Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi May be Primed to Explode

Intelligence

reports in Indonesia and Australia are signaling that murderous sectarian

violence is about to return to the Poso area of central Sulawesi

by such fundamentalist organizations as Jemaah Islamiah.

Last week,

claiming information that militants blamed for the deadly series of bombings in

Bali and Jakarta over the past several years could

be in advanced stages of planning Poso attacks, Canberra

warned Australian nationals to avoid all travel to Central

Sulawesi. Similar warnings are in effect for the US and New Zealand.

However, although

local officials have warned of rising tension, the central government in Jakarta appears hamstrung

by a weak anti-terror law and is under pressure from Islamic leaders in the

capital to tread warily. There is also concern that Indonesia’s security forces are not

taking the threat seriously enough.

For instance,

on Feb 10, the provincial police chief revealed that his forces have been on

top alert status since early January ‑ despite the fact that a day earlier the

national police chief, General Sutanto, announced that additional police

deployed there earlier would be withdrawn.

A December

2001 peace agreement brokered by Vice President Yusuf Kalla, who was former President

Megawati Sukarnoputri's Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare, brought an

end to a two-year sectarian conflict that had killed almost 1,000 people in clashes

between Muslims and Christians. Despite

the commitment by the two warring parties in Poso to end the violence, continuing

tensions and inter-religious fighting flared up after a year or so of relative

peace.

A

crackdown by police last month led to a bloody clash with suspected Muslim

militants in which 15 people died, including a policeman. More suspected Islamic militants were

arrested but police warned that several more, including JI ringleaders, had

probably fled to Java.

The

crackdown, although backed by some senior Muslim leaders in Jakarta,

sparked controversy, with police coming

under fire for alleged human rights abuses. The raids netted five members of a

group believed responsible for several attacks, including the bombing of a

crowded market in the majority-Christian town of Tentena in May 2005 that killed 20, and the

beheadings of three Christian schoolgirls in Poso in October of the same year.

The

suspects, currently awaiting trial in a Jakarta

court, have told investigators that indoctrination lessons given to them by JI

operatives in Poso in 2003 were calling for a a holy war against infidels.

Jakarta denies that Islamic militants are involved in Central

Sulawesi, pointing the finger instead at Poso's criminal underground,

claiming religious conflict fits their need to protect networks of crime and

corruption by diverting the attention of security forces.

Government

corruption also exacerbates the problem. Local officials are thought to have

siphoned off much of the humanitarian aid funds Jakarta sent for renovation of schools and

churches in some of the worst hit areas.

Thousands of homes, school and churches were destroyed when JI, Laskar

Jihad and Laskar Jundullah swept through Christian villages in Sulawesi in 2001 armed with rocket launchers and machine

guns.

Laskar

Jihad was formed in 2000 as a paramilitary group to defend Muslims against

Christians. It is alleged to have the backing of rogue elements of the

military. The group's leader, Jafar Umar Thalib, laces his sermons on fundamentalism

with nationalism and opposition to any breakup of the republic, a message with

broad appeal in the armed forces.

The

current situation may signify something more sinister than localized conflict,

however. The former chief of the National Intelligence Agency, A.M.

Hendropriyono, has warned that the underground militia movement in Poso must be

eliminated. Human rights groups claim that military reinforcements cannot bring

a halt to the bloodshed because the security forces themselves are linked to

the violence and conflict.

Ignoring

widespread demands by NGOs and community organizations for a joint

investigative task force to root out the masterminds behind the violence, Jakarta opted for a

military solution in 2006. A new security task force, known by the unwieldy

acronym Koopskam (Komando Operasi Keamanan), was set up in January 2006 with a

six-month mandate to maintain security. The mandate was not extended and most

of the troops returned to barracks.

Tensions with

Christians in the area were heightened when the “Poso Three” were executed two

months after Koopskam was disbanded. The three Catholics, Fabianus Tibo,

Marinus Riwu, and Dominggus da Silva, were convicted in 2001 of orchestrating

the murders of at least 200 local Muslims, including a machete and gun assault

on an Islamic school.

Following

the executions, two Muslims were kidnapped and murdered and a Christian

minister was shot dead in broad daylight. A Muslim adult and his child died

after being caught in crossfire during a police raid on a suspected terrorist

hideout.

Under

Megawati the military were first given a formal role in Poso’s security

following earlier claims that terrorist groups with international links were

already in the troubled province. Ever since, coordination between the military

and the police has been far from what was expected, and even Air Chief Marshall

Djoko Suyanto, the current TNI commander, has conceded that deployment of

troops is no guarantee the conflict will end.