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Indonesia: The Search for Peace in Maluku


The fighting that broke out between Christians and Muslims in Ambon, the capital of Indonesia’s Maluku province, on 19 January 1999 triggered a virtual civil war that soon spread to other parts of the province. At least 5,000 people (perhaps as many as 10,000) have been killed and close to 700,000 – almost one-third of the population of 2.1 million – became refugees. Peace has yet to be achieved although violence has declined sharply during the last year. Refugees are beginning to return to predominantly Muslim North Maluku (which was separated from the old Maluku province in September 1999) but tensions remain high in Ambon and surrounding islands that are the core of the new Maluku province.

During the initial phase, each side inflicted heavy casualties. But in mid-2000 there was a qualitative change when a Java-based fundamentalist Islamic militia, Laskar Jihad, responding to the perception that Muslims were getting the worst of it, sent several thousand fighters to Ambon. They had received basic military training from a small group of sympathetic officers within the Indonesian National Military (TNI – Tentara Nasional Indonesia) and were supplied with modern weapons after their arrival in Maluku.

Supported by elements in the security forces, the Laskar Jihad put the Christian militias on the defensive, inflicted casualties on the Christian community and forced thousands of Christians to flee, causing the national government to impose a civil emergency in the two Maluku provinces in June 2000. Although Muslim offensives continued, by early 2001 the level of violence was declining and most of the population had been partitioned into Christian and Muslim zones.

The security forces failed dismally to contain the conflict during the first eighteen months partly because they were hamstrung by the competing sympathies many Christian and Muslim personnel felt for co-religionists. After the introduction of the civil emergency, however, the military adopted a new strategy involving establishment of a Joint Battalion (Yon Gab – Batalyon Gabungan), a centralised mobile reserve drawn from elite forces of the three services that could be sent quickly to conflict areas. In a context where Muslim militias – backed by Laskar Jihad and some military and police personnel – were gaining ground, the Yon Gab found itself usually confronting Muslim forces and soon gained a pro-Christian reputation.

The Yon Gab appears to have contributed to the decline in fighting but credible allegations about the brutality of some of its members besmirched its reputation and aggravated Muslim antagonism. In November 2001 it was withdrawn and replaced by army special forces (Kopassus).

In contrast to North Maluku and the southeast part of the Maluku province, shootings and bomb explosions continue on Ambon and nearby islands although attacks on Christian villages and direct armed confrontations are now rare. Laskar Jihad is less openly involved in launching direct attacks on Christians and seems to be concentrating more on religious and social-welfare activities in Maluku although it continues to provide military training and has sent fighters to Poso in South Sulawesi.

Laskar Jihad and another, smaller and more secretive, Muslim militia, the Laskar Mujahidin, have been suspected of links to terrorist organisations outside Indonesia including Al-Qaeda though ICG has found no strong evidence suggesting a significant foreign connection to the troubles in Maluku. In addition, military and police deserters – Christian and Muslim – appear to be involved in occasional attacks. On the Christian side, youth gangs are ready to retaliate if the violence rises. Local speculation suggests that some elements in the security forces tolerate, or even support, a low level of continuing violence in order to induce property-owners to pay protection money. Continuing emergency conditions also give security personnel other lucrative opportunities.

During the last year there have been signs that at least some Muslims are losing enthusiasm for Laskar Jihad. In the past Maluku’s Muslims have not been especially attracted to “fundamentalist” movements, and most do not identify closely with Laskar Jihad. However, many are grateful for its role in fending off Christian militias. Muslims lack confidence in the security forces to maintain order and fear that Laskar Jihad’s withdrawal would leave them vulnerable to revenge attacks. However, Christian leaders see its presence as the key obstacle to a more permanent peace.

An effective peace agreement still seems far off in Ambon where Muslim leaders and Laskar Jihad are convinced that the Christian side started the fighting and demand that its leaders apologise on behalf of their community and the brains behind the conflict be prosecuted. Christians are equally convinced that Muslims started the conflict. They also have only limited confidence in the TNI’s capacity to protect them.

The government’s main priority is to ensure that large scale fighting does not resume. To preserve the present “peace”, it is essential that the security forces behave in a professional and neutral manner. In Maluku, however, the reality is that local forces, both the military and especially the police, are highly vulnerable to “contamination”, partisan alignment with their own religious community. Although Yon Gab contributed to the decline in violence during 2001, its brutal excesses alienated Muslims. The force that replaced it has yet to win the confidence of both communities.

In North Maluku return to “normalcy” is much more advanced, partly because the Muslim majority is too large to feel threatened politically. Although some of the worst massacres took place on Halmahera in North Maluku, it is now increasingly possible for refugees to return. The security forces are needed to prevent revenge attacks but it is hoped that a “natural” reconciliation process can take place.

In Maluku, especially Ambon, government and military emphasise that reconciliation should not be “forced” and should proceed “naturally”. This means the partition of Ambon and other regions into Christian and Muslim zones will not be ended soon. But the longer partition lasts, the harder reconciliation will be. Meanwhile, limited steps have been taken to provide more opportunities for the communities to meet naturally such as establishment of markets in “neutral” areas of Ambon where Christian and Muslims can intermingle. The Baku Bae (reconciliation) movement has sponsored informal meetings between leaders. However, these initiatives are still in early stages, and there is no expectation that natural reconciliation will be achieved quickly.

In January 2002, the national government persuaded leaders of both communities to participate in a peace conference the following month but the gap between the sides remains wide, and the search for peace is far from over.



1. Use elite forces from outside Maluku to keep peace as local forces are inevitably vulnerable to partisan involvement.

2. While emphasising reconciliation where possible (North Maluku), give priority in Ambon to apprehending those responsible for shootings and bombing designed to maintain tension and provoke retaliatory violence.

3. Overcome divisions between Muslim and Christian officers before giving the police heavy responsibilities.

4. Avoid behaviour that makes an ultimate settlement more difficult, e.g., by not treating combatants as “enemies” to be killed and by acting strongly against personnel who commit or condone human rights abuses.

5. Combat the practice among security forces of condoning low-level violence in order to extract protection money by both taking firm action against offenders and ultimately raising salaries.

6. Take more intensive steps to recover military weapons held by both Muslims and Christians and to prevent the import of modern arms to the Maluku region.


7. Ensure that the security forces are able to guarantee the safety of Muslims in Maluku, especially Ambon, before disarming Laskar Jihad.

8. Take measures to prevent intimidation by Laskar Jihad of Muslims who seek a modus vivendi with the Christian community.

9. Intensify intelligence operations to identify the membership of the Laskar Mujahidin and its possible links with international terrorist organisations.


10. Reconstitute the justice system as a priority, including a functioning police force, provision of judges, prosecutors and court staff, and protection of those involved with cases related to the communal conflict.

11. While recognising that the law must be upheld, give precedence to the peace and reconciliation process when considering whether to bring specific prosecutions in a context where violence has been perpetrated by people who believe they acted justifiably to defend their community.


12. Continue to devote resources to helping the more than half a million refugees from the conflict and seek additional foreign support.

13. Emphasise forward-looking measures rather than determination of the “truth” about the conflict’s beginnings through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Maluku that would be counter-productive at this stage.

14. Encourage private efforts for “natural” reconciliation such as those taken by Baku Bae.

Jakarta/Brussels, 8 February 2002


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