Your God Is No Longer Mine:
Moslem-Christian Fratricide in the Central Moluccas (Indonesia) After a Half-Millennium of Tolerant Co-Existence and Ethnic Unity.1

Dr. Dieter Bartels

Introduction: Moslem-Christian Bloodbath at the Turn of the Millennium

Smoke above villageIn the shadow of the recent carnage of the East Timor independence struggle and the equally vicious ongoing battle for Aceh, other parts of Indonesia are torn apart by pernicious strife and the huge and populous island nation is threatened with disintegration. One of the crisis hearths is the eastern island group of Maluku2where there is an ongoing internecine struggle between Moslems and Christians. Some of the most heated clashes have been occurring between Ambonese3 Moslems and Protestant Christians in the Central Moluccas. Beginning on January 19, 1999 Moslems and Christians, seemingly without warning, started to attack one another, burning down each others houses and killing one another in both the provincial capital of Kota Ambon (Ambon City) and villages on the islands of Ambon, Haruku, Saparua, Buru, and Seram. Similar incidents occurred also in the Northern and Southern parts of Maluku involving not only Protestants but also Roman-Catholics. Thus far, the seemingly senseless confrontation, which became known as kerusuhan (unrest), left thousands of people dead and precipitated the devastation of property worth millions of dollars, wiping out much of the economic progress made in the province since Indonesian independence.

The conflict can be divided into two rather distinct phases: Phase I began in January of 1999 and closed at the end of April 2000. This phase was characterized by mutual attacks of native Christians and Moslems using largely primitive home-made weapons and bombs (rakitan). Generally, there was an equilibrium of strength. Phase II, having began in May 2000, is characterized by the massive arrival of non-Ambonese, mostly Javanese, Moslem vigilante group, called Laskar Jihad (“Holy War Forces”). They brought with them sophisticated modern weaponry and allied themselves with the Moslem personnel of the military which constitutes about eighty percent of the troops. These developments totally destroyed the previous balance, tipping the scale in favor of the Moslems.

Destroyed BuildingsFrom the very beginning, provocateurs, often said to be associated with the old Suharto regime, have been blamed for the unrest. The Army also has been accused playing a key role in triggering and fomenting the fratricidal violence in order to destabilize the Indonesian state as a means of restoring its political might and economic interests. Among the accusers is the Moluccan sociologist Tamrin Amrin Tomagola who believes that continuous riots will not only upgrade once again the status of the military, and tighten its territorial grip, but also derange President Abdurrahman Wahid and the National Commission on Human Rights which has implicated five generals, including former military chief and ex-cabinet minister, Wiranto, in the post-ballot atrocities in East Timor. Tomagola goes on to state that violence in Moslem areas triggers solidarity among Moslems and heightens their negative feelings toward the President and the commission (Jakarta Post 02/04/2000).Calls in January 2000 for a Jihad (Holy War) against Moluccan Christians at mass demonstrations in Jakarta and attacks of Moslem youths on Christian churches in Lombok seem to strengthen Tomagola's arguments. The use of automatic weapons in the January 23, 2000 attack by Moslem villagers on their Christian neighbors in the villages of Haruku-Sameth on the island of Haruku further points to military involvement.

On the other hand, President Wahid accused the Dutch-based Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS) exile independence movement of supplying arms through a charitable foundation created by both Christian and Islamic organizations of Moluccans in the Netherlands, Help Ambon in Need (HAIN), which the latter strongly denies. Several defamatory books by Moslem authors were published and are made available in reputable bookstores, claiming that Ambonese Christians are out to exterminate Ambonese Moslems and have separatist ambitions of establishing an independent Christian republic in the Moluccas4 despite there not being a shred of evidence of this. From the very beginning, the church supported the Indonesian unitary state and so did the general Christian public when it became clear that they could continue to vie for the coveted civil servant positions or make a career in the military - just as it had been the ambition of many in Dutch times.

Nevertheless, despite all the provocation and agitation, Moslems and Christians in the Central Moluccas seemed to tire of the conflict and a slow and somewhat shaky but steady process of normalization of their relations took place in March and April, 2000.5 This process came to an abrupt halt in May with the aforementioned arrival of the Laskar Jihad which been had preparing in Java for a “holy war” against Ambonese Christians there since April. Ostensibly they were coming to Ambon to help with social welfare (tujuan sosial), despite having earlier declared openly that their goal was the liberation of Ambonese Moslems from Christians.
True to their original intentions, they almost immediately engaged in armed assaults on the Christian community. The onslaught accelerated in the last third of June when the attacks were executed with full support of a large part of the military which were leading the assaults.6

