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Lecture and Seminar at the Institute of Aboriginal Studies and Research at Macquarie University in Sydney on May 2, 2000:


by George J. Aditjondro, Ph.D.
(Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Newcastle)

THE orgy of violence in Timor Lorosa'e (East Timor), last year, has reminded the world of the plight of the Melanesian peoples who live west of the 141st Meridian East. The standard belief is that a third of the pre-invasion 600,000 East Timorese people have died during the Indonesian occupation.

This is, unfortunately, only one part of the plight of the Western Melanesian, or "Indo-Melanesian" peoples who have lived under the wings of the Republic of Indonesia. Or, are still living under the Indonesian colonial yoke, which consist of three other groups, namely (a) the West Papuan people who inhabit the western half of the island of New Guinea, which consists of abour 240 ethno-linguistic groups; (b). the Maluku (Moluccan) people, who inhabit the more or less thousand islands of Maluku (Moluccas), west of New Guinea, among whom there are distinctions between North Maluku, South Maluku, and Southeast Maluku; and (c). the Eastern Nusa Tenggara people, who inhabit the western part of the island of Timor and the adjacent island groups of Flores, Sumba, and the smaller islands off Flores, such as the traditional whaling island of Lembata.

Public knowledge of the plight of these Indo-Melanesian peoples is very limited, in Indonesia as well as abroad, for the following reasons. Firstly, according to standard anthropological knowledge, Melanesia (= the islands, or archipelago of the black-skinned peoples) end at the western tip of the island New Guinea. Secondly, the international community of nation-states, as represented by the United Nations, has only supported Timor Lorosa'e's claim to nationhood and had never accepted Indonesia's annexation of the former Portuguese colony. On the other hand, the annexation of West Papua by Indonesia in 1963 has been 'legalized' by the UN General Assembly when on September 21, 1962, it recognized the results of the so-called 'Act of Free Choice' in West Papua a month earlier.

The third reason is that the international community has religiously clung to two myths about the Indonesian nation-state. Firstly, the myth that Indonesia is the legitimate 'successor state' of the Dutch East Indies colony, and secondly, the myth that the Indonesian people -- with the exception of the Chinese ethnic minority -- is a homogenous nation, like Japan, for instance.

The first myth is supported by many Indonesian citizens as well as all nations which consists predominantly of people of European descent. Rejecting this 'successor state' myth may force many nation-states in the world to reject their own post-colonial boundaries, which may consequently force them to recognize the pre-invasion boundaries of all the indigenous political entities which have been brushed over by the European settlers and their descendants.

The irony of this 'successor state' myth is that many post-colonial nation-state in Asia and Latin America have broken down the existing colonial boundaries. Spain's American colonies do not consist of a single state with its capital somewhere in Bogota, but consists of dozens of independent yet Spanish-speaking (not Mayan or Incan speaking, sic!) nation-states.

Likewise in Asia, the former British colony of India now consists of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and, lest we forget, Burma. Its British counterpart in Southeast Asia consists of Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam.

In other words, the existence of the archipelagic republic of Indonesia which stretches from Sabang on the northern tip of Sumatra to Merauke near West Papua's border with Papua New Guinea, is certainly not a God given, natural construct. It is a historical construct and most probably, a historical mistake if its defenders are too stubborn to transform it into a more democratic construct, where all the ethno-linguistic groups and 'supra-tribal groups'(1) could live in harmony with each other with none dominating others.

Speaking about 'supra-tribal groups' we are touching on the second myth, namely that Indonesia is a homogenous nation(2), which is certainly incorrect. One can even say that apart from being multi-ethnic, Indonesia is also a multi-racial nation, if we classify the Melanesian peoples as belonging to a different race than the Malays.

Apart from the recent migrations of Arabic, Indian, Chinese and Europeans and whose ancestors have no geographical links with any place within the Nusantara archipelago, the Indonesian peoples basically consist of three 'supra-tribal groups' who migrated to this archipelago hundreds or thousands of years ago.

