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History of prejudice ignites modern Indonesian conflict

MalukuThe 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.'

Maluku 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 mosque to prevent the buildings from being bombed and to send a clear message to protagonists that violence and provocation would not be tolerated. It was a bold move in a conflict where others had been slain as 'traitors' for supporting their religious brothers and sisters.

Maluku Not wanting conflict to re-occur is not enough to prevent it. In conflicts such as the one in Maluku — where ordinary people bombed, burnt, threatened and killed each other, with no subsequent criminal proceedings — building a peaceful society is a challenge.

For sustainable peace, political and economic strategies must sit alongside understanding and healing. To prevent conflict relapse, village leaders need to foster a relationship that enables clear communication to dispel rumours and address early signs of conflict, as occurred in Josa's village. In 2004, when conflict in Ambon was in danger of recurring, one local peace-building network used SMS to inform Muslim and Christian youth of conflict hotspots and safe passages to travel. Such networks seem an effective method of dispelling myths of violence and updating communities on action being taken to address the conflict.

Still, prejudice is difficult to overcome. Seven years after conflict hit her village, forcing her to live in the jungle for weeks without access to safe supplies of food and water, Tamika admits she remains prejudiced against her Muslim neighbours. Despite having regular contact with other Muslims, including a few close friends, she is not sure about Muslims beyond her immediate circle. Tamika's suspicion is a common representation of how prejudice can linger in communities and create fuel for future conflicts.

Yet, interestingly, of the 30 individuals interviewed for this story, most indicated that their national identity was more important than any division in religion. Despite the suspicion that might still exist seven years after the beginning of the conflict, the superordinate identity of nationalism may well be the hope for building relationships and overcoming perceived divisions of faith in this post-conflict environment. For in the end 'I am Muslim, you are Christian, but we are all Indonesians'.

Caz ColemanCaz Coleman works with the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project and is studying a Masters at Monash University looking at prejudice reduction as a tool to sustainable peace.
Images: Caz Coleman.




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Existing comments

Caz Coleman has provided a clear insight into how prejudice operates in a foreign country and how it lingers in a community for many years. Perhaps she could investigate how prejudice operates in Australia, in particular in the dept of immigration for instance, towards aborigines. There are a number of groups in our own country one could name. I first became aware of this prejudice when as an injured worker, i was, with others setting up injured workers support groups to provide mutual support as debate and abuse poured from every corner on to those injured people. Eventually the abuse subsided and then returned to attack another group. My observation is that, in Australia at least, prejudice attacks a weak and vulnerable, either of our own people or sometimes foreigners. I am pleased to see somebody is attempting to study this question as i believe it is a dark stain on our Aussie character.

Kevin Vaughan | 20 February 2008  

I endorse what the author of this report says about the endemic nature of prejudice. I lived in an Islamic village in Java, and worshipped in a Catholic community. Each of these groups had reasonable working relations with each other - except that the power relationship was totally unequal, Catholics being unable to build a church, for instance.

A very few, usually on the lower side of the equation, tried to address the underlying prejudice. The vast majority of citizens on either side had deep, unexamined and unquestioning reservations or resentments of their "opposites". Most of the Catholics I spoke to had nothing good to say about their Muslim neighbours. It seemed to be only their numerical insignificance that kept the peace, although Catholics have disproportionate power in business, the media and other sectors.

Pat Mahony | 14 April 2008