Thus, the second phase of the strife is marked by non-Moluccans systematically and wantonly subjecting Christian districts of Ambon City and Christian villages elsewhere on the island to superior firepower while the Christians still largely rely on self-made weapons to defend themselves. The unevenness makes any resistence futile and many Christians have lost hope. It appears doubtful that these attacks are condoned by most native Moslems and the evidence seems to point to oppression, even terrorization, of native Moslems by the Laskar Jihad. More and more Christians are convinced that the goal of the Laskar Jihad is not merely the extermination of Ambonese Christians but of all ethnic Moluccans. In June and July it appeared to be a systematic attempt of ethnic cleansing of the Christian population,7 leading to desperate calls for U.N. intervention or arm shipments from the West.8

Burning BuidingsPhase II of the conflict clearly plays on the national level and almost completely has lost its local dimension although it may have rather drastic effects on the future of Moluccan society. Since this phase is still developing, it would be premature to come to firm conclusions. Here I am strictly interested in the local aspects of the conflict which led to Phase I. Provocateurs seemed to have also played a role then but it is unlikely that outside agitation alone could have provoked the bellicosity between the two indigenous religious groups displayed in Phase I if there was not already a fertile ground for it to flourish. In this paper, I want to focus on some of these internal causes9 which have possibly led to the current situation. In doing so, I am expressively restricting my analysis to the Moslem-Christian strife of the ethnic Ambonese in the Central Moluccas 10 who have been the dominant ethnic group in the Moluccas ever since the Dutch made Ambon their center of power in the early 17th Century eclipsing the then mighty Moslem empires of Ternate and Tidore in the North Moluccas.11 I will first give a general historical overview of Ambonese Moslem-Christian relationships and outline the workings of the pela alliance system, and how it played a crucial role in glueing together Ambonese ethnic unity across religious lines. Then I will discuss some of the possible factors which led to the weakening of pela and the traditional belief system, leading to the destruction of ethnic unity. Some of the causes were internal, like the continuous Islamization and Christianizaton, others can be directly related to Indonesian policies beginning in the 1970s. An attempt will be made to glimpse into the very uncertain future of Ambonese culture and society.

Threat of the Influx of Non-Ambonese Moslems

Protestant-Christian Ambonese had long been apprehensive about the large influx of Moslems from other parts of Indonesia, as were the small minorities of other Protestant denominations and Catholics. In the 1970s, this apprehension was also shared by many Ambonese Moslems. The ever swelling numbers of non-Ambonese Moslems not only skewed the population balance in favor of Moslems, but also added to the already critical urban and rural population pressure and land shortage. It also contributed to diminish the traditionally strong influence of Christians in the provincial political structure. Moslems also increasingly expanded their share of the Moluccan economy, traditionally dominated by the (mostly Christian) Chinese. Thus, initially, it appeared that Christian attacks on Moslems were directed against these non-Ambonese Moslems, mainly ethnic Makasarese, Bugis, Butonese from Sulawesi and surrounding islands, and, especially on Seram and Buru, migrants from Java.12 Indeed, many thousands of them fled Maluku in panic during initial fighting. After the central government in Jakarta sent more troops with orders to shoot to kill on sight anyone carrying weapons, an uneasy truce was restored in mid-May but hostilities flared up again with a vengeance in July of 1999 and have not stopped since. In meantime, it has become clear that the sectarian struggle is not just pitting Moluccan Christians against non-Moluccan Moslems but also has become an intra-ethnic fray between Ambonese Protestant Christians and their brothers, the indigenous Moslems.

Failed Model of Religious Tolerance

The flare-up of religious strife appears to have caught Indonesia by surprise. As recently as November 1998, during Moslem-Christian clashes in Jakarta, then President B. J. Habibie had singled out the Moluccas as the model of religious tolerance. The members of the Moluccan exile community in the Netherlands, which for years had poured a lot of money not only into
their home villages and their allied villages, Christian or Moslem, were also caught off guard, watching with incredulity the cruel events unfolding in their homeland. Moluccans everywhere asked what happened to the traditional Moslem-Christian brotherhood and its safeguards like pela, the traditional inter-village alliance system.

Creeping Religious Polarization

Actually, the only thing that should be surprising about these clashes is their vehemence and unbridled violence. In the mid-1970s, when I conducted my original research, the pela inter-village alliance system in the Central Moluccas, trends towards religious polarization were already discernable. In my doctoral dissertation, I not only described some of the symptoms but warned that religious polarization, as well as other cultural processes, such as purification of the traditional Ambonese belief system in Christian and Islamic terms will lead to its semantic depletion and thus undermine Moslem-Christian ethnic unity. I also pointed out that future cultural developments in the Central Moluccas will largely depend on the direction of Indonesian national politics (Bartels 1977: 330).

Traditional Moslem-Christian Relations in the Central Moluccas

Christianity arrived in the early 16th Century in the Central Moluccas in the form of Roman-Catholicism, introduced by the Portuguese. When the Dutch pushed out Portugal as the colonial power in the early 17th Century, they turned the Catholic villages into followers of Dutch Reformed Protestantism, although it is doubtful that the indigenous Christians were much aware of the change at the time.

