Tom Farrell uncovers disturbing evidence of a link between the Indonesian army and Muslim guerrillas making war on Christians in the Spice Islands
Millir e Moluccas, the fabled Spice Islands, the reason Dutch mariners took to the oriental seas, is now a war zone.
Since January 1999, around 7,000 people have been killed there in vicious Christian-Muslim clashes. (Some estimates put the death toll over 10,000) .
In February 2002, a peace treaty was signed in the resort town of Malino, attended by delegates from both communities.
Malino II (Malino I was signed to end similar interreligious violence in Central Sulawesi) began to fray almost as soon as it was signed.
The 11-point treaty was opposed by Laskar Jihad, a Muslim paramilitary group, based in Central Java, active in the Moluccas.
As the anniversary of a failed Christian-led bid for independence in 1950 approached, the Moluccan governor, Saleh Latuconsina banned "temporarily" (it quickly became permanent) all foreigners from travelling to the capital of Ambon, supposedly to prevent expatriot Moluccan Christians from importing weapons. Latuconsina suffered the indignity of having his offices blown up by a bomb on April 3.
A flag-raising debacle by the Maluku Sovereignty Front (FKM) led to the arrest of its leader, Dr Alex Manuputty, on April 17. This no doubt appeased Muslim extremists, although it is doubtful if the FKM are anything more than a handful of hotheads.
A week later, however, the Christian village of Soya was attacked by uniformed men, who killed 14 people and destroyed a nineteenth century Protestant Church.
The Laskar Jihad leader, Jafar Umar Thalib was handcuffed and hauled off by police, upon arriving at the airport in Surabaya on May 4.
Laskar Jihad was one of three Indonesian organisations that came under scrutiny, post-September 11. Jafar admits he met Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 1987, while fighting in the mujahideen.
But he denies his movement, that only existed since 1999, is linked to al-Qaeda. What is far more pertinent is the boast he made in April 2000 that he had a direct line to Admiral Widodo, the then commander-in-chief of the armed forces (TNI).
The state of ChristianMuslim relations remains volatile across this giant arch
ipelago of 13,300 islands, the world's largest Muslim nation.
And the assistance of American strategists in generously supplying the Indonesian regime, with weaponry hardly augurs well for the "trouble spots".
At St Francis Xavier Catholic Cathedral, an Ambonese Jesuit, Fr Agus Ulaihayanan, says: "Of course there are Muslim and Christian people against this violence, but unluckily, those who oppose this violence don't have enough power compared with those who don't."
Although outnumbered by Ambonese Protestants, Ambonese Catholics tended to have something approaching neutral status in the early phase of the conflict.
The arrival in mid 2000 of the jihadis, who did not differentiate, changed that.
During the reign of the military dictator, General Suharto, thousands of Muslim "transmigrants" were resettled in the Moluccan Islands, a strategy to suppress separatist passions by diluting the population.
Suharto's fall in 1998 put the economic and political privileges of Indonesia's elite in jeopardy.
The initial riots erupted in January 1999 after a trivial altercation between a Christian driver and a Muslim over an unpaid fare.
Enflamed by rumours that Christians were planning to demolish a mosque, Muslim mobs set about torching Christian properties.
The violence followed a tit-for-tat pattern, led by gangs of White (Muslim) and Red (Christian) thugs, many freshly deported from the criminal underworld of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, after the change of regime deposed their politician paymasters.
Soon, thousands of Laskar Jihad "volunteers" had arrived from Java, ostensibly for 'humanitarian' purposes.
Christian refugees spoke of them collaborating with the Indonesian army in the slaughter.
There was the June 2000 attack on the Christian village of Duma in which, said survivors, members of the army's 511 and 512 battalions donned white robes and joined with attacking Laskar Jihad, killing 152 people.
Christian gangs have patrons amongst the Mobile Police Brigade (Brimob). An Australian expert on Indonesia, Dr Gerry Van Klinken argues that Ambon is not explained by simple sectarian hatred.
Since Suharto's fall, elements in Indonesia's security forces have seen stoking up religious or ethnic clashes as a means of sabotaging the de-militarisation of the nation.
"The military strategy for dealing with all separatist conflicts or with any social conflict is to sponsor armed groups, one against the other," he says. "They did it in East Timor and the world was appalled. But we had seen it before in Java against the Communist Party ... the involvement of military and police in this whole nasty episode in Ambon is sordid and very shadowy."
Fr Kees Bohm is a Dutch Jesuit working at the Ambonia Crisis Centre. He puts out situation reports by email, power cuts notwithstanding, and says that de facto martial law now exists. Foreign journalists are barred; vital supplies are being withheld.
"For re-entering human aid workers Ambon is open only if, upon entering the area, they are willing to have themselves screened thoroughly," he says. Where there is even filmed evidence of police and military personnel giving weapons to their coreligionists, the wisdom of renewed military aid may seem questionable.
Since the September 11 attacks, the rightwing nationalist President, Mrs Megawati Sulcarnopuri has attempted a balancing act. She has been courting Washington in the hope that military aid, suspended after massacres in East Timor, will be reinstated.
It would be useful in exterminating regional separatism, especially in the huge, largely Christian territory, of West Papua. However, she has had to address the disquiet of Indonesian Muslims during the war in Afghanistan. Her vice president, Hamiz Haz, is a fundamentalist who wants to change the 1945 Constitution to give Islam primacy.
The paradox is that the US government is now seeking to bolster the same military group that is secretly behind these Islamic groups.
Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defence and a Reagan-era ambassador to Indonesia put it this way: "Going after al-Qaeda in Indonesia is not something that should wait until after alQaeda has been uprooted from Afghanistan."
The new military aid package is for 150 billion rupiah ($16 million), around half of which is ear-marked for a new "anti-terrorism" unit. The rest will be spent on weaponry and training.
However, many analysts say it is naive to believe the army brass is committed to de-escalating violence in places like Ambon.
A Kodam (territorial command) will receive greater funding in a conflict area and the army is afflicted by poor training and corruption.
The International Crisis Group in Jakarta estimates only 30 per cent of the army's budget comes from Jakarta, the rest being raised by military-run business ventures, both legal and illegal.
"Among the security forces there have always been servicemen that tried to collude with either Laskar Jihad, either the Reds or the Whites," says Fr Bohm. "Maybe based on sympathy for their own kind, but I think mostly for personal profit."
As of September, the Indonesian authorities have tried to keep "Malino II" from falling into complete disrepair.
"As a whole it is evident that the government has partly failed in fulfilling their part of the follow up," says Fr Bohm.
"They have now, at last, hurriedly composed the National Independent Investigation Team. A number of post-Malino incidents including a significant death toll is put on the government's debit. The lesson? I think you cannot end three years' strife with two days' talk."