Lecture and Seminar at the Institute of Aboriginal
Studies and Research at Macquarie University in Sydney on
May 2, 2000:
THE TRAGEDY OF MALUKU
by George J. Aditjondro, Ph.D.
(Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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,
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.
(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
(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
(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
(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,
(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.
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squad: the anthropology of state terror. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 158-188.
---------------- (2000b). "The political economy of
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Chauvel, Richard (1990). Nationalists, soldiers and
separatists: the Ambonese islands from colonialism to revolt
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Cohen, Margot (1995). "Long road home: MOluccan exiles
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