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June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Editorial: Stop The Mayhem
Wahid must do that in Ambon, before it's too late

Pity Saleh Latuconsina, governor of Indonesia's Maluku province. For 17 of his 30 months in office, Christians and Muslims in Ambon have been at each other's throats. Jakarta and the army failed to end the violence. And, inspired by thoughts of glorious martyrdom, a 2,000-strong "delegation" from Java's Laskar Jihad has turned up, packing automatic weapons. Last week, as the militants turned their guns on Christians, Latuconsina sought a graceful exit from his job. Said he: "It's been two-and-a-half years, but it feels like 100." It is time that President Abdurrahman Wahid seriously tackled the escalating mayhem in Ambon - before it spirals completely out of control.

In Indonesia, chaos is a trusted political tool. When, after four centuries of peaceful coexistence, Ambonese Christians and Muslims began an internecine war early last year, officials saw the hand of allies of ex-president Suharto. Others accused the army of provoking violence. Yet the apparent trigger for the conflict, which has claimed about 3,000 lives, was a dispute between a Christian bus driver and a Muslim passenger. Riots have since flared intermittently, with increasingly sophisticated arms being used. Christians and Muslims have divided Ambon into armed camps.

Faced with pressing problems, Wahid did not visit Ambon until he had been president for nearly two months. He urged the Ambonese to sort out the problem themselves and asked Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri to oversee progress. Meantime, while army and police ranks have been bolstered, a tenth of the 2-million population have lost their homes. Last month aid workers and diplomats flew out, unable to continue their work safely, and the new province of North Maluku is quickly being drawn into the mess.

The emotional flames were irresponsibly fanned in Jakarta when Amien Rais, head of the People's Consultative Assembly, led rallies there by claiming Islam was under threat. But while his "eye-for-an-eye" rhetoric alienated many, he made an important point: government leaders must take responsibility for what is going on. Killings in Ambon are reported but go unheeded - as if the nation has decided the fire will eventually burn itself out. That's a dangerous assumption. As president, Wahid must take the lead on problems that seem unsolvable. Because if no one does, unsolvable they will remain.

Wahid should have heard the wake-up call when his orders to prevent the Laskar Jihad from reaching Ambon were ignored. His army strategic reserve chief just shrugged, claiming there was no proof the Muslim force was making the situation worse. As ultimate commander of the military (which he has not entirely domesticated), Wahid must now move decisively and evenhandedly to disarm the antagonists. He must send the jihad opportunists home and generate a lasting peace. Or the little war with no name may turn into a larger test of the country's hard-won democracy. And Wahid's Indonesia may not pass.


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