted, were not from Oesapa. (The minister himself had Butonese blood.)

4. They stated clearly that "the people of Oesapa hate the Brimob from Kupang." Then they said, "They better not come back. If they come and we aren't happy, then they attack us, then we'll go after the Brimob." ( The deputy police commander apologized for any wrongdoings by his men and asked in a very arrogant fashion if :those present would accept the apology. All those present just stayed silent.)

5. As for the appeal of those present to receive the Bugis refugees back, some of the responses were as follows: "The mayor of Kupang has already guaranteed that they are not going to be resettled in the same place. Some people said firmly, "We reject any Bugis presence (my note: in the neighborhood to the east).

6. Those who came said spontaneously that the personal effects of many Bugis had been turned over to them for safekeeping in their homes. There were cars, motorcycles, household implements, and so on. (The family of the Bugis widow in front of [our friend's] house entrusted the security of their own house to [their neighbors]) It was decided in the meeting that all such goods that had been turned over by their owners for safety would be registered with an information post in the office of the Oesapa village head, as a safeguard against looting. The post would be open 24 hours a day.

7. The people asked for a dialogue directly with the governor and mayor at the village head's office "so that they can hear our voices directly."

8. The people of Oesapa must make an official statement and send it to the President, taking issue with the President's statement condemning the rioters in Kupang while they have never heard any condemnation of the mobs in Java who burned churches. There was one person who said, " Just invite TVRI and RCTI to directly record our voices so the people in Jakarta can hear them."

9. They expressed their trust in the East Timorese Brimob to provide security.

10. They requested the provincial rice logistics agency (Dolog NTT) to sell cheap rice in Oesapa as soon as possible.

This is what I can say for now. Signed, Dr. Tom Therik