Uneasy Truce or Mostly Peaceful Co-Existence?

Youth with unspent munitionsNewspaper reports about the current crisis usually stress an allegedly peaceful co-existence of Ambonese Moslems and Christians throughout the past 500 years of colonial history. Correspondents base these statements on those of native informants who not only experienced the relatively peaceful post-World War II period of interreligious relations, but also seem to fall back on Ambonese oral history which stresses century-old Moslem-Christian unity.13Historical scholarship, which still has to fill many gaps, points to a much more complex picture filled with manipulation, intrigue, and rivalry. The successive colonizers, Portuguese, Dutch, and Japanese, all tried to manipulate Moslems and Christians, as did the latest, and current, rulers of the Moluccas, the Javanese. After analysis of the painstakingly collected data by Bokemeyer (1888), and more recently, Knaap (1987) and Chauvel (1990), a picture emerges showing that the colonizers frequently succeeded with manipulation of the elites on the basis of religious affiliation, pitting Moslems against Christians. However, there seems to be little evidence that they ever instilled deep religious hatred into the general Ambonese population.14 Also, there was never before a situation in the early colonial period when either Ambonese Moslem or Christian villages unified to fight the one another, other than being coerced by either the Europeans or the Northern Moluccan sultanates of Ternate and Tidore.

Detail of unspent munitionsThroughout most of colonial history, it seems that, at least at the village level, Moslem and Christians have coexisted in a climate where cooperation seems to have been more common than polarity and discord. Under duress, they have frequently closed ranks and as far back as the Portuguese period and in the early Dutch era, Moslem and newly converted Christian villages allied themselves against the foreign intruders who tried to force a spice monopoly onto them. Again, during the so-called Pattimura uprising in 1817, both religious groups were united in a last, failing effort to rid themselves of the Dutch yoke.

Christian Rise to Superiority in Late Colonial Period

In the later Dutch era, cloves and nutmeg became economically less attractive and the Dutch decided to get a stronger political and economic grip on the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. Short on manpower, the Dutch used, among others, Christian Moluccans as soldiers and administrators, allowing them a certain amount of western schooling denied to the Moslems. The Dutch preference for the Christians led to certain feelings of superiority among the latter but did not seem to seriously damage Moslem-Christian relationships. In some cases, Christian villagers had Moslem children live with them in order to give them access to schools denied to Moslem commoners by the Dutch while raising them according to Moslem customs.

Moslem Ascendency during Japanese Occupation

During the Japanese occupation, the Christians suddenly saw the roles reversed as the Japanese seemingly favored the Moslem population.15 Christians accused the Moslems of collaboration. Even so, the conflict seemed not so much a religious conflict but one between Ambonese nationalists and those who saw themselves as “Black Dutchmen” who had much to gain by a return of the Dutch. Among the nationalists were both Moslems and Christians, the loyalists were overwhelmingly Christian.

Proclamation of Republic of South Moluccas

The relationship even survived the stormy post-World War II Indonesian independence struggle when the somewhat panic-stricken Christian leadership, with the support of some traditional Moslem leaders, declared itself independent from Indonesia by proclaiming the Republic of the South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan, or short RMS). While during the ensuing struggle with the Indonesian armed forces, Christian guerilla forces attacked some Moslem villages which were suspected of being Indonesia sympathizers. There were also instances in which Christian soldiers prevented such attacks when their home village had an alliance with the Moslem village in question.16 It was only after the traditional, somewhat still colonial, adat leadership died out and the younger generation of Ambonese Moslems saw the political and economic advantages for themselves in Suharto's Orde Baru system, that they began to view the RMS as a Christian construction to safeguard their own position. Eventually, the Moslems sarcastically began referring to the RMS as “Republik Maluku Serani”, i.e. “Republic of Christian Moluccans.”

Early Post-Independence Period

In the mid-1970s, relations among the political elites of the two subgroups were at times tense but generally civil. The Christians, who had dominated in Maluku during Dutch times tried to salvage as much of their former power as possible, while the Moslems tried to get at least an equal share of it. At the village level,17 relations were generally complaisant. To be sure, there was frequent fighting between neighboring villages, especially during the clove harvest season, but these melees were not based on religion but rather they were attempts to readjust vague borders in one's favor in the light of increasing rise in population. Some of the fiercest clashes were not between Moslems and Christians but between Christian villages, as for example, Ulath and Ouw on Saparua.

The Pela Alliance System

Above, I cited instances where Christian soldiers saved Moslem villages from destruction by their own guerilla units because the home village of the Christian soldiers had an alliance with the besieged Moslem villages. Most villages on Ambon-Lease18 and West-Seram, i.e. villages within the Ambonese culture area proper, are part of an inter-village alliance system, called pela.

