Falling Apart?

That's the fear over Indonesia, where ethnic violence continues to wash across islands wracked by independence fervor and ruled by inept leaders. East Timor is only the first spark in a succession of hotspots: Aceh, Ambon and Papua. No wonder the world worries that the largest Muslim nation might fragment into pieces like Yugoslavia

By Ron Gluckman/in Jakarta

A PEBBLE IN HIS SHOE. That’s how Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas once termed East Timor.

 Since Jakarta annexed the former Portuguese colony in 1976, international condemnation and a costly military occupation have been about the only legacy of Jakarta’s rule. But if Alatas and the rest of Indonesia’s ruling elite do manage to shake the East Timor stone from their shoe, there appears to be no shortage of sharp pebbles around the fracturing Indonesian state to replace it.

Even as fresh violence flared in East Timor this week, several long-term Indonesian insurrections smoldered away from the international spotlight. Rebel leaders on several islands, encouraged by Timor’s referendum, are pressing their own autonomy demands with renewed vigor. As ethnic violence flares in islands where Muslims and Christians have cohabited for centuries, many fear that the world’s fourth most populous country is in danger of dissolving into chaos.

"The nightmare scenario is that Indonesia goes up in flames and fragments like Yugoslavia," says one western diplomat in Jakarta. "If the world thought Yugoslavia was a problem, they haven’t seen anything yet," adds another.


Indeed, despite many differences, the comparison is apt. Both countries were cobbled together in the aftermath of World War II.

Indonesia was a shaky coalition from the start. Various bits and pieces preferred to go their own way. Many initially chose an association with the Dutch who colonized most of present Indonesia hundreds of years ago.

"The difference, though, is that Indonesia moved to form a very strong central government," says Dr. Kusnanto Anggoro, senior researcher at Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. "As a result, none of these places can really succeed on their own. They just don’t have the expertise or human resources."

There is also an obvious difference of scale. When Yugoslavia fell apart, modern armies faced off with tanks and missiles. In Indonesia, wars continue to be fought much as they have for centuries: with spears and bows and arrows.


That’s the case in Aceh, where the feared warriors of North Sumatra held off the Dutch, British and Portuguese from the 17th century onwards. The Dutch finally wrested nominal control of the province, but only after nearly half a century of constant combat.

Acehenese have long resented the way revenue from this oil and mineral-rich province flowed to Java, a smaller island, but home to the capital Jakarta and 40 percent of Indonesia’s population. Independence was proclaimed in Aceh in 1976, and the fighting turned fierce soon after. The bloodletting grew most severe by 1989, when the government poured in troops and declared Aceh a "military operations area" or DOM, the initials in Indonesian.

"During the first four years of the DOM period, military abuses were massive, with well over 1,000 people killed, tortured, or disappeared," says a monitor with Human Rights Watch Asia.

Even the government eventually acknowledged the abuses. Last year, the fighting finally stopped after armed forces commander Gen. Wiranto made an unprecedented public apology to the Achenese people.

For a time, it seemed, real reconciliation was possible. That hope died earlier this year when fighting began with new ferocity. In July, more than 70 people died in what eyewitnesses called a military massacre. Over 100,000 people have since been reduced to refugee status by the raging bloodshed.

Many believe the government and military are sending a firm signal that there will be no more public referendums. "The Achenese need to understand that Aceh is not East Timor," notes presidential spokeswoman Dewi Fortuna Anwar. "Aceh is Indonesian, and that’s that."

Actually, few class Aceh in the same category as East Timor. The latter claimed a culture and Catholic faith inherited from the Portuguese that contrasted greatly with the rest of Indonesia. Aceh, the westernmost part of the Dutch East Indies, was integral to the Indonesian nationalist movement from the beginning. Despite centuries of struggle in Aceh, there has never emerged the cohesive leadership that developed in East Timor. Most importantly, Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor was never recognized by the international community.


Another hotpot is the former Spice Islands, where violence flared anew Wednesday, with at least four people killed in religious clashes in Saparua, Central Maluka and Ambon. Six more were reported injured.

Ambon emerged as an unexpected trouble spot last year. Houses burned as neighbors attacked each other with spears and machetes, ending centuries of peaceful coexistence between the Muslims, who live mainly in the north, and the Christian population, which dominates the 150 islands in the South Moluccas.

The area was briefly independent following the departure of the Dutch after World War II, and the proclamation of the Republic of the South Moluccas in 1950. Almost 100,000 islanders fled an Indonesian invasion the following year, establishing a government in exile in Holland that continues to this day. While Timor and Aceh were still unknown causes in the late 1970s, Moluccan rebels grabbed international attention with a series of train hijackings that branded them as terrorists. Things had been quiet in the area, now known as the Maluka islands, until an unexpected explosion of violence last year.

"The experts are baffled," admits Sandra Moniagra, deputy director of the Elsam, a national human rights group. Founded in 1993, Elsam focused on the six most critical areas in the archipelago. As a measure of its apparent tranquility, Ambon wasn’t even on the list.

But the peace ended last year, and Elsam is active in the islands. "In my opinion, Ambon was one of the most peaceful places in the world. Nobody saw this coming. The violence there is an indication of the sickness of this nation."

She says decades of economic inequality, corruption and abuse of human rights has created a pressure-cooker effect among the hundreds of ethnic peoples in Indonesia. "The elections helped relieve that pressure," Moniagra says, "but unless there is progress and we move forward, these outbreaks will continue."


Many see more of an East Timor scenario in the status of Irian Jaya. West Papua, as the rebels call their home, is half an island. Papua New Guinea is on the east side. Hundreds of languages are spoken in Irian Jaya, but about 80 per cent of the people are indigenous Papuan and Melanesians.

Many here want a new referendum. The first was held in 1969. Irian Jaya joined Indonesia after a group of appointed delegates approved the action without public consultation. Since then, a rag-tag guerrilla army reappears from time to time, mainly making news after kidnapping tourists or disrupting the world’s largest copper mine, which they say they never wanted.


The government hopes to quiet some of this discontent with a new formula for sharing revenues. The design is to return more money to the province that generates it. This should please other grumbling areas like Kalimantan, which has ample resources but a poorly developed infrastructure. Riau, one of Indonesia’s 13,000 islands, produces nearly half the nation’s output of oil, worth about $10 billion a year.

"This is not about money," insists Sandra Moniaga, deputy director of Elsam, a national human rights group. "The real concerns are human rights, an end to the torture and the repression." She says the solutions are complex and time consuming, but must start with one basic step. "Remove the military."

Unfortunately for Indonesia’s numerous areas of oppression, this is not the best time for a government showdown with the generals, who have long claimed power in Indonesian politics. Elections in June produced no clear winner, and candidates are busy mustering support for the presidential selection in November. The military commands a large voting block in that congress.

"These problems must be solved, but they won’t be solved soon," sighs Dr. Anggoro. "You will never have a strong government here while the military is involved in politics. But in Indonesia right now, you still cannot have a strong government without the military."

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as MSNBC, which dispatched him to the troubled Indonesian islands in the run-up to the East Timor independence vote in 1999

The picture on this page is by David Paul Morris, a frequent companion and ace photographer. For more of Morris' work, go to his web site at www.davidpaulmorris.com

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