The first 'supra-tribal group' are the Melanesian peoples, to be followed by Proto-Malay, and finally came Deutero-Malay peoples who linguistically, belong to the Polynesian 'race'. The waves of Malay migrations have pushed the Melanesian people more and more to Eastern Indonesia, from where they eventually migrated to the South Pacific. In Eastern Indonesia itself, inter-marriages of Malay migrants with the indigenous Melanesian peoples have resulted in the Maluku, Flores and Timorese peoples who are lighter skinned with more curly hair than the darker and more frizzy haired Melanesians of New Guinea.

These intermarriages between Malay and Melanesian peoples in Eastern Indonesia have also resulted in Melanesian peoples adopting many Polynesian cultural traits, which have been transferred to the South Pacific. Austronesian languages, is one example, and maritime knowledge -- from canoe building(3), astronomy, navigation, to fishery -- is another. In fact, I believe that it was the adoption of many Polynesian skills that enabled the Melanesian peoples to migrate and settle down in far away archipelagos in the Pacific such as Tahiti.

Unfortunately, while the Melanesian peoples are the oldest, indigenous peoples in Nusantara (4), they are also the most culturally, politically, and economically the most oppressed peoples in this archipelago. This brings me to the focus of my presentation, which is the tragedy of Maluku.


FIRST of all, let me focus on cultural oppression. There is a popular belief among the people of Java and Sumatra, that favours a lighter skin colour. Centuries of European domination, as well as the Indian Ramayana and Mahabharata epics from India, which have been indigenized by the Javanese, are probably the origin of this 'pro-light skin' favouritism, as well as its opposite pair, namely disfavour of dark skins.

In addition to this antipathy to darker skin colour, the Javanese also look down on peoples from the Outer Islands who live more closer to nature, such as the Dayak people of Kalimantan. The term 'ndayak ' in the popular Javanese language practically means 'barbarian'. So, combining these two beliefs, one would certainly not expect much appreciation to the highland or Asmat peoples of West Papua among the Javanese people. Popular jokes are also abundant in Java, about the hair body of the Papuan people (as well as of Caucasoids), or subtle or non-subtle references to apes, which are also darker skinned and hairy.

Religious and historical facts also contribute to the low esteem of many Javanese -- intellectuals included -- for the Melanesians of Maluku and West Papua. Many Ambonese (5) from Maluku were recruited into the Dutch colonial forces, and their role in assisting the Dutch to crush the independence movement in Java and Sumatra had resulted in the negative nickname, "Belanda hitam " or "Londo ireng ", which means, "Black Dutchmen" to those colonial soldiers (6). As in many other stereotypes, the Ambonese were not the only Indonesian ethnic group to join the Dutch colonial army, or KNIL (7). However, prejudice of many elder Indonesians, who had been traumatized by the raids of the indigenous KNIL soldiers during the independence war from 1945 to 1949, seems to last long.

This prejudice against the Ambonese is the strongest among Muslim Javanese and Sumatranese against Christian Ambonese, due to the stereotype that they all joined the Dutch colonial army, KNIL. Like all stereotypes, this is only a half-truth, since the first ethno-linguistic group to rebel and raise arms against the Dutch colonial forces were the Ambonese, under the leadership of Thomas Matulessy, also known by his title, Pattimura, and Christina Martha Tiahohu, who were both Christians.

The prejudice of mainstream Indonesians from Java and Sumatra against the Ambonese was reinforced by the fact that the first 'ethnic' rebellion against the newborn Indonesian Republic also occurred in Ambon, with the declaration of the South Moluccans Republic (Republik Maluku Selatan , or RMS) on April 25, 1950, soon after the Dutch recognition of Indonesia's sovereignty in December 1949. This declaration of Central Moluccan independence was mainly triggered by two factors. First, uncertainties about the demobilization of the former Moluccan soldiers of the colonial army (KNIL), and secondly, the fear of South Maluku -- formerly a district within the East Indonesia state of the short-lived federal structure, the United Indonesian Republic (Republik Indonesia Serikat = RIS).

