Indonesia: Tearing a nation apart

In November 1998, two hundred Christian gang members retreated to Ambon after losing a turf war in Jakarta’s notorious Ketapang casino district. The conflict in South Maluku had begun in earnest. Rival Christian and Muslim gangs started to organise in church halls and mosques. The Christian ‘Reds’ – named after their red bandannas – and the Muslim ‘Whites’ confronted each other on the streets. The red-and-white of the Indonesian national flag was symbolically torn down the middle.

The World Today
Published 1 March 2000 Updated 27 October 2020 6 minute READ

Peter Carey

Laithwaite Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, Trinity College, Oxford

Now, over a year on, the impact of the continuing communal violence in Maluku is reaching to the very heart of Indonesian politics. There is even talk of a creeping military coup against the democratically elected government of President Abdurrahman Wahid and Vice-President Megawati Sukarno-putri. Richard Holbrooke, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, has spoken of a ‘great drama between the forces of democracy and reform and the forces of backward-looking corruption and militarism’.

The anti-Chinese riots that accompanied the downfall of the Suharto regime in May 1998, showed just what Indonesian military hard-liners were capable of. Today, the same components are in place. Economically and politically, Indonesia is still vulnerable to the stupidity and ruthlessness of the army dinosaurs.

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