Breakdown: Four years of communal violence in central Sulawesi


On December 24, 1998, a young Protestant in the town of Poso in Central Sulawesi province, Indonesia, stabbed a Muslim in the arm. Fighting broke out around town, and a spiral of violence was unleashed. The Poso region proved fertile ground for communal violence: underlying economic, ethnic, and religious tensions were soon compounded by the actions of political rivals, some of whom encouraged and exploited the violence.

Over the next four years, Muslim and Christian groups mounted extended attacks on opposing neighborhoods and villages. For most of that time there was no effective response from authorities. Although it is difficult to determine the precise scope of the violence, it has been extensive: the most credible sources estimate that 1,000 people have been killed, with many more injured and one hundred thousand displaced.

This report provides a comprehensive account of the violence, culled from eyewitness interviews and data compiled by local organizations. It analyzes the Indonesian government's response and the reasons violence has continued to erupt periodically in Poso for four years running. Although the violence reflects social tensions, the fact that it has persisted for so long with such a high human toll is a product of systemic government failure, both local and national. According to many residents, an effective and unbiased deployment of police or military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI), supported by a justice system that could hold perpetrators individually accountable, could have ended the problem when it began in 1998.

Residents of Poso allege that, in many cases, cycles of recrimination and revenge have been fueled by local or outside provocateurs, and conspiracy theories are rife. Although provocation has played a role in other incidents of unrest in Indonesia and there are signs of such efforts in Poso, this report does not attempt to address all such claims, many of which are based more on speculation than evidence. As noted below, it is clear that, whatever the merits of such claims, authorities have had the capacity to take decisive action to stop the violence and have failed to do so.

In several different cases, highlighted below, eyewitness observers report that when security forces were deployed and acted professionally, outbreaks of violence were sometimes halted in a matter of hours. Other attacks were allowed to proceed over the course of several days. In some cases, when the police or military did act, they exacerbated conditions by firing on protestors or committing human rights violations as a form of retaliation, a frequent phenomenon in conflict areas in Indonesia. Only a handful of people were prosecuted for violent crimes, with sentencing often inconsistent. Many of the worst crimes have gone unpunished, and several subsequent outbreaks were explicitly linked to frustration over the lack of arrests for prior violence.

Conflicts eventually broke out in more than half of Poso's subdistricts. As the conflict escalated, the number and sophistication of weapons increased and the death toll grew higher, creating new ranks of aggrieved victims seeking revenge in the absence of justice. The failure of the government to protect citizens also gave credibility to hard-liners on both sides and facilitated the arrival of the radical Muslim group Laskar Jihad, based hundreds of miles away on Java.

There has been a great deal made of the role of Laskar Jihad in exacerbating conflicts in Maluku1 and elsewhere, and our research confirms that Laskar Jihad's presence helped fuel conflict in Poso. As Muslim leaders told us, however, Laskar Jihad had this effect in part because local Muslim communities had lost all faith in the security forces and saw Laskar Jihad's presence as instrumental to their security. As this report was being finalized, Laskar Jihad announced it was disbanding and that members in Poso would soon leave the region.

Central Sulawesi has also gained attention recently as the site of a possible al-Qaeda training center. Although this report summarizes the information that others have gathered, Human Rights Watch did not research the question and came across no firsthand evidence on the subject during the course of our research in Poso. The role of underground international Islamist networks in Indonesia clearly merits attention, as the October 12 bombing in Bali that killed some 180 people tragically demonstrates. It is important, however, that such analysis does not obscure the factors responsible for conflicts such as Poso. As in Maluku, the conflict in Poso reflects local and domestic Indonesian political dynamics that would exist with or without outside agitators, let alone an international terrorist training center. Indeed, the causal arrow may point in the opposite direction: the chaos that destroyed so many lives in Poso is the very environment that groups such as al-Qaeda seek out as bases for their operations.

This report begins with an overview of the religious, political, and economic roots of the conflict. Religion became the predominant idiom of the conflict, yet participants recognized and were eager to emphasize to Human Rights Watch that many other factors have been at play. Significantly, Poso has long had a religious mix, with indigenous and migrant Muslim populations, as well as locally rooted Protestant and Catholic communities. Relations among these different communities were relatively peaceful in the years prior to 1998. As in Maluku, however, the nearly even split of Poso's population between Muslims and Christians meant that violent cleavages, once they emerged, could be expected to persist absent decisive intervention by security authorities.

As in other areas in Indonesia, the power vacuum created by the resignation of Soeharto in May 1998 opened the doors to new, often unruly social forces. More than three decades of militarism and authoritarian rule had left civilian institutions discredited and in disarray, and had made military and police institutions fundamentally suspect in the minds of many local inhabitants. Local political battles also fueled the conflict. In a number of cases, noted below, outbreaks of violence were directly connected to competition for local political office and the accompanying economic spoils. The Poso conflict was also exacerbated when it became a national issue, and partisans, in particular members of Laskar Jihad, came to Poso for reasons having more to do with national than local political dynamics.

After providing an overview of the context, the report offers a chronological account of the violence. Largely following the framework used by local residents when describing the Poso conflict, this report divides the conflict into five phases: outbreak (December 1998), intensification of Muslim attacks (April 16, 2000 to May 3, 2000), counterattacks by Christian communities (May 23, 2000 to July 2000), displacement and destruction (June to December 2001), and the Malino peace process and its sometimes violent aftermath (January 2002 to the present). As the first three phases have been covered elsewhere,2 this report focuses on the last two.