This second factor was predominantly strong among the Christian-dominated Ambonese elite (civil servants, teachers, and church personnel), who rightfully feared that the Ambonese would become a powerless minority within a Java-centred and Muslim-dominated Indonesian state. However, to avoid being seen as an elite group, the RMS initiators sought the support of the village chiefs (raja), and obtained that support from Ibrahim Ohorella, the Raja of Tulehu, a Muslim village which was also the main source of sago on the island of Ambon. In fact, the entire preparations for the declaration took place in Tulehu, to escape from both Indonesian as well as the remaining Dutch security apparatus' eyes (for the history of the RMS, see Chavel, 1990).

The flames of hatred of the 'Christian Ambonese traitors' is currently being fanned by certain Muslim groups, who have popularised a conspiracy theory that the religious riots in Maluku were initiated by the Moluccan Protestant Church (GPM = Gereja Protestan Maluku), in colaboration with RMS militants from the Netherlands (8) and Megawati Sukarnoputri's Christian-Nationalist party, PDI-P (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia - Perjuangan) (9).


LET us now move on from cultural to economic oppression. While upholding the political structure of Indonesia as a unitarian republic, the late President Sukarno was much willing to accomodate the rebellious regions in Indonesia, after those rebellions had been crushed (10). In the case of Maluku, Sukarno decided to locate certain development projects of national -- or even, international -- in the 'thousand islands' province, namely the Wayame shipyard on Ambon, the Oceanography Research Institute at Poka, Ambon, and the huge sugar mill at Makariki, on Seram. Also, during Sukarno's presidency, several top Ambonese Christian intellectuals raised to national prominence. Indonesia's first research nuclear reactor was named after an Ambonese engineer, Siwabessy (11).

After Sukarno had been topled by Suharto in a military coup, which was followed by a purge of between 500,000 to 2,000,000 suspected Communists and members of the mass organizations of the Indonesian Communist Party, PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia ), the central government's attitude towards Maluku changed radically. One by one, Sukarno's 'prestige projects' in Maluku, as the New Order liked to frame them, were dismantled and re-assembled on Java. The Wayame shipyard was moved to Surabaya, East Java, and became the Navy-controlled shipyard, PT PAL. The Makariki sugar mill was dismantled and re-installed at Jatiroto, also in East Java. Finally, the status of the Oceanography Institute in Ambon was reduced to become simply a station of the Jakarta-based National Oceanography Institute (LON) under the Indonesian Academy of Sciences. Construction of the institute's main laboratory in Ambon, which was previously a Soviet grant project, was discontinued (Aditjondro, 1990).

Next, instead of trying to please the Moluccans, Suharto-linked conglomerates began to feast on Maluku's abundant natural resources. The Banda Sea, abundant with its tuna fish, was at one stage leased out for 25 years to a Japanese fishing cooperative, which after 8 years was discontinued after numerous protests by local fisherfolks, environmentalists, and nationalists, who disagreed with the extent to which the Suharto regime seemed to please the Japanese creditors. This is when the Moluccan intelligentsia began to feel deprived and marginalized, becoming stepchildren of progress, and guests in their own house.

Nascent Moluccan nationalism, or to be more accurate, regionalist feeling began to emerge, and Ambonese intellectuals began to join environmental watchdog groups, after Suharto since 1978 began to push the environmental line to woo young campus radicals away from campus-based and Jakarta-oriented politics.

Unfortunately, what in Jakarta seemed to be well accepted, and was fully endorsed by Suharto's Minister of Environment, Emil Salim, was in the TNI-controlled province the opposite. Academics from the Pattimura University of Ambon, who assisted local villagers to defend their land rights vis-a-vis the powerful Djajanti Group, which was 10% owned by Suharto's cousin, Sudwikatmono, were arrested by the local military officers and accused of being RMS symphatizers (Fakta, July 15, 1988: 44, December 1, 1988: 47).(12)

In addition to the economic exploitation by the Suharto-linked forestry, fishery, cement and sago conglomerates, Maluku's wealth was also syphoned to Jakarta through the corruption of three consecutive military governors from Java (13) and the civil service.

