The Central Sulawesi Conflict

Posted by on Apr 5, 2018 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

The Central Sulawesi Conflict

Nestled between staunchly Muslim South Sulawesi and predominantly Christian North Sulawesi, President Sukarno granted provincial status to Central Sulawesi in 1964. During the colonial era, the Netherlands Mission Society had established a headquarters in highland town of Tentena to convert the predominantly animist population around Lake Poso. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the Protestant community had grown to about 20 percent of the population – and continued at that level during the post-independence period. Christian villages around Tentena established militias during the 1950s to defend against the Kahar Muzakkar’s Darul Islam marauders. That tradition persisted. During the 1970s and 1980s, the government-sponsored transmigration program and the spontaneous migration by Buginese and Minahasans into the region aggravated social tensions, but was kept in check by the New Order regime. Economic competition, land disputes and political rivalries intensified during the 1990s. Like Maluku, the region was ripe for conflict when Soeharto resigned in May 1998.

New districts (kabupaten) and subdistricts created through the regional autonomy laws segregated Central Sulawesi communities along ethnic and religious lines. For the first time a Muslim was elected Poso Bupati. He was outspokenly critical toward the Christian community, fueling local resentment. A drunken brawl between youths in Poso’s Protestant Lombogia neighborhood on Christmas Eve 1998 triggered the initial violence. The Ramadan fasting month had started several days earlier. A Christian youth stabbed a Buginese Muslim boy. By Sunday evening, December 27, truckloads of Tentena Protestants led by local legislator Herman Parimo had arrived in the city to reinforce the Christian community. Muslim and Buginese volunteers poured into the city from Parigi to the west.

Armed with machetes and other sharp weapons, the rival communities engaged in a battle near the Poso police barracks on December 28. Riots raged for over a week while security forces watched from the sidelines. Dozens died, hundreds were injured and thousands left homeless. The fighting burned itself out by early-January. With the onset of torrential rain, most fighters went home. On January 2, Sulawesi Wirabuana Commander Major General Suaidi Marasabessy announced security forces had arrested eight perpetrators (all Protestants), including Herman Parimo. Christians were unhappy because Marasabessy and others depicted the fighting as one-sided, blaming the Protestant community while no Muslims were charged. [1] During February, South Sulawesi Governor Lieutenant General Zainal Palaguna declared, “What happened in Maluku can’t happen here.” [2]

News from Maluku and the influx of displaced persons from that conflict increased tensions. The refugees were “vectors for infection,” carrying the viruses of fear, hatred and vengeance. Local elites on both sides financed and encouraged the militias. Violence resumed after a drunken brawl at the Poso bus terminal on April 17, forcing Protestant and Chinese residents to flee the city. Unable to stop rioters from burning churches and Christian homes, Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) reinforcements sent from Palu opened fire and killed three Muslims. When Central Sulawesi Governor Lieutenant General H.B. Paliudju arrived the next day, Muslim leaders demanded he withdraw Brimob and fire Poso Police Chief Lieutenant Colonel Deddy Woeryantono.

The governor agreed to remove Brimob, but the arson spree resumed as soon as the police troops withdrew. Muslim and Protestant volunteers returned, this time using walkie-talkies to coordinate operations. As in Maluku, the combatants divided into Red (Christian) and White (Muslim) troops; both sides conducted sweeps, checked identity cards and attacked rival religion members. Six-hundred soldiers sent by Major General Slamet Kirbiantoro (who had taken over as Sulawesi Commander a month earlier) had little impact. The fighting dissipated in early-May. Christians were the primary victims. Three churches, three Protestant schools, hundreds of homes and a police dormitory were burned. [3]

Fighting resumed May 23, this time continuing through July with Muslims taking the brunt. Protestant leaders suggested after turning their cheeks twice, they had no more cheeks to turn. The savagery was startling, as Christian militias sought “Old Testament-style annihilation of their oppressors.” Groups like Fabianus “Cornelius” Tibo’s masked “ninja” band and other gangs with colorful names like the Red Bats (Kelelawar Merah), Black Bats (Kelelawar Hitam) and Masks (Topeng) took bloody, indiscriminate revenge on Muslims. Decapitated and mutilated corpses floated down the Poso River, burned bodies were piled into mass graves. On May 28, Tibo and his gang attacked the Sintuwu Lemba Javanese transmigrant settlement south of Poso, torturing and executing male residents, sexually assaulting the females.

Major General Kirbiantoro sent another 1,500 soldiers to the area in late-May; it proved too little, too late. A pitched battle took place in the Poso Muslim Kayamanya neighborhood on June 2; Protestant leader Lateka (a local politician) was killed and his body chopped into pieces. Christians retaliated by burning Muslim villages around Poso. On June 6, over sixty died in a battle between Christians and the police outside Poso. In mid-July, security forces arrested 124 Protestant militiamen, but attacks on Muslims continued with help from soldiers and local veterans.

