EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Indonesia falls apart?
, August 26, 2000
— Peter Westmore is National President of the National Civic Council
There is growing evidence that despite the peaceful transition from military rule under President Suharto to the civilian government of President Wahid last year, the central government of Indonesia is gradually losing control of a nation beset by economic, religious, ethnic and political tensions.
Since 1998, Indonesia, a country of more than 13,000 islands and hundreds of ethnic groups, has gradually become more unstable, following its first free elections for more than 40 years.
Euphoria at the departure of Suharto has cooled, and the country faces a long, hard climb out of near economic collapse. There have been outbreaks of sustained religious and ethnic violence in different parts of the sprawling archipelago, as well as renewed calls from some areas for independence.
Separatist aspirations in West Papua (formerly known as West Irian) and Aceh, and violence in Ambon and Kalimantan have been fuelled by the end of Indonesian rule in East Timor last November.
Although little reported in the Australian media, West Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), a vast, timber-rich area has recently been the scene of some of the worst ethnic violence, with gangs of indigenous Malays and Dayaks against Muslim settlers from the island of Madura.
An estimated 200 people have died in clashes this year in which Madurese victims were frequently decapitated.
The local authorities have proposed relocating 30,000 Madurese refugees to an island off Borneo, saying it is too dangerous for them to go back to their homes.
In the province of Aceh, at the far west end of the island of Sumatra, a decades-old separatist struggle in this region, deeply stained in blood, manifested itself in a string of violent incidents in the run-up to Indonesia’s June 1999 elections, and popular anger that fuels the separatist campaign remains intense.
Just a fortnight ago, soldiers went on a rampage through a marketplace, killing scores of people after a soldier was killed there. It is estimated that 5,000 people have been killed in the region in the last decade.
Despite negotiations chaired by Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri, separatist rebels have not withdrawn their demands for independence. The Indonesian Government says independence is not an option; the most they have been offered is limited autonomy.
Since January last year, Ambon, the provincial capital of the spice islands of Moluku, has been the scene of violent clashes between Muslims and Christians. Thousands of people have been reported killed in the violence.
Tensions in the province have been further fuelled by the arrival of Muslims from Java who have declared a “jihad” (holy war) against Christians.
Once in the majority, Christians are now in the minority as a result of Muslim immigration from other parts of the archipelago. The newcomers have come to dominate local commerce and have made inroads into the police and civil service after the appointment of a Muslim Ambonese as governor in the mid-1990s. Tens of thousands of people have fled the violence. In June, the government declared a civil emergency and replaced several army commanders, amid reports that army units were fighting alongside the Muslim warriors.
In West Papua, the fall of President Suharto last year sparked a series of pro-independence demonstrations in which the army shot dead an unknown number of people.
The sparsely populated, but resource-rich province has been a destination for transmigrants from overcrowded parts of Indonesia under an official government programme, and this has led to ethnic tension and disputes over land.
Papuans — increasingly resentful of rule by Jakarta, military abuses, loss of tribal lands and the growing presence of Islam — recently called for full independence, a call rejected by Jakarta.
In response to the accumulating crises, President Wahid recently announced that the running of his government is being handed over to his Vice-President, Megawati Sukarnoputri.
He gave the news a day after being harshly criticised in the Indonesian Parliament, the People’s Consultative Assembly and by the Muslim political parties which put him in power last year.
They said conditions were getting worse in almost all areas — political, social and economic — and the president was mainly to blame.
However, there is no particular reason to believe that with Megawati at the helm, things will get better.
There seems little prospect that the Government will even be able to regain control of units of its own army, which has been an instigator of violence in East Timor, Aceh or the spice islands of Moluku.
One consequence of the terror in East Timor last year, is that the army’s reputation as the guardian of Indonesia’s stability has been effectively destroyed.
For Australia, the developing political crisis in Indonesia is extremely serious. Australia’s long-term interests are served by a stable and prosperous Indonesia.
A breakdown in Indonesia would potentially threaten major trade routes with Asia and Europe, which pass through Indonesian waters, and expose Australia to the possible influx of refugees, such as those who arrived here during the crisis in East Timor.