History of Moluccan Alliance System

Fleeing the violenceSome of these inter-village alliances have their origins in the distant past, long before Europeans invaded the Spice Islands in search of cloves and nutmeg. It probably started as an alliance system in the context of head-hunting, but during the Portugese and Dutch conquests in the 16th and 17th centuries, the system was utilized to resist the foreign intruders, and to help each other in times of need. As a matter of fact, quite a few of the still existing pela pacts were founded during that period, often binding Moslem and (recently converted) Christian villages together. Many new pela arose during the last desperate struggle against Dutch colonialism, the Pattimura war at the beginning of the 19th century. After this struggle was lost and the region experienced an economic depression, pela was utilized as an instrument gaining access to foodstuffs when many poor villages of Ambon-Lease established ties with the sago-rich villages of West-Seram.19 In the first three decades of Indonesian rule, pela was still in full bloom, mainly as a vehicle of Moluccan identity in the pan-Indonesian state and also to further village development without governmental aid.

Distribution of Pela Pacts

Pela alliances are concluded between two or more villages and, in a few rare cases, between clans from different villages. With the exception of the Leitimor mountains on Ambon Island where several neighboring villages are engaged in such pacts, pela partners live usually far apart and are often located on different islands. Most alliances are between Christian villages but a considerable number are between Christian and Moslem villages, thus spanning religious boundaries. Purely Moslem pela do not exist. In contrast to Christians who use adat20 rather than their common religion to establish formal ties between villages, Moslems consider themselves all part of the Islamic community (ummat) and thus find no need to further strengthen the ties among one another.21 However, there are a few pela, all based on genealogical ties, involving several Christian and Moslem villages and in this case the participating Moslem villages also consider each other as pela partners.

Pela Map

Types of Pela

The number of alliances any village may engage in is unlimited, but most villages have only one or two such pacts and a few of the traditional burgher villages (kampung) along the inner bay of Ambon Island, as well as some newer villages, have none at all. If a village has multiple alliances, each pact is treated as a separate unit.

Basically, there are three kinds of pela, namely (1) hard pela (pela keras), (2) “pela of the uterus” (pela gandong or bungso) and (3) soft pela (pela tempat sirih). The hard pela originated because of the occurrence of some major event, usually war-related, such as the spilling of blood, undecided battles, or extraordinary help given by one village to the other. The second kind of pela is based on genealogical ties; i.e., one or several clans in different villages claim common ancestry. This may lead to the conclusion of a pact between the villages from which the related clans originate. At this point, the idiom of kinship is transferred to everyone in the newly allied villages. The soft pela are concluded after some minor event, such as to restore peace after some small incident or after one village does a favor for another. They also are established to facilitate trade relations.

For all intents and purposes, the hard pela and the genealogical pela function in an identical way. Both are concluded through a powerful oath which is backed up with a terrible curse upon any potential transgressor of the treaty. The participants then drink a concoction of palm wine and blood taken from the leaders of the two parties, after the immersion of weapons and other sharp objects in it. These objects will turn against and kill any offender. The exchange of blood seals the brotherhood.

Modern Functions of Pela

Pela, therefore, is conceived as an enduring and inviolable brotherhood between all peoples of the partner villages. There are four main ideas underlying pela, namely: (1) villages in a pela relationship assist each other in times of crisis (war or natural disasters such as earthquakes, tidal waves, or famines); (2) if required, one partner village has to assist the other in the undertaking of large community projects, such as building of churches, mosques and schools; (3) when individuals visit one's pela village, food cannot be denied to them, nor do they have to ask permission to help themselves to agricultural products which they can take home with them; and (4) all members of villages in a pela relationship are considered to be of one blood; thus, marriage between pela members is considered incestuous.

Any transgression against these rules is severely punished by the ancestors who founded the institution. This punishment consists of sending illness, death and other misfortunes to the offenders, or even their children. Those who break the marriage taboo are, if caught, also paraded around their respective villages, clad only in coconut leaves, with the villagers heaping abuse upon them. In contrast, the soft pela are concluded without the oath by merely exchanging and chewing betel together, a traditional custom of establishing friendship between strangers.22 The soft pela are, then, exactly that, friendship pacts. Intermarriage is allowed and any future help given is voluntary, and not backed up by ancestral sanctions.

Pela Renewal Ceremonies

In order to keep the pela alive, and to make the youth aware of their obligations, many pela alliances, periodically, conduct a ceremony for “heating up the pela” (bikin panas pela). At these occasions, the population of all partners meets in one of the villages for as long as a week to celebrate their unity, accompanied by a renewal of the oath, feasting, singing, and dancing.