As during the Maluku conflict, Islamic groups expressed outrage at reports about violence against Poso-area Muslims. The violence abated after Fabianus Tibo was captured July 25. In all, 300 to 800 people had died in two months of fighting, thousands of homes were destroyed and tens of thousands displaced into makeshift camps around Palu, Parigi, Tentena, Napu and Manado. [4] On July 28, two churches burned in Tompe, a coastal town north of Palu after Muslim refugees arrived in the mixed religion town and told stories about what happened in Poso.

The response by political and military leaders was ineffective. Local forces did nothing at first; as in Maluku, some took sides. There was little cooperation between the Army and the police. From his headquarters in Palu, Central Sulawesi Police Chief Colonel Soeroso admitted the rivalry had prevented a prompt and effective response. Local police faced personnel, equipment and weapons shortages. When the problems started in late-May, Soeroso asked Regional Commander Slamet Kirbiantoro to loan the police enough weapons to make up critical shortages. Even though the regional command kept 5,000 rifles in reserve for such emergencies, Kirbiantoro refused Soeroso’s request and told him to seek help from Jakarta. Army troops were clearly unhappy to be in a supporting role to the police and didn’t want to assist them in any way. According to Soeroso, fourteen Poso policemen were investigated for involvement in the conflict. [5]

Governors from the three Sulawesi provinces convened a reconciliation meeting in Tentena during August. President Wahid attended the closing session on August 22, accompanied by the burial of a water buffalo head signifying the willingness by Christian leaders to forego further retribution. Despite assurances that displaced families could return home with government assistance, most chose to remain in the camps. The first jihadists arrived in July. In August, Agus Dwikarna, a Jemaah Islamiyah associate and Afghanistan veteran, established Laskar Jundullah (Army of God) in South Sulawesi. A civil engineer by training, the South Sulawesi native was politically well-connected. In addition to serving as the Laskar Jundullah Commander and secretary to Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in the Indonesian Mujahidin Council, Dwikarna headed the South Sulawesi chapter of the Indonesian Islamic Proselytizing Council (DDII). [6]

By December, Agus Dwikarna had sent 2,000 militants to Poso, armed with machetes and clubs. Laskar Jundullah was the largest jihad group in Central Sulawesi, while Laskar Jihad and Jemaah Islamiyah sent small contingents to the region. [7] Religious violence flared in Poso District during the four-month trials for Fabianus Tibo and his two accomplices, Dominggus Soares Da Silva and Don Marinus Riwu, from December 2000 to April 2001, and escalated after the judge sentenced the three to death on April 5. Protestant leaders objected that no Muslim killers had been tried or sentenced. Christians attacked mosques, Muslim neighborhoods, schools and villages. Muslim groups retaliated. [8]

Working through Coordinating Minister Jusuf Kalla, a South Sulawesi native, by November the Megawati government had established ties to local leaders. The Christian community was more receptive to the peace process, while Muslim militia leaders, including local and outside militants, were divided. Laskar Jundullah leader Agus Dwikarna led a government-sponsored meeting with around fifty Muslim leaders in Makassar on December 5. Many opposed any peace initiative until the government arrested and prosecuted a group of sixteen Christians, mostly local civil servants and retired army officers, said to have led the anti-Muslim violence in May-June 2000. Others were committed to drive all Christians from the region.

On December 19 and 20, 2001 the government convened the Malino peace conference. Jusuf Kalla mediated. All three Sulawesi governors and new Wirabuana Regional Commander Major General Achmad Yahya (who succeeded Slamet Kirbiantoro in August 2000) participated. The twenty-five Muslim and twenty-four Christian representatives signed a ten-point peace accord on December 20. They agreed to end armed conflict, support firm government action and the legal process against lawbreakers, end the civil emergency, reject outside interference, promote peaceful coexistence among residents, respect property rights, repatriate displaced persons, rehabilitate infrastructure, and respect all faiths and traditions.

Leaders formed two joint commissions – one to oversee law enforcement, another to supervise social and economic rehabilitation. The government offered 100 billion rupiah (about $10 million) to assist with resettlement and reconstruction – and deployed an additional two army and two Brimob battalions (about 4,000 troops) to the area. The security forces carried out sweeps to disarm militias from both communities. Disgruntled militants bombed four Protestant churches in Palu, the provincial capital, on December 31 in an apparent attempt to undermine the agreement.

