Descent into lawlessness
January 23, 1999

The Sydney Morning Herald

Louise Williams

The airport was closed, the port deserted, and people cowered in their homes or sought shelter at military or police posts. On the streets of Ambon this week the mobs were in control, the rule of law suspended, with power in the hands of those who brandished machetes, spears, knives and clubs.

For almost three days anarchy prevailed on the tiny Indonesian island, where the world's spice traders once converged in search of nutmeg and cloves, and both Muslim mosques and Protestant and Catholic churches were built in harmony, just back from the white sand beaches and the pristine coral reefs.

Traditionally, Ambon has been held up by the Indonesian Government as a symbol of religious tolerance. However, the bloody riots which engulfed the island from Tuesday night pitted mobs of Christians against their Muslims neighbours.

Officials said yesterday that 24 had died and more than 100 were seriously injured, some hacked to death by rival gangs, some shot by the hundreds of troops flown in to regain control.

The city itself lay in ruins, mosques and churches torched, thousands of homes, shops, banks, cars, motor cycles and pedicabs burned or vandalised in the rampage.

The riots in Ambon this week may represent another miserable chapter in Indonesia's slide into lawlessness. The unrest also raises vital questions about the Indonesian military's ability, or willingness, to maintain stability, and the weakening hold of both the central Government and local administrations over an increasingly rebellious population.

"The people are asking whether the Indonesian military still has the ability and commitment to protect and secure the nation" said an editorial in yesterday's Media Indonesia. "What happened in Ambon will not be resolved in a matter of days, but could spread to other parts of the country.

"In the past the hot spots were identifiable, but now they are anywhere, they could be near you, and they could explode at anytime - in the jungle, the hinterlands or even Jakarta."

Next week students, who suspended protests for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, are promising to be back on the streets of Jakarta, and political analysts are predicting escalating unrest in the lead-up to the elections in June.

The armed forces - 520,000 strong in a nation of over 200 million - have acknowledged they are seriously stretched, and this week began recruiting a controversial civilian militia of 40,000 young men.

With two weeks training, for a payment of 100,000 rupiah ($20), thousands of young unemployed men are being readied to assist security forces, in an exercise human rights groups have warned will only worsen the chaos.

In November a civilian militia force established to help secure Jakarta was accused of using sharpened bamboo poles to intimidate the crowds, and four recruits were beaten to death by angry mobs.

The religious nature of the conflict in Ambon is also disturbing, raising fears of reprisals. Indonesia is a majority Muslim nation, but a myriad of ethnic, cultural and religious divisions lie just below the surface and may be manipulated in the political jostling ahead of the elections.

"I think anarchy is already occurring everywhere, even in Jakarta," a military analyst, Dr Kusanto Anggoro, said.

"Now people think they can do what they want, because the Habibi Government is suffering from a credibility crisis, so are the provincial administrations, and the links between the two are weakening. At the same time there is factionalism within the military and no-one is fully in charge."

Another analyst said there was no doubt that Indonesia's power structure was fragmenting. "This is a political transition period occurring at a time of grave economic problems and without a succession mechanism set in place by former president Soeharto," he said.

"The harbingers of doom predicted this. The state isn't strong enough to enforce law and order; the state isn't respected; the state doesn't defend the people's right, and the people are unhappy so they are taking the law into their own hands."

The Army chief of staff, General Subagyo, denied the armed forces would be unable to maintain control, saying the military was prepared to face a "difficult situation" and could maximise its network and personnel.

However, one diplomatic source said the overstretched military could only hold three cities on the main island of Java at the same time if riots broke out in a number of centres.

Another problem, military analysts said, was the crisis of moral and the factionalism within the armed forces itself.

The military, which enjoyed substantial political power and access to business opportunities under the Soeharto regime, has been under immense pressure with accusations of serious human rights abuses, and is the target of student demonstrations calling for the armed forces to withdraw from politics.

The military is also suspected of being part of the problem, as are members of the political elite. Dr Kusanto said: "The military was under pressure to get out of politics, and then you have all these riots which could be used to justify the military's role.

"At the same time the present political elite could be trying to use the unrest to delay the elections and stay in power."