Pela's Pivotal Role in the Post-Independence Period

Pela as Unifying Force

The system as described above worked still very well in the Central Moluccas from the end of World War II until about the 1980s. Attempts of the Indonesian government of political centralization and cultural uniformity since Independence led to a general fear of loss of a distinct Ambonese ethnic identity. Both Moslems and Christians had also become quite conscious about the threat that the ongoing religious polarization posed for Moslem-Christian unity. While urban politicians were fighting for the spoils offered by the new system, people at the grassroots level reacted to the twin threat of loss of identity and social disunity through placing a renewed emphasis on pela, whose dense web spanning across the islands and religious boundaries was traditionally the major force of integration. The earlier listed economic incentives, based on reciprocal mutual aid, further helped to cement the interfaith relationship.23

While many other Central Moluccan customs and institutions are not too different from those found elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, the pela alliance system was considered unique and thus evolved into a core identity marker, symbolizing both Ambonese identity and Moslem-Christian unity. As such, pela had taken on an aura of sanctity among common people, especially in the villages. While much of the traditional adat was crumbling, pela was experiencing a great revival and became the adat institution whose rules and regulations are most stringently followed. Many urban intellectuals, and even some politicians, also grasped the value of pela in preserving a measure of cultural autonomy and ethnic unity.

Intensity of Moslem-Christian Contacts

As a result of these developments, a number of new friendship pela between Moslems and Christians were concluded in these decades, for no other reason than to tighten the strings of mutual cooperation and obligation between the two religious groups, reducing potential friction to a minimum. In the same vein, existing pela ties, some of which had been created centuries ago, were reactivated after long periods of dormancy, and/or intensified if they were still active, through pela renewal ceremonies reaffirming Ambonese unity and identity.
Because of the existence of the pela system, any potential antagonism between Ambonese Moslems and Christians was held to a minimum, as opposed to internecine strife so common between the adherents of these religions throughout the world. On the practical level, there was a marked increase of economic exchange and many churches, mosques and schools were built with the generous help of pela partners who supplied labor, work material, money and/or foodstuffs to make those undertakings possible without governmental aid.24 After a project was finished, the pela partners arrived for its inauguration, and, in case of a church or mosque, both Christians and Moslems entered it together for a common service.

There Is But One God: Ambonese Ethnic Religion

Syncretization of Indigenous, Moslem, and Christian Beliefs

The common adat fundament of Ambonese Islam and Christianity made the two religions appear to be very similar and helped to obscure the actual differences in Ambonese eyes. Largely disinterested in dogma and ideology and relatively unaffected by, or even ignorant of, the historical enmity between Moslems and Christians elsewhere, the Ambonese were unbiased enough to perceive, and stress, the many similarities that exist among the two religions. The emphasis on the similarities led to attempts of harmonization, resulting in a kind of loose “horizontal” syncretism between Islam and Christianity in contradistinction but related to the “vertical” syncretism born out of the efforts to achieve harmony between the traditional beliefs system and respectively Islam and Christianity.

The Ambonese believe that they all originated from a sacred mountain on the island of Seram, called Nunusaku. A big fight occurred and the original inhabitants split up and populated the Central Moluccas. After the arrival of the two world religions, the paradise of Moslems and Christians was relocated at Mt. Nunusaku, making it the point of origin for all peoples. Upu Lanite, the traditional creator god, was eventually equated with Allah, the name used by both groups for the God of the Koran and the God of the Bible. Thus, there was only one God and Islam and Christianity were seen as two alternate but equally valid paths to salvation. As time passed, the Ambonese came to view Islam and Christianity as basically being only variations of the same faith. This belief is expressed in the popular pantun (quatrain):

Slam dan Serani
Pegang tangan-tangan ramai-ramai.

It translates roughly as “Moslems and Christians, hand-in-hand, have great fun”, or more freely, “As long as Moslems and Christians stick together, life will be most enjoyable”.

These beliefs eventually became the basis of Ambonese Moslem-Christian unity and common identity, developing into a kind of invisible ethnic religion that celebrated the uniqueness of Ambonese society, while at the same time allowing both groups to be devout Moslems or Christians. The core of this Ambonese religion, which I called elsewhere Agama Nunusaku or Nunusaku religion (Bartels 1977: 316), was the pre-Moslem and pre-Christian traditional belief system based on ancestor veneration. After conversion to Islam or Christianity, both halves of society continued largely a way of life following the laws and customs (adat) that were laid down in the mystical past by their common ancestors.

Pela: Vehicle of Nunusaku Religion

Nunusaku religion had no formal organizational structure, no religious leader, no temples of worship, nor were most people really aware of it. The vehicle of Agama Nunusaku is pela which became a sacred metaphor for Ambonese society. Pela is the strongest link of the chain joining Moslems and Christians. It is the only traditional institution demanding regular and regulated contact between the two groups on the village level25 and in pela, the idea of brotherhood is periodically put to a test. When a Moslem village aided a Christian partner, or vice versa, it is also a statement of commitment, not just to one's particular ally, but to the values of Ambonese brotherhood. The presentation of a mosque by the Christian village of Hatu to Moslem Wakasihu (both on Ambon Island), for example, reverberated across the islands. Moslems and Christians everywhere saw this act as a reaffirmation of their common bonds.

