"Misdeeds by security forces alone are not responsible for the tragic outbreak of communal violence in the region, but it is imperative that the government set the record straight," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. There are claims that some soldiers have supplied weapons and bullets to combatants on the side they happen to favor, and accounts that some army and mobile brigade police officers have taken sides during clashes. Indonesian human rights groups have reported that at least some of the allegations are credible.
For the past year, sectarian conflict in the region has been fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories. "In many cases, allegations of bias by security forces undoubtedly are ill-founded, but a full accounting is needed to distinguish rumor from fact and to bring to justice security forces found to have abetted the conflict," said Saunders. "Government inaction on the claims only adds to the groups' mutual distrust of the government and increases the likelihood of further vigilantism."
Almost exactly a year ago, on January 19, 1999, as Muslims around the world were celebrating the end of the fasting month, a fight broke out on the island of Ambon, in Maluku province, Indonesia, between a Christian public transport driver and a Muslim youth. Such fights were commonplace, but this one escalated into a virtual war between Christians and Muslims. Although the communities had coexisted for centuries, tensions had been building for decades as a result of the decline of traditional authority structures, the influx of migrants, the "greening" or perceived Islamization of the central government and civil service, and, finally, the outbreak of communal violence elsewhere in Indonesia in the aftermath of the fall of strongman President Soeharto in May 1998.
Throughout 1999, the conflict continued, spreading to neighboring islands. In late December, a new spate of violent clashes was triggered following what appears to have been a routine traffic accident in Ambon in which the driver was Christian and the injured bicyclist a Muslim. According to Indonesian government figures, over 1,300 people have been killed since the violence began a year ago, more than 500 in the last two weeks alone. Medecins Sans Frontiers reports that more than 100,000 people have been displaced by the conflict within the Maluku region and
that at least another 80,000 have fled to the neighboring Sulawesi island group. There have been reports that security forces have used unwarranted lethal force to quell the violence and claims that outside provocateurs have instigated violence. As with earlier clashes, however, the reliability of reports from the region have been very difficult to judge, with Christian and Muslim sources providing vastly different accounts of what has transpired.
Human Rights Watch also stressed recommendations it has previously made to the Indonesian government in connection with the communal violence in the region, none of which have yet been adequately implemented:
1. Ensure that security forces assigned to Maluku are fully equipped with non-lethal methods of crowd control.
2. Make absolutely clear in all public pronouncements and interviews that both Christians and Muslims have suffered terrible losses. There has been a distressing tendency in both the Indonesian and international media to quote sources from only one side of the conflict. That reporting feeds back into the communal tensions, helping fuel one side's anger against the other.
3. Find and prosecute any provocateurs.
4. Undertake a thorough and impartial study of the underlying political, economic, and demographic causes of tension and prepare recommendations on how to address them that can be discussed and debated in the region.
5. Ensure that international humanitarian organizations are allowed full access to assist the wounded and displaced and ensure that existing supplies are safely and impartially distributed.
6. Ensure that the rights of internally displaced people in the region are fully protected in accordance with "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement" prepared by the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations.
For further information:
Joe Saunders 212 216 1207
Mike Jendrzejczyk 202 612 4341
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