The Maluku Civil War: Military and Political Exploitation

Posted by on Mar 25, 2018 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

The Maluku Civil War: Military and Political Exploitation

The late-1998 to early-2002 Maluku conflict marked the most significant convergence between military and Islamic interests since the 1965-1966 upheaval, when army units and Muslim vigilantes teamed to eradicate hundreds of thousands of suspected communists. In Maluku, and later Central Sulawesi, New Order hard-liners and military recidivists sought to undermine the country’s democratic government. Their interests coincided with the fundamentalist Muslim goal to create an Islamic State, rather than a pluralist, secular democracy. As they had done in the past, shady New Order figures manipulated Islamic emotions, this time evoking fears of a Christian conspiracy to create an independent state in eastern Indonesia. Muslim politicians, Soeharto cronies, and a diverse group of military officers provided funds, training, logistic support and a degree of direction to the jihad groups. It was hardly a coincidence that many jihad fighters in Maluku and Central Sulawesi had earlier participated in General Wiranto’s Volunteer Security Force (Pam Swakarsa) in Jakarta.

The involvement by provocateurs, the influx of Muslim fighters and use of military weapons increased casualties and prolonged the conflict. Appointed by President Abdurrahman Wahid in October 1999, Professor Juwono Sudarsono was Indonesia’s first civilian Defense Minister in over forty years. In a remarkable interview published in July 2000, Pak Juwono charged rogue officers were provoking the Maluku conflict – and suggested former President Soeharto’s supporters sought to destabilize the Wahid government and divert attention from New Order wrongdoing:

There are also indications that they are associated with former President Soeharto and B.J. Habibie’s cronies. … Let’s just describe the problem as one involving certain army personnel, because although the command structure and commanders have changed, there are many from the ancient regime still filling lower positions. The Army should get rid of these soldiers. … The problems in Maluku started in January 1999. Back then there should already have been military action, but people complained that the military might take excessive measures. Now that we have decreed a state of civil emergency, we are condemned again. … There must be financial support from Jakarta, that’s why we have to cut off the links with this cancer. … The Ministry of Defense is not directly in charge of the chain of command. I cannot order them around … both the Minister of Defense and the military chiefs are subordinates of the President. We are equals. All I can give is advice and policy inputs. [1]

The performance by security forces in Maluku was dreadful from the start. Armed Forces Headquarters (under General Wiranto and Admiral Widodo) did little to stop senior officers from meddling in the conflict. TNI did not deploy adequate forces or its most capable units to Maluku, ostensibly due to commitments for the 1999 national elections and the disastrous East Timor consultation. That strategic error allowed the conflict to escalate. The police and army units were handcuffed as military and political elements exploited the conflict to serve their own interests. Such blatant political meddling inhibited security forces from taking firm action against jihad groups until finally in 2002 President Megawati, Generals Endriartono Sutarto and Ryamizard Ryacudu made a political commitment to end the conflict. The mass violence stopped quickly after leaders in Jakarta developed the political will.

The security forces benefited from the Maluku conflict in many ways. It was a familiar pattern that played out in other conflict areas. Some have argued that economic interests were the primary reason security forces did not act decisively to halt the conflict. While the reality of economic interests is undeniable, military and police involvement in economic activities in conflict areas like Maluku and Aceh seems more a byproduct, than the primary motivation for prolonging the fighting. [2] Military pay and benefits were grossly inadequate, institutional support for troops in the field poor to nonexistent. Hence, it is not surprising soldiers exploited the chaotic situation for economic advantage.

It was said everyone in Maluku, from private to general, was making money. At the lowest level, army and police personnel in Ambon charged a standard 50,000 rupiah (about $50) fee to escort property movements, threatening those who refused to pay. The trafficking in military weapons, ammunition and explosives was made possible by the poor security and accountability in most units. Soldiers and policemen rented out or sold their weapons, along with ammunition at 5,000 rupiah ($0.50) per cartridge. There were reports security forces had refused to move into areas where fighting was taking place before receiving payment from the besieged group.

Senior officers and politicians had interests in Maluku resource-based businesses, as they did in other provinces. The Soeharto family and Indonesian-Chinese business associates had significant interests in Maluku. They included Tommy Winata, shareholder in a joint fishing venture with Soeharto son Bambang Trihatmodjo and a Taiwanese firm; Prajogo Pangestu, the Barito Pacific Group Chairman, with nearly one million hectares of forests; and Eka Cipta Widjaya, the Sinar Mas Group Chairman, with major land holdings and a banana plantation on Halmahera. Tommy Winata was known as a generous benefactor to senior officers. Military-run foundations had interests in those companies, in addition to their own business concerns in Maluku. [3]

The military and police in Maluku were involved in virtually every economic sector. Army units hired out trucks with drivers and armed guards to transport goods. They provided security and transportation services to various businesses, including timber processing plants and fish canneries on Ambon and Seram, and similar activities in North Maluku, allowing those enterprises to continue operating through the conflict. Army units took over copra processing operations in North Maluku. In remote areas, troops busied themselves trapping exotic birds and animals, often protected species, for transport and sale in the illegal but thriving wildlife markets in Jakarta and other cities. It was common for soldiers to transport hundreds of caged birds and animals back to Java aboard troop ships. The chain-of-command tolerated the practice, just as authorities tolerated illegal wildlife markets. Similar practices took place in Papua.