Abu Dujana, another Afghanistan veteran and former instructor at the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Camp Abu Bakar in Mindanao, the Philippines, assumed Jemaah Islamiyah leadership after the October 2002 Bali bombings. Faced with the wave of arrests, he regrouped and reorganized Jemaah Islamiyah elements on Java and turned their efforts toward the Central Sulawesi conflict. His militants brought high-powered firearms and bomb-making skills to the conflict, causing another upsurge in violence in 2003.

Operating from a training camp near Ampana, on the coast northeast of Poso, Jemaah Islamiyah fighters mounted a series of bomb attacks and assassinations of Christian leaders, local officials and police, along with robberies to raise funds. The Central Sulawesi campaign allowed Jemaah Islamiyah to expand recruitment to around 900 members. Essentially, the group abandoned al-Qaeda doctrine for a pan-Islamic state and became a domestic terrorist organization. Surviving members in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines were still in hiding. An estimated two dozen group members, including Bali bomb-maker Dulmatin, had taken refuge in Mindanao with the MILF. [9]

After three years of bombings, drive-by assassinations and gruesome beheadings, including the notorious murder of three Christian schoolgirls in October 2005, [10] after repeated delays, on September 22, 2006 the government executed Fabianus Tibo and his two accomplices. The case had received widespread media coverage. There were questions about the trial’s fairness. The Pope had written a letter to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono requesting clemency, but the executions helped clear the way to execute the Bali bombers. The day after the executions, Christians killed two Muslim fishmongers in a village south of Poso. A bomb went off a week later at a Poso church; soldiers triggered a riot after allegedly goading the crowd to attack the police as they responded. More bombings took place on government buildings and Christian targets in Poso during the October Ramadan period. [11] Thousands of police were deployed to protect Poso churches during the 2006 Christmas holiday.

The American-trained and equipped Police Special Detachment 88 (Densus 88) anti-terrorist squad made several raids in Poso during January 2007. The sweeps followed months of unsuccessful negotiations local Muslim leaders. The militants were offered amnesty, cash payments and vocational training in exchange for renouncing violence. The police even brought in Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) Commander Muhammad Rizieq to help persuade them to surrender. [12] While Rizieq was not successful, the drama illustrated the connection between the police and the FPI gang, which for years had extorted protection money and smashed bars and nightclubs in Jakarta that refused to pay for protection.

On January 11, Densus 88 members moved into Poso’s Tanah Runtuh neighborhood, a known jihadist hotbed. The commandos killed two Jemaah Islamiyah militants, arrested six and seized a large haul of weapons, ammunition and home-made bombs. Enraged residents beat a policeman to death later that evening. On January 22, during a larger operation in the same neighborhood, Densus 88, reinforced by Brimob troops, engaged in an all-day shootout with militants, who had moved in to defend the community. At day’s end, one policeman and fourteen militants were dead and some two dozen arrested, while the most-wanted escaped. Muslims charged Densus 88 used excessive force in the unnecessarily brutal operation. They claimed police executed a student from the local pesantren while in custody. [13] The police operation effectively brought the religious conflict in Central Sulawesi to an end despite sporadic incidents and a residual terrorist presence in the region.

[1] Lorraine V. Aragon, “Communal Violence in Poso, Central Sulawesi: Where People Eat Fish and Fish Eat People” (Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, Indonesia, Volume 72, October 2001), pp. 60-63.

[2] Interview with Governor Zainal Palaguna, February 2000.

[3] Aragon, “Communal Violence in Poso,” pp. 64-66.

[4] Ibid, pp. 66-70.

[5] Interview with Central Sulawesi Police Chief Colonel Soeroso, August 2000.

[6] Dwikarna’s Laskar Jundullah should not to be confused with a group by the same name based in Surakarta, Central Java.

[7] Ken Conboy, The Second Front: Inside Asia’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Network, (Jakarta: Equinox, 2006), pp. 99-100.

[8] Aragon, “Communal Violence in Poso,” pp. 70-73.

[9] International Crisis Group, “Jihadism in Indonesia: Poso on the Edge” (Brussels: ICG, Asia Report No 127, January 27, 2007), pp. 3-7, and International Crisis Group, “Indonesia: Jemaah Islamiyah’s Current Status” (Brussels: ICG, Update Briefing, May 3, 2007), pp. 3-4.

[10] During December 2007, the South Jakarta District Court sentenced ten Islamic militants to terms of ten to nineteen years in prison for murdering the schoolgirls, a Christian priest and several other deadly attacks.

[11] International Crisis Group, “Jihadism in Indonesia: Poso on the Edge,” pp. 11-12.

[12] Ibid, p. 15.

[13] Salim Said, Legitimizing Military Rule: Indonesian Armed Forces Ideology, 1958-2000 (Jakarta: Pustaka Sinar Harapan, 2006), pp. 1-2.

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