However, corruption on provincial level was basically only the concern of the educated elite in Ambon, especially university-based idealists. What was more of concern to the local, grassroot Ambonese was the massive influx of settlers from other provinces, namely from Java, South Sulawesi, and Southeast Sulawesi. These much more entrepreneurial migrants began to dominate the city life, from the markets to the public transport. In addition, the numerous extractive industries that flourished in South and North Maluku also imported their workforce from Java, Lombok, and South Sulawesi. Consequently, with this massive influx of migrants, the religious balance between Muslims and Christians in Ambon began to tip in favour of Muslims, a powder keg waiting to explode.


FROM the previous description of the cultural and economic oppression in Maluku, one can easily understand that these could only happen under strict military control by Jakarta. Apart from three consecutive governors which were appointed by Jakarta from the army, the Pattimura army command in Maluku was also under tutelage of the Brawijaya command of East Java.

After Suharto was forced to step down by the student movement in Java, which were smartly manipulated by Ret. General Wiranto for his own political agenda, there was also hope for political and economic reform in Maluku. Following the steps of their comrades in Java, student activists in Maluku also became more militant in opposing corruption as well as the military's 'dual function' (dwifungsi) doctrine.

Unfortunately, General Wiranto who had been able to survive the transition from Suharto to Habibie, certainly was not willing to relinquish the military's power, especially with so many business links between military foundations and the Suharto family businesses.

Habibie, whom some expected to be more sensitive to the aspirations of the non-Javanese provinces, basically only catered for the aspirations of his own cronies from South Sulawesi. And, since with Suharto's blessing he had already built his power base among Muslim academics and bureaucrats who had joined his state-sanctioned association, ICMI, Habibie began to fill in as many governmental slots with his Muslim friends and followers.

This seems to be the spark that blew up the powder keg in Ambon, where the Christian intelligentsia began to see themselves as custodians of the grassroot, indigenous Ambonese and blamed their Muslim brothers for simply following the national, Muslim lines.

This conflict can also be seen as a centre-periphery conflict. Or, a conflict between the transformationists and the status quo defenders. The transformationists saw the future of Maluku in a federal Indonesia, with Jakarta devolving power to the states, without the involvement of the military in all walks of life and a return of the control of Maluku's resources to the traditional owners. On the other hand, those who defended the status quo saw that the existing system was already benefitting them and strongly defended the unitarian state and the role of the military in defending such kind of state.

Unfortunately, the first camp was more represented among Christian Moluccan intellectuals and the secular, more environmental and indigenous-rights oriented NGOs, which began to flourish in Maluku during the 15 year reign of Emil Salim as Minister of Environment. While the second camp, which began more vocal during the 15-months Habibie presidency, prefer to use Islamic symbols as their identification marks.

Eventually, when Habibie lost the chance to legitimize his Suharto-derived position in the November 1999 presidential race, and the new president, Abdurrahman Wahid began to indicate his willingness to curtail the power of the military as well as the Suharto oligarchy, disgruntled factions within the military with the financial support of the Suharto oligarchy began to join forces, and calls for a holy war (jihad) between Muslims and Christians in Maluku, as well as the formation of jihad task forces, which were allowed to train openly with swords and in Arabic style dress, became the norm of the day.

At the moment, Maluku is the battleground where forces defending the entrenched military and economic interests in Indonesia are exploiting every single local ethnic and religious issue to delegitimize the current administration of Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri (Aditjondro, 2000b).

In this kind of situation, it could be expected that those who have repeatedly been accused of wanting to separate from the unitarian state of Indonesia, feel themselves being pushed into that corner. Looking at the current development in West Papua, where Tom Beanal, a former board member of the Indonesian Environmental Forum, who had taken the mining giant, Freeport McMoRan to court in the US, is now leading the umbrella group fighting for independence, it would not be surprising if in the near future, more young and old Ambonese are demanding independence from Indonesia.

