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Ambon rioting leaves 100 dead in Indonesia
By Gadis Mardai
30 January 1999
Rioting by Christian and Muslim gangs on the Indonesian island
of Ambon over the last week has left at least 100 people dead
and 140 injured according to local aid groups. Thousands of riot
police and troops have been deployed to the islands of Ambon,
Sanana and Seram in the Maluku province of Indonesia, located
about 2,300 kilometres east of Jakarta. Major General Amir Sembiring
last Saturday ordered troops to shoot on sight anyone carrying
weapons and refusing to surrender them.
The violence was sparked by an incident on January 19 between
people from the Muslim village of Batumerah and the neighboring
Christian-dominated village of Mardika. Clashes spread rapidly
to other parts of the island and to nearby islands as rival gangs
armed with machetes and knives roamed the streets, established
roadblocks, stopped and searched vehicles and set fire to vehicles
In Ambon city, the provincial capital of Maluku, both Christian
churches and mosques were burnt down along with hundreds of houses,
banks, shops, stalls, vehicles and government buildings. Around
20,000 people were forced to flee their homes and take refuge
in military headquarters, houses of worship and other facilities.
On Sanana Island, about 300 kilometres northwest of Ambon,
two people burned to death. A nighttime curfew was imposed after
the burning down of two churches and houses owned by local Christians.
The attack was an angry response to the burning of a mosque in
Many of the victims on Ambon, a predominantly Christian island,
are reportedly Muslims. In one incident, five Muslim men were
hacked to death and their bodies burnt after their vehicle was
stopped at a Christian roadblock. In an attack by Muslim gangs
on the village of Telagakodok, as many as 40 Christians may have
been killed. A number of houses and buildings were burnt down.
The official death toll, which only includes corpses brought
to hospitals, has now reached 60. Many more bodies may have been
dumped in the sea or rivers, or burnt. "The number of victims
may possibly increase, as the apparatus are still tracking and
looking for possible victims in other riot locations," the
Maluku Regional Police Chief Colonel Karyono pointed out. According
to the Ambon main hospital, the injuries were the result of stabbing,
beating, and being trapped in burning buildings.
Behind the widespread riots in many parts of Indonesia are
the tensions produced by the economic collapse in Indonesia. A
recent World Bank report attempted to minimise the social impact
of Indonesia's economic and financial crisis, saying poverty levels
had risen from 11 percent to only 14-16 percent. But according
to a statement by Social Affairs Minister Justika Baharsjah in
mid-January, the number of Indonesians living in poverty is 130
million, or more than 60 percent of the total population of 206
In a Reuters interview, Daniel Sparingga, an Airlangga
University lecturer, said, "We are heading for a very bad
situation. Now you don't need any political or ideological reason
to make the people angry and turn destructive. The people are
suffering from the economic crisis and they feel there is no light
at the end of the tunnel. The violence in part reflects the people's
broken hopes that the reform era will change their situation,
but their demands have not been met. They [the politicians] operate
in an atmosphere of hostility and distrust, jockeying for power
On Ambon tensions have been further heightened by the murder
of a number of Ambonese men by Muslim mobs in central Jakarta
in mid-November. But in a number of cases, on Ambon and elsewhere,
there is evidence that the social crisis is being exploited by
elements of the military, religious leaders and right-wing groups
to deliberately foment racial and religious conflict.
Opposition leader Amien Rais, chairman of the Islamic National
Mandate Party (PAN), claimed there were "forces" trying
to cancel the national elections by provoking incidents and thus
open the opportunity for the military to take over. Rais accused
supporters of former president Suharto and his family of instigating
The Habibie regime has used the rioting on Ambon to form closer
ties with Rais, Megawati Sukarnoputri and other opposition leaders.
General Wiranto, the Defence Minister and Armed Forces (ABRI)
chief, met with opposition figures in Jakarta last Monday. The
following day Megawati called for an end to the fighting and backed
a military investigation of the incidents.
The close ties between these so-called opposition figures and
the present military-backed regime was shown most graphically
by the decision of opposition leader Abdurrahman Wahid, head of
the largest Islamic group Nahdatul Ulama (NU), to celebrate the
end of the fasting period with Suharto and his children, Tutut,
Bambang, Titiek, Tommy and Mamiek, at the Suharto's residence.
He called on Suharto to apologise for the sorrow that he has caused
to the Indonesian masses.
At the same time, the military commanders are using the rioting
as the pretext for building up their own forces. Training is about
to begin of a 12,000-strong civilian militia in 14 military centres
across Jakarta. The recruits, aged between 18 and 45, will be
paid 100,000 rupiah for two weeks training and 200,000 rupiah
a month thereafter--a wage higher than many Indonesian workers.
The militia, armed with shields and sharpened bamboo sticks, will
be used against rioters and, as occurred last November in Jakarta,
The recent riots in Maluku province are not isolated incidents.
At least seven other outbreaks took place in Cirebon, a city on
the north coast of West Java. Two people were injured, three houses
burned down and 100 people are seeking refuge at a local mosque.
In Tegal, on the north coast of Central Java, the house of
the village chief was burned down. In Pemalang, about 30 kilometres
from Tegal, a village hall, a healthcare centre, a mosque and
an elementary school were destroyed in a clash between two villages
over a rumours that a man had been tortured to death.
Four residents of Parit Setia village, in West Kalimantan about
900 kilometres north of Jakarta, were killed and one other seriously
injured in a clash with a neighbouring village of Rambaian. The
incident was apparently triggered by an attack on a suspected
thief who was caught by Parit Setia villagers.
Another fight broke out in Tabang district of North Sulawesi,
leaving at least six people injured, nine houses burned down and
another 18 houses badly damaged.
In Bojonegoro, hundreds of pedicab drivers attacked a local
police station in search of a policeman who allegedly beat one
of their colleagues. They burned a police vehicle and besieged
the police station, blocking the main highway with their pedicabs.
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Indonesian regime resorts to brutal police measures
[19 December 1998]
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