In the first two phases, urban Muslim migrants and their rural allies in villages along the coast dominated. There were fewer fatalities than in later phases, but many neighborhoods were badly damaged. While the third phase saw casualties on both sides, it was largely a vendetta by Protestants and a few Catholic migrants, and Muslim casualties were particularly high.

Many local sources describe the fourth phase as having begun in June 2001 with a new wave of house burnings, a massacre of Muslim women and children, and numerous clashes. The arrival of Laskar Jihad in July 2001 and the widespread destruction of villages that followed eventually prompted intervention by Jakarta.

In December 2001, representatives of the two sides signed a declaration in the hill town of Malino in South Sulawesi. Unlike previous attempts, the declaration was more than a pro forma handshake agreement by traditional leaders carrying out instructions from above. More than ever before, the national government in Jakarta put its substantial resources and political clout behind crucial provisions such as rehabilitating thousands of burned homes. The declaration was still criticized by some as top-down and pre-ordained, with local and

provincial figures merely ratifying plans that were already in place. The declaration also skirted two crucial questions: the removal of fighters from outside the area and accountability for acts of violence. Despite these defects, many on both sides were ready to work with even a flawed declaration in order to end the violence. Conflict fell dramatically after the signing, with the worrying exception of several bombings and other incidents of violence.

At this writing, it was unclear whether peace truly would take hold. Beginning in June 2002, bombings and mysterious shootings were again on the rise, and August and September saw the return of attacks on villages.

The continuing conflict in Poso is significant in its own right due to the widespread loss of life and displacement, especially as it is often overshadowed by the even deadlier conflict in neighboring Maluku. But Poso also serves as a case study and a cautionary tale for other conflict zones in Indonesia. A more decisive and unbiased Indonesian government response, aided by the international community, is imperative.


To the Government of Indonesia

1. Support the Malino Declaration through competent and impartial investigation and prosecution of the violence in Poso, with prompt and effective responses to any new incidents. Law enforcement must be ongoing, not tied to limited phases or operations, and include more than the confiscation of weapons. The Malino process and NGO conflict-resolution programs can only succeed if the necessary conditions are in place for investigating and prosecuting crimes and ensuring the security of the civilian population.

2. Establish an impartial, independent investigation of all past serious incidents, such as the July 3, 2001 killings at Buyung Katedo and the November 2001 attacks that leveled villages in Poso Pesisir subdistrict. While it would be practically impossible to examine every incident, an effective inquiry would reduce some of the outstanding grievances and show that both sides share responsibility for the violence and have suffered as a result. This recommendation underscores the importance of restoring the National Human Rights Commission as an effective body.

3. Prosecute all military and police personnel implicated in human rights violations and report publicly on the outcomes. Greater transparency in the legal processes of both civilians and security forces would go a long way to reassure residents that accusations of bias and abuse in the behavior of security forces are taken seriously, and may help deter future rights violations.

4. Ensure that the rights of internally displaced people are fully protected in accordance with "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement" prepared by the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations. Allow full access by international and national NGOs that provide aid impartially to all displaced persons in need.

5. The National Assembly should conduct an inquiry into the lessons of Poso (and other areas where similar conflicts have occurred) that can be applied to resolving future conflicts including:

  • effective civilian oversight and accountability mechanisms to address human rights abuses and bias
  • the role of the criminal justice system in addressing impunity
  • coordination between civilian authorities, police, and military
  1. Ensure that security forces respect the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers and the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. Of particular importance is the principle that "Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result." Police officers active in Poso and other conflict areas should receive training in these principles.

To the International community

1. Maintain pressure on the Indonesian government for civilian oversight and accountability for security forces. The Indonesian military should not be permitted to use the war on terrorism as an excuse to avoid implementing the reforms necessary to be a professional and unbiased force capable of protecting human rights when called upon.

2. Foreign organizations and governments must recognize that both sides have suffered and that the roots of the conflict are complex. Laskar Jihad, foreign Christian organizations, and some journalists have characterized the problem as a one-dimensional or even one-sided religious war, a misconception that hampers reconciliation and efforts to address underlying causes. Governments concerned with terrorism and Muslim-Christian violence should not address the Poso conflict in ways that oversimplify the problem or aggravate perceptions of bias.

3. Ensure that all aid is distributed equitably and impartially. It is especially important that oversight eliminates the opportunities for corruption that may make continued conflict a source of economic benefit to any parties.

1 In the Maluku islands communal violence also raged for four years between Muslims and Christians, with at least five thousand deaths and massive displacements. As in Poso, the violence began with a street fight, fed on underlying political and economic tensions, and unfolded amidst widespread rumors of provocation. See Human Rights Watch/Asia, "The Violence in Ambon," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 11, no. 1, March 1999; and International Crisis Group, "The Search for Peace in Maluku," February 8, 2002.

2 Lorraine V. Aragon, "Communal Violence in Poso, Central Sulawesi: Where People Eat Fish and Fish Eat People," Indonesia 72 (October 2001), pp. 45-78; David Rohde, "Indonesia Unraveling?" Foreign Affairs July-August, 2001.

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