By: Our Correspondent

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deployed there earlier would be withdrawn.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.

 

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