Erosion of Traditional Adat Structure, Pela, and Ambonese Unity

Religion Above Adat

Attitude of Christian Church. When the Moluccan Protestant Church became independent from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1935, the new indigenous church leaders continued the sporadic attacks on adat by white ministers and there was a constant tension between the Christian and adat leaders in the villages. With their legitimacy derived from the ancestors, the founders and guardians of adat, the officials had a vested interest to keep not only the adat system but also the ancestors alive. They were the ones who parried the attacks of ministers on ancestors and adat, by using biblical references in defense of custom. An example is the payment of the bride wealth (harta kawin), a custom sanctioned by the ancestors. The practice is important in terms of interrelations of clans and involves both the youth age sets and village governments in inter-village marriages. It was justified by pointing out similar practices in the Old Testament, such as the story of Abraham sending gifts with a servant to procure a wife for his son Isaac from kinsmen in Mesopotamia. In general, the hereditary adat officials defended both custom and their own positions through claims of a separation of “church” and “state.” This was accomplished by equating the demands of the ancestors to the demands of the worldly powers, quoting Jesus in the New Testament, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's ...”26

After World War II some young Christian ministers were given the opportunity to study at prestigious theological schools in Europe and the United States. As these ministers gained leadership positions within the church, they strived to achieve universally accepted standards of Protestantism and were thus determined to “purify” Moluccan Christianity by ridding it of ancestor veneration and any customs contrary to Christian beliefs. However, in the 1970s, the adat elite still firmly stood its ground, especially when it concerned adat crucial for internal or external social relations.27

The Christian leaders in the mid-1970s were well aware of the value of pela, realizing that as long as the pela system functions, there will be only a minimum threat from the Moslem side against Christians. They also saw Moslems as buffers warding off potential danger from non-Moluccan Moslem immigrants. Some more zealous church leaders went even further, and saw pela as an instrument for bringing the gospel to their Moslem alliance brothers (Cf. Tanamal 1968: 36-37).

I remember very well a conversation I had then with one of the most influential church leaders who told me that the church wanted to get rid of “bad adat” like ancestor worship but preserve “good adat” like pela. I pointed out the dangers of depriving pela of its very foundation by eradicating the ancestors, stating that when the ancestors are gone, the common bridge with the Moslems will disappear and Islam and Christianity will be in direct confrontation. In the following time period that was exactly what happened: The church demonized the ancestors, equating them with the forces of Satan. The congregation was doused with a heavy dose of guilt feelings. It was considered un-Christian to venerate the forefathers. Ingeniously, the church also “baptized ” adat rituals. Instead of opposing them, as it had been done earlier, the church accepted them but insisted that they were conducted in a Christian context, dominated by Christian prayers.28

The church largely succeeded in the Christianizaton of pela pact rituals, in alliances involving exclusively Christian villages, by these methods of eclipsing the importance of the ancestors. Indirectly, the reduced role of adat in Christian villages diminished the common basis of interaction with their Moslem partners leading to an increase in the social distance between Christians and Moslems in interfaith alliances. The very experience of being more and more surrounded by Moslem immigrants may have been a crucial reason of why Christian villagers were more concentrating on Christianity. Stubbornly refusing orders of the church to give up the ancestors both in colonial and post-colonial times, it appears that they were now drawn closer to God as their fear of Moslem domination magnified. Urban-born Christians had lost much of adat already and were always putting more stress on their Christian beliefs. An other important factor in the ability of the church in the destruction of adat was the generational change of the guard. The younger, post-independence, generation grew up in a considerably less restrictive atmosphere than their elders. They were less willing to listen to their parents and they were less put under pressure by them. Western ideas strongly influenced their thoughts and they wanted to be modern. Christianity was associated with the west and with modernity; ancestors were specters from the past.


Concurrently with the purification of Christianity among Protestants, similar transformations took place among Moslems. Here too the Islamic leadership, strongly influenced by the pan-Indonesian Muhammadiyah movement, emphasized “pure” Islam at the expense of traditional adat beliefs. In the urban centers, some of these leaders were from different ethnic groups and had little empathy for Ambonese adat. As the older, more traditional, Moluccan Moslem leaders died away, they were replaced with younger people, more open to Islamic purity and pan-Islamic ideas. Islam too became associated with modernity. For young Moslems the future was in the overwhelmingly Islamic Indonesian nation and, eager to be accepted by non-Moluccan Moslems, they embraced Islamic universalism over ethnic parochialism. The wave of Islamic fundamentalism rolling over Indonesia in the last two decades, also hit the shores of the Moluccas, causing a further radicalization of some segments of the Ambonese Moslem community.

