Foreigners Flee Indonesian Spice Islands
January 22, 1999


Lewa Pardomuan

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Terrified foreigners fled Indonesia's spice islands Friday after Muslim-Christian fighting killed at least 43 people and highlighted religious tensions threatening to tear the nation apart.

The 40 mostly American and British Bible translators flew into the northern Australian city of Darwin, saying the violence on the island of Ambon, 2,300 km (1,440 miles) east of Jakarta, had made it too dangerous to stay.

``There was rioting, there was burning, there was looting. People died,'' one told Australian Broadcasting Corp television. ''We decided it was best to get out...while we still could.''

In Jakarta, President B.J. Habibie pleaded for unity.

``It is very important to keep unity in this reform era,'' he told reporters. ``We must not fall into the trap of rumors that could pit one race, religion and ethnic group against another.

``God willing, this incident could serve as a lesson to increase our awareness, not our prejudice.''

Armed forces chief General Wiranto and police chief Lieutenant-General Roesmanhadi flew to Ambon to meet local leaders and bring food supplies for 3,000 residents still sheltering in police and military compounds.

Police say 43 people died and dozens were seriously wounded over the past week in the bloodiest violence since May riots in Jakarta killed almost 1,200 people and helped force autocratic President Suharto from power.

Several mosques and churches and almost 100 homes were torched in Ambon and neighboring islands in the Moluccas after fighting began when a drunken man tried to extort money from a bus driver.

Television reports said the flag of the separatist Republic of South Moluccas was raised in the rioting. Police denied this.

The mainly Christian city of Ambon was quiet Friday. A curfew is in place and provincial military chief Major-General Amir Sembiring appealed to religious leaders to maintain calm.

Muslims held Friday prayers in mosques under tight security.

``The situation here is like after a war,'' Reverend Frans Luthermas told Reuters by telephone from Ambon. ``Ambon is very tense can see people brandishing spears and daggers.''

Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation, but there are millions of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.

Ethnic and religious tensions suppressed during Suharto's harsh 32-year rule have bubbled to the surface as the country grapples with political and economic turmoil and the military and police struggle to maintain order.

Despite sometimes violent protests seeking political reform and the economic meltdown that has thrown millions into poverty, some analysts and commentators say religious friction is the greatest threat confronting Indonesia.

``Of all the tensions that arose as a consequence of so many competing claims after the downfall of the Suharto regime, religious strife may be said to constitute one of the gravest dangers to the cohesion of the Indonesian state,'' Friday's English-language Indonesian Observer said in an editorial.

``The tragedy of Ambon may well further the spread and penetration of the disintegration process.''

Catholic sociologist Father Franz Magnis Suseno told Reuters the image of religious harmony during Suharto's rule was a sham.

``The situation is very worrying -- if it can happen in the Moluccas, is could happen anywhere.''

Abdurraham Wahid, who leads Indonesia's largest Muslim group, said people had lost respect for the military and Habibie's eight-month-old government.

``What starts as an insignificant misunderstanding can flare into bloody clashes. The situation is quite acute because people have become so easily agitated,'' he said.

Concerns over the violence in Ambon and sporadic clashes around the country sent shivers through the foreign exchange market Friday, sending the rupiah tumbling toward 9,000 to the dollar compared with 8,600/8,700 on late Thursday.

The stock market is closed until Monday.

The official Antara news agency also said Friday a youth died when small-scale rioting hit two central Java towns Wednesday and Thursday.