This has nothing to do with their religion, since many young and old Achehnese, who have become disillusioned with the experience of 50 years joining the Republic of Indonesia, are now loudly calling for a UN-supervised referendum to fulfill their right to self-determination. Nobody can deny the strong Islamic belief of the Achehnese people. Neither can one deny the fact that many Riau intellectuals, who are now calling for an independent state, are practicing Muslims and therefore are disillusioned to see their natural resources enriching foreign multinationals and the Jakarta elite, while most of Riau's villagers are still living below the poverty line.

It is, on the contrary, the intolerance of the central government to respect the federalistic aspirations in Maluku, and even more so it is the intolerance of those who want to repress the deep feeling of dissatisfaction in Maluku by threatening them with a holy war, that is strengthening South Moluccan nationalism.

In other words, the Balkanization of Eastern Indonesia has already began, and increased troop deployments in Maluku as well as the 'religious apartheid' policy of Jakarta, is only a temporary solution, both for Indonesia as a whole as well as for Maluku in particular. A temporary solution, which is shamefully maintained by snipers, who keep shooting innocent victims from both side, each time the Moluccan people got tired of killing each other.

End Notes:

(1). I chose this term to replace the term 'race', which is an incorrect way of distinguishing the different ethnic groups in Indonesia.

(2). I find this myth also embedded by press reports about Indonesian politicians and generals, which state that "most Indonesians have only one name", e.g. Suharto, Wiranto, etc. This statement mystifies the fact that only Javanese of the older generation still use one name, and certainly not all Indonesian ethno-linguistic groups which use their clan name as family name. Even modern day Javanese -- including Suharto and Wiranto's children and grand-children -- are now using family names.

(3). A honours thesis by a former staff person of mine, Abner Korwa, shows how the canoe-building tradition of the Biak descendants on the Raja Ampat Islands, is influenced by canoe building techniques from North Maluku. Also, some maritime vocabulary among the coastal peoples of West Papua is derived from Maluku and even Sulawesi.

(4). Nusantara, which is a Sanskrit-Indonesian word for archipelago, is basically also what Indonesians call the archipelago where they live. It is a more neutral term than Indonesia, which refers more specifically to the political entity which is formally named the Unitarian State of the Republic of Indonesia (Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia ).

(5). The term Ambonese is popularly used for inhabitants of the Central Maluku islands of Ambon, Haruku, Saparua, Nusa Laut, and the big island of Ceram, which is believed to be the place of origins of all the Ambonese people. Hence, Ceram (Seram) is also called 'Nusa Ina', the mother island.

(6). Similar ethnic prejudice based on conflicting roles during colonial eras occur in Burma, with the Burman prejudice against the Christian Karen, who fought with the British colonial troops against the Buddhist Burman. Or in Vietnam, where Hmong hilltribes were used by the US occupation forces to fight the lowland Vietnamese freedom fighters.

(7). Other Indonesian ethnic groups, such as the Javanese and the Batak people from North Sumatra, were also well-represented in the KNIL. For instance, Suharto, Indonesia's second president, was formerly a KNIL sargeant, who moved to the Japanese-sponsored PETA paramilitary forces during the independence war. Or, T.B. Simatupang and A.H. Nasution, two former commanders of the Indonesian army, who did not go through the Japanese PETA period and directly moved into the Indonesian army (TNI).

(8). After the RMS rebellion on Ambon was crushed by TNI troops from Java, many of the former Ambonese KNIL families were evacuated by the Dutch government to the Netherlands, where a strong pro-RMS sentiment is still strong among the Moluccan community of more than 40,000 people (Cohen, 1995). Meanwhile, the remaining RMS (ex-KNIL) troops fled to the interior of Seram, from where they continued a protracted guerilla war against the TNI forces until 1964, when the RMS President, Chris Soumokil, was caught and sentenced to death in Jakarta. Many local villagers in the interior of Seram have a traumatic memory of that 1950-1964 period, when the ongoing protracted war betwen the TNI forces and the RMS guerillas deprived them from their peaceful hunting-gathering-and-rotational gardening lifestyle (see for instance, Wolff & Florey, 1996: 270).