In the colonial period most Ambonese Moslems had been quite isolated and had little awareness of the mainstream of Islamic thought elsewhere in the Dutch-East Indies. Islam had become strongly intertwined with adat. The traditional adat leadership enhanced its position by basing its claims to legitimacy on both God and the ancestors. Islamic offices, such as those of the imam or modin, were interwoven with and subordinated to the adat structure. The degree of indigenization of Islam varied widely from village to village, but in one region it was carried so far that people ultimately come to believe that Islam was brought to the Moluccas by the Prophet himself. On the island of Haruku, the pilgrimage to Mecca became to be viewed as unnecessary, but was performed at a special sacred site in the mountains behind the villages.

In the post-independence period, the ummat concept of universal Islamic brotherhood was now extended to all Moslems and thus made Ambonese Moslems more receptive to Islamic ideas less accepting of other religions as the pre-independence Ambonese indigenous Islam was. It made it possible to accept outsiders of the same religion much more readily as it was the case in the Christian community and intermarriage with non-Ambonese Moslems was fairly common.29 Thus, as adat weakened due to increasing Islamic universalism, ideas of Moslem-Christian brotherhood weakened as well.

Indonesization of Ambonese Social System

Destruction of Adat Structure

The trends towards increasing Islamization and Christianizaton of the respective adat of the two indigenous subdivisions of Ambonese society30 were clearly perceivable in the 1970s. However, the sudden acceleration could not be foreseen because it came from an external source, the central government in Jakarta. In a seemingly ingenious attempt of “gleichschaltung”, i.e. to raze local customs and to bring everyone on the same wave length, the Suharto regime issued in 1979 an order (Undang-Undang No. 5) which abolished the traditional system of government based on adat in the villages, replacing it with a completely new, pan-Indonesian structure patterned after the Javanese system of village government. All villages, traditionally called 'negeri'31 in the Central Moluccas, were forced to call themselves now 'desa,' the Javanese term for 'village.'

More gravely, the complete traditional village hierarchy based on heredity was disenfranchised with the stroke of a pen and replaced with an elected 'kepala desa' (village head, formerly called 'raja' i.e. 'king') and an elected village council. The traditional office holders not only were the guardians of adat, but were usually knowledgeable about village and pela history. They also were concerned about the transmission of adat to the following generations. In contrast, he new power holders have little or no knowledge about these subjects32 and are, for the most part, much less interested in transmitting a tradition which is of little benefit to them and even put their own legitimacy into question.

The effect of this order was devastating to Central Moluccan traditions. On one hand, the traditional leadership was rendered largely powerless in many, if not most villages.33 On the other hand, the new leadership was tied in closely with the overall Indonesian governmental system which lent its legitimacy to their offices and made them personally dependent and answerable to the ruling Indonesian government. The resulting vacuum was filled partially by Indonesian nationalistic ideology and partially by an acceleration of Christianizaton and Islamization, dealing a death knell to the ancestral system in ways the Moslem and Christian religious leadership never succeeded. In turn, this led to a further erosion of Moslem-Christian relations.

Westernization and Globalization

Westernization was well under way in the 1970s but expressed itself more in imitation of western ways by bureaucrats and professionals using the paraphernalia of western power to enhance their own (See Bartels 1979) than in a large-scale adoption of western popular culture and consumerism. Even the youth was still rather conservative, adopting blue jeans and other types of western clothing but still clearly preferring Ambonese pop stars over European or American ones. Western-style consumer goods were still quite out of reach for the masses and generally not available in the small to medium-sized Chinese stores. In the mid-1980s, the business expansion of the clique of the Suharto regime had reached Ambon and the McDonaldization of the city was in full swing (although there was no real McDonald's). In the 1990s, Ambon was slowly but steadily drawn into the process of globalization, complete with Internet and cell phones. While villagers still lagged behind, inter-island transportation had vastly improved and visits to Ambon City, gateway to the big wide world, was within easy reach for all. It is difficult to estimate as to how much globalization was a factor in the destruction of adat up to the beginning of the clashes but, with its pressure to global conformity, it will grind away on adat in an accelerated manner in the future.

This rapid deterioration of traditional values can be observed by focusing on one segment of society that already has been strongly influenced by the negative effects of globalization and Westernization, namely the urban youth which make up just under 60% of the urban population and are characterized by high unemployment. Especially effected are those youngsters with little education. According to the chairman of the Crisis Center Maluku, A. Ulahaiyanan, these youngsters hedged resentment against their parents, teachers and the government for some time but had to repress their feelings because of the social strong control in the Suharto era. In the freer atmosphere that followed in the period of Reformasi, they felt free to rebel against traditional values of adat, politics, and religion. The present unrest gave them an opportunity to express their freedom from authority through acts of violence. (Manado Pos, 08/28/2000)34. It has to be added that even before the social upheaval Moluccan youths formed western-style gangs in various districts of Ambon City which fought one another. These gangs then metamorphosed themselves into freedom fighters defending their neighborhoods against outside attacks and invading those of their enemies to burn them down.

