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History of prejudice ignites modern Indonesian conflict

  • 20 February 2008
The United Nations observes that half of all countries that emerge from violent conflict relapse within five years. Violent conflict doesn't arise without a history. In countries where conflict has engaged the average citizen along religious or ethnic lines, it is a history of prejudice that has been ignited. While long-term peace strategies must involve a range of government and non-government players, the role of civil society in overcoming prejudice cannot be ignored.

This is certainly true of the conflict that began just over seven years ago in the Maluku Islands, Indonesia. While ultimately emerging along religious lines, its origins were fueled by a combination of economic, political and religious factors.

This became increasingly apparent during my conversations with locals. Fatima has no idea why the conflict started. Living in a Muslim village surrounded by Christian villages, she cannot articulate what provoked a conflict where the estimation of deaths is up to 10,000 people over three years. In her village, there were two deaths and a number of injuries but they were lucky to escape the burnings and wide-scale killings that occurred in other villages.

For Fatima, knowing the 'why' of the conflict doesn't matter. What matters is not having to flee the village again. 'We don't want the conflict to return, we just want to be safe. If there are issues, gossips that scare us, we will be afraid.'

Unfortunately for Fatima, 'issues and gossips' can be commonplace in a multi-ethnic or multi-religious setting. Sunit explains how, in his village, rumours created panic in what was previously a stable community. 'The rumours spread rapidly saying there was a big conflict. Actually there was no big conflict, just one incident where one person was killed.' Yet as a result, most of the village fled to the jungle for months before daring to return.

In contrast, when the rumours started in Josa's village, the leadership got together to address how they would dispel the rising level of panic. Josa's village had a strong relationship with its Christian neighbours that prevented conflict occurring among them, even though it raged around them. In an agreement between four villages, three Christian and one a mix of Christian and Muslim, regular meetings between the village heads, the Imam and Christian leadership, maintained peace.

As the conflict in the region heightened, the local Muslims in Josa's village inhabited the churches and the Christians inhabited the