(9). This line of argument, blaming an 'RMS-GPM-PDI Perjuangan conspiracy' for the inter-religious riots which have gone on and off since mid January 1999, and has taken a death toll of more than 3,000 people (AFP, May 1, 2000), is pushed by a retired Moluccan police commander, Brigadier General Rustam Kastor, whose book has been circulating in e-mail form through a dozen Islamic mailing lists, and has also been published in hard copy in Indonesia (see Kantor, 2000). It is also popular among the Muslim groups who oppose President Abdurrahman Wahid's more inclusive religious politics.

(10). In addition to the RMS rebellion in Maluku, the young republic had to deal with a series of rebellions on Java, South Sulawesi, South Kalimantan and Acheh, to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state. This is known as the DI-TII rebellion. Then, in the late 1950's, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported a regional rebellion in North Sulawesi and Sumatra, which was more aimed at a better deal for the regions in sharing regional revenues with Jakarta. This is known as the PRRI-Permesta rebellion.

(11). Sometimes, without bothering its strict economic potentials, Sukarno did indeed attempt to distribute the 'development sweets' strategically to the regions which had been involved in those rebellions. In South Sulawesi, from where Sukarno recruited his Minister of Industry, M. Jusuf, Sukarno built a sugar mill in Bone, a cement factory in Tonasa, a paper mill in Gowa, and developed the harbour of Makassar, which was called Sukarno-Hatta.

(12). This 'scapegoat' politics of labelling dissidents as members or symphatizers of banned political parties or movements, has been a dominant intimidation technique used by the security apparatus during the Suharto era. In Java, the predominant scapegoat was the Communist Party (PKI). Muslim dissidents, all over Indonesia, were often labelled as being members of the Islamic rebellion, DI-TII. In West Papua, dissidents were often labelled as members of the banned Papuan Independence Movement, OPM, and in East Timor, one could easily be labelled as FRETILIN member (Aditjondro, 2000a: 178).

(13). Generals Sumeru, Hasan Slamet, and ... For corruption under Sumeru, see Tempo , June 7, 1975: 22. For corruption under Hasan Slamet, who was also accused of being a womanizer, see report of DPP Angkatan Muda Pattimura to First Lady, Mrs. Tien Soeharto, on September 15, 1980 (copies kept by the author).


Aditjondro, George J. (1990). "Sudah cukup manusiawikah pembangunan Indonesia Timur?" Surya , December 1.

---------------- (2000a). "Ninjas, nanggalas, monuments and Mossad manuals: the anthropology of Indonesian state terror in East Timor." In Jeffrey A. Sluka (ed). Death squad: the anthropology of state terror. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 158-188.

---------------- (2000b). "The political economy of violence in Maluku." Green Left Weekly , March 15.

Chauvel, Richard (1990). Nationalists, soldiers and separatists: the Ambonese islands from colonialism to revolt 1880-1950. Leiden: KITLV Press.

Cohen, Margot (1995). "Long road home: MOluccan exiles trickle back after 40 years." Far Eastern Economic Review , March 30, pp. 22-23.

Kastor, Rustam (2000). Konspirasi politik RMS dan Kristen menghancurkan umat Islam di Ambon, Maluku: mengungkap konflik berdarah antar umat beragama dan suara hati warga Muslim yang teraniaya. Yogyakarta: Wihdah Press.

Wolff, Xenia Y. & Margaret Florey (1996). "Foraging, agricultural, and culinary practices among the Alune of West Seram, with implications for the changing significance of cultivated plants as foodstuffs." In David Mearns & Chris Haley (eds). Remaking Maluku: social transformation in Eastern Indonesia. Special Monograph No. 1, Darwin: Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Territory University.

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