Prices on basic goods throughout the two Maluku provinces were much higher than in other areas due to the logistical effort required and the “fees” exacted by the security forces. As a rule, prices in Christian areas were higher than in Muslim areas and security forces profited from those differentials. Ambonese Christians resented the fact Muslims controlled the port area and were able to choose products entering the city at better prices. The Navy and Marines operated port facilities and controlled most inter‑island shipping, collecting levies on all goods movement. After several fights and stabbing deaths, ferry transport was segregated. Christian and Muslim passengers used different embarkation and debarkation points.[4] The Navy charged four million rupiah (about $400) tax on each container entering or leaving Ambon Port. The Navy and Marines also collected levies on copper and gold exports from North Maluku.

Even though the “Wiranto group” was alleged to have funded militant groups operating in Maluku and Central Sulawesi, evidence of institutional involvement is difficult to confirm. There is nothing to suggest TNI Commander Admiral Widodo ordered, or even agreed with the meddling in the Maluku conflict although he tolerated it. Wiranto denied supporting any militant Muslim groups. He came from an abangan family in Surakarta; his parents were not strict Muslims, he said. As TNI Commander, he had cultivated Islamic leaders in order “to control them.” In that capacity, he had met Muslim leaders and visited pesantren schools. Wiranto admitted he and Lieutenant General Djaja Suparman had good relations with the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) but claimed they had used their influence to control the group. He denied any links to Laskar Jihad. [5]

Clearly, senior officers and political elites supported the jihadists. Whether it was institutional policy or actions by rogue officers is irrelevant since, even with a generous benefit of doubt, it is clear Wiranto, Admiral Widodo and other senior officers tolerated those subversive acts and took no action to halt them. The government never seriously investigated involvement by senior officers – or prominent figures like Amien Rais, Fuad Bawazier, Ahmad Sumargono, for that matter. Ironically, neither Wiranto nor the officers associated with him ever showed much inclination toward Islamic militancy or espoused fundamentalist ideas. As Professor Salim Said has said, “Not even the most fervent Muslim general in TNI wants to see an Islamic state.” Their relationship was one of convenience.

Senior officers used the militant groups to achieve their purposes – to undermine the government, to protect the Soeharto family, to halt the post-Soeharto reform process, and to demonstrate the need for an army territorial presence throughout the archipelago. All vigorously denied allegations they were involved with Laskar Jihad or other extremist groups. Indeed, Generals Wiranto, Djaja Suparman and Suaidi Marasabessy successfully sued Maluku sociologist Professor Tamrin Tomagola for slander over Tomagola’s accusations that they had backed Laskar Jihad. [6]

As in 1965-1966, the Army-Muslim alliance was temporary. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and October 12, 2002 Bali bombings prompted military leaders and politicians to significantly reduce support for militant groups like Laskar Jihad, recognizing the danger they represented. Four days after the Bali blasts, Jakarta police arrested FPI leader Muhammad Rizieq Syihab and charged him with inciting violence for his role in an October 4 vigilante raid in Jakarta. The arrest warrant was allegedly drawn up before the Bali attacks. That may be true, but Rizieq and his thugs had operated freely up to that time with protection from the city police and the Jakarta Garrison, so it must be assumed that Bali was the factor that prompted the police to finally move against the militant group.

On November 6 Rizieq announced FPI would temporarily suspend its activities, even though neither Laskar Jihad nor the FPI had any association with Jemaah Islamiyah. Both groups ideologically opposed attacks on the lawful government and were rivals with Jemaah Islamiyah spiritual leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. The groups had clashed in Maluku. Ja’far and his Laskar Jihad minions always maintained they were defending Indonesia’s territorial integrity against Christian separatists and helping security forces protect besieged Muslims. [7] After an appropriate period, the FPI returned to Jakarta’s streets and has thrived with patronage from political elites. Rizieq expanded the group’s activities to Central and East Java, Bali and South Sulawesi. FPI militants have played prominently in attacks against Shia Muslims and the Ahmadiyah community, considered by many to be a deviant sect.

[1] “Juwono Speaks on Maluku Tragedy,” The Jakarta Post, July 15, 2000.

[2] East Timor is perhaps the exception. Senior officers sometimes confided the two-decade conflict was primarily about making money and secondarily a combat training ground for the Army. “East Timor was our playground,” one officer remarked.

[3] George Junus Aditjondro, Maluku: While Elephants Fight, the People of Maluku Die, on, January 27, 2000.

[4] Gerry van Klinken, “The Maluku Wars: Bringing Society Back In” (Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, Indonesia, Volume 71, April 2001), p. 5.

[5] Interview with General Wiranto, November 2000.

[6] Tomagola had maintained, by supporting Laskar Jihad and perpetuating the Maluku conflict, the officers sought to protect the Soeharto family; to preserve TNI’s financial interests throughout the archipelago; to avoid prosecution for past crimes against the Indonesian people; and, to discourage any move to prosecute military officers for human rights abuses.

[7] International Crisis Group, “Indonesia Briefing: Impact of the Bali Bombings” (Brussels: ICG, October 24, 2002), p. 6.

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