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Ethnic Cleansing closer than Bali

Ethnic Cleansing closer than Bali
Keith Rankin, 25 October 2002

The Kuta Beach (Bali) bombings are supposed to be of special concern to New Zealanders because they bring terrorism to our back yard (or at least to within 6,500 km of us). Yet arguably the most disturbing ethnic-cum-sectarian conflict of the last three years has been taking place even closer to New Zealand.

It's in Indonesia's far east; Maluku, known in English as the Moluccas, and formerly as the Spice Islands.

The Centre for the Prevention of Genocide ( states: "In three years of violence between Christians and Muslims more than 5,000 people in Moluccas have been killed. More than 500,000 are internally displaced…. Ambon, in the Maluku Province, and Halmahera, in the North Maluku Province, have been particularly hard hit. Since January 1999, violence has "perpetuated itself through a vicious cycle of revenge killings". The religious cleansing propagated by the Laskar Jihad has forced more than 5,800 Christians to convert to Islam and undergo genital mutilation…. The Moluccas, once cited throughout Indonesia as a model for religious tolerance, is currently segregated into Christian and Muslim enclaves."

New Zealanders know nothing of the Moluccas. Even if you asked us to name the top five trouble spots in Indonesia, few would cite Maluku, let alone the large island of Halmahera (equal to the combined size of the Fiji islands) in North Maluku.

Halmahera is a perfectly habitable but very underpopulated island on the Equator (6,000 km from New Zealand), that was effectively placed under the control of the people of the world's most overpopulated island (Java) when Indonesia was formed from a collection of Dutch "East Indies" colonies. That relationship was always going to submerge the distinctly Moluccan identity, and the mainly Christian Moluccans always knew it.

In 1976 and 1977, Moluccan nationalists turned to "terrorism" long ago. Moluccans in Holland (a substantial expatriate group) tried to get the world to notice their plight by hijacking two trains. The hostage dramas were long and drawn out, putting Maluku in the news for perhaps the first time since the heyday of the Dutch spice trade in the 17th century. After the trainjacks we immediately forgot that Maluku ever existed, much as, in 1975, we also ignored East Timor.

It was in 1975 that Indonesia's version of Lebensraum took effect. The migrations of Muslims from other parts of Indonesia to Halmahera commenced on a large scale in the 1990s. By 1999, it only took the wrong rumour to spark many rounds of tit-for-tat killings between Christians and Muslims. The conflict had nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of the two religions. Rather it was a classic conflict for identity and for land.

The Dutch abandoned the people of Maluku in 1949 to a fate that would inevitably be determined by the people of Java. The Moluccans rightly blamed the Dutch, while also seeking their protection from Javan expansion. Maluku simply had the misfortune to have been colonised by the same people who colonised Java.

Had history turned out a little different, New Holland (now Australia) might have also become a part of modern Indonesia.

We know how much Australia fears being overrun by citizens of the overpopulated parts of its Asian neighbours (with the Javan empire of Indonesia being top of the list). The people of Halmahera rightly share the same fears about Javan expansion.

We could have taken more interest in Maluku's plight. As the Centre for the Prevention of Genocide understates: "Unnoticed Massacres Bear More Scrutiny".

© 2002 Keith Rankin

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