Notes from the Field

Deadly Clan Violence Shocks Remote Community in Indonesia

February 22, 2012

In a remote corner of the sprawling Indonesian archipelago, a community is tearing itself apart. On the night of February 11, residents from Pelauw village on Haruku Island in the eastern province of Maluku, turned on their neighbors, hurling homemade bombs and setting hundreds of houses on fire in what was apparently a premeditated attack.

Burned houses in Haruku

Figures state that nearly some 402 houses, or about a third of the remote village of Pelauw village were razed in recent clan violence.

My colleague Budhy Munawar Rachman and I arrived just days after the turmoil, accompanied by a local peacebuilding activist. Walking through the skeletons of buildings, as locals quietly sifted through the detritus, was a sobering experience. A woman, comforted by two of her friends, stopped to shelter her face as she broke into tears. Goats lazily picked through the rubble, avoiding the small fires smoldering among the ruins. Bored Brimob (Mobile Brigade) officers strolled along the road leading out of town, large automatic weapons casually slung over their shoulders.

Official figures state some 402 houses, or about a third of the village, were razed, killing six and seriously injuring 24 more. The conflict has displaced some 4,400 people, most of whom lost their homes, though many also left fearing further violence.

Budhy is an Islamic scholar with many years of experience engaging with issues of pluralism and tolerance in Indonesia. He has worked with The Asia Foundation for almost a decade, and over the past few years has supported local partners in Maluku to find solutions to local problems. Budhy and I had been attending a peacebuilding event in the nearby provincial capital of Ambon, and were quickly asked to travel to Pelauw to try to gain a greater understanding of the conflict.

Most people we encountered were outwardly warm and friendly, but an uneasy tension hung in the air. We spoke to one resident, standing on the seared foundations of his home, who said his family lost everything apart from the few items they could grab as they headed out the door. He was incredibly composed as he surveyed the bleak scene, but revealed a degree of pessimism about authorities’ ability to deal with the crisis. “As Indonesians, we have to be patient,” he said.

The village is only an hour by boat from Ambon, but aid has been slow to trickle in. Coverage of the events in Pelauw has been sparse in the national media. In the major cities of Java, this is an inexplicable community conflict in a faraway province. The local district head has made three visits to the village since the conflict, providing basic essentials such as towels, blankets, and staple foods, but government agencies have yet to respond. Schools are due to open again this week, but as so many students have lost all their books, it will be a long road to normality.

As is often the case in Maluku, getting to the bottom of what caused rumbling tensions to erupt into violence is frustratingly complex. Multiple layers of historical, communal, and religious factors, compounded by rumors and the cynical manipulation of facts by those seeking to profit from conflict, can all contribute to violence.

The villages of Haruku – and indeed much of Maluku – are split into “kingdoms,” with divisions based largely on religion. These Christian-Muslim distinctions are partly a legacy of Dutch colonialism, and have become entrenched in the wake of the brutal sectarian conflict that swept through the region from 1999 to 2002.

During those turbulent years after the fall of Suharto, Maluku experienced some of the worst communal violence Indonesia has ever seen. After several years of relative calm, latent tensions spilled over into overt violence last September, and there have been a number of outbreaks of conflict since. This violence has continued to be polarized largely along Christian-Muslim lines, though many disputes also occur within these communities. Difference is part of life in Indonesia. What people seem to have difficulty explaining, however, is why in Maluku differences devolve so rapidly into violence.

Sitting in his sweaty office off the side of a sad and dusty local elections hall, Ali Latuconsina, the village secretary, offered us his version of the events in Palauw. The conflict, he said, was based on a longstanding quarrel between muka (front) and belakang (back) residents, all of whom are Muslims, over the date of the Islamic New Year.

Part of what makes the Pelauw violence so mystifying is that both muka and belakang groups defer to the same local religious leader and worship side by side at the village’s only mosque each Friday. The date of the Islamic New Year might seem trivial, but it can take on additional relevance due to the role it plays in determining dates for other local cultural rituals and celebrations. Hitching a ride out of town on the back of a motorcycle, the driver’s swift acceleration as we passed through the belakang area of the village was one of the few hints of the lingering fear and suspicion that exists between the two groups.

Abidin Wakano, a lecturer at the Ambon State Islamic Institute, suggested the recent adoption of a hard-line form of Islam by the belakang group may have contributed to the violence. He also pointed to the importance of political factors: Islamic elites from Pelauw have traditionally enjoyed a privileged position in Maluku politics, and three of the candidates for the upcoming elections for district head come from the region.

Regardless, there is a strong sense that recovery in Pelauw will not come easily. In an environment where such disputes can boil over into violent intra-community conflict, grassroots reconciliation efforts are vitally needed. The Asia Foundation and its local partners are working and exploring ways to address the deep fissures in Maluku society. Addressing police capacity and implementing civic values education programs in local schools are central components of the Foundation’s approach. But Pelauw is still in shock, the events of February 11 too raw. Attending to the needs of the displaced, while providing security for those who remain, are vital early steps before the hard work of reconciliation can begin.

*Editor’s note: this version has been edited slightly from the original.

Tim Mann is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Indonesia office. He can be reached at tmann@tafindo.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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3 comments on this post:

  1. One is inclined to look for economic conflicts to explain the animosity.

  2. What is the difference between muslim and christian? the blood are red. The different among people or a little people is desire of power that mass mobilisation.

  3. I think the conflict on maluku may be caused by elite incompetently to manage the conflict.

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