Immigration Policy: Opening the Moslem Flood Gate

Transmigrasi is a long-standing Indonesian national policy under which people from densely populated islands are moved to islands with supposedly low population densities. There they are given land taken away from the indigenous population. In the Central Moluccas the largest island, Seram, was chosen as a settlement area for migrants from overpopulated regions of other islands. In West Seram, where the sacred mountain Nunusaku is located and which is part of the Ambonese culture area, land of indigenous villages was appropriated for settlers from the Southeast Moluccas (some of which are Protestant or Catholic), from Sulawesi, and even from Java.

The loss of large tracts of land with little or no compensation, and the economic success and domination of the newcomers, created long-smoldering resentments among the native population. Most of the affected villages were Christians and they also felt that they were threatened in their way of life by the overwhelming number of Moslem immigrants. In the 1970s when transmigrasi was barely underway, the old villages were sleepy and mostly reachable only by sea. In the late 1990s, they were all connected by a highway along which many new businesses and settlements are located, almost exclusively owned by non-indigenous Moslems. Some of the villages, e.g. Kairatu,35 had turned into small towns which had lost their Christian and rural character. While the Moslem newcomers prospered, the native Christian economy stagnated. Many native Seramese were actually worse off than prior to the transmigrasi period.36 Everywhere I went in 1998, I overheard disparaging and embittered remarks whispered by Christians about the Moslem tidal wave and their impotence to do anything to stop it. Transmigrasi was a time bomb in the 1970s. Now it was about to explode.

Overpopulation, Land Scarcity, Feuding and Fission

The Central Moluccans have a proclivity to fragmentation and intra-ethnic feuding which can be traced back to headhunting days in the distant past and which still is very much alive today, including in the exile community in the Netherlands. Within villages, there are long-standing feuds between clans and various other factions pitted against one another for political, adat, religious, and economic reasons. Violence is frequently an ingredient of such feuds and, occasionally, they lead to fission of the village, as it was, for example, the case in the Harukuan Moslem village of Pelauw where clashes between traditionalist and modernist Moslems led to the establishment of a satellite village, Ori, in 1939 for the dissident modernists.37

On the inter-village level, feuding mostly occurs between neighboring villages, usually in the form of border disputes ranging from claims to a single clove tree to larger pieces of real estate. As I mentioned earlier, those fights have little to do with religion but with land scarcity as a result of high birth rates leading to rapidly growing village populations. On January 16, 2000, a fierce battle broke out between the villages of Wakal and Hitu on the Hitu peninsula of Ambon Island. The Jakarta Post (1/18/00) reported the armed incident, during which rifles and home-made bombs were used and at least three civilians were killed, as merely “fresh violence” without listing the religious affiliation of the two villages. The fact that both are Moslem and that the clash occurred in the middle of the Moslem-Christian struggle, is quite remarkable. This clash was obviously not based on religion but, in all probability, has been triggered by tensions caused by some mundane problems, of which the most common is ownership of real estate contested by the involved villages. It seems entirely possible that also much of the fighting between Moslem and Christian Ambonese may only be fought under the pretext of religious differences but is in actuality a struggle for the increasing scarcer resource of villages - land. In this context, the already mentioned wanton attack of the Christian villages of Haruku-Sameth by its Moslem neighbors, who have already eliminated two other Christian villages (Kariuw38 and Hulaliu) makes much more sense than merely religious animosity. How important land is in the current struggle can be seen in the following example: In the Moslem village of Iha on Saparua, the village secretary lamented Iha's land loss in the 17th Century when they were defeated by the Dutch who then divided most of Iha's land between its neighboring Christian villages which had allied themselves with the Dutch. The village official called for a conference between the Dutch and Indonesian governments to restore some of the land to Iha, even though centuries have passed.39


In meantime, Ambon-Lease, which was spared transmigrasi because there had been already a severe land shortage and heavy population pressure, was subjected to informal migration by Butonese who settled along coastal stretches, practicing shifting cultivation which often led to land erosion. Large numbers of mostly Moslem immigrants from all parts of the archipelago flocked to Ambon City where they settled as traders, artisans, manual laborers, etc. The city, which is squeezed between mountains and the sea and had already one of the highest population densities in the world, burst out of its seams with many of the newcomers settling in villages just outside the capital of Maluku. Although not officially annexed, the villages along the inner bay became all victims of urban sprawl which de facto extended the city all the way to the town of Passo at the peninsula separating the Moslem and Christian parts of Ambon island.

One of the favorite places of residence, especially for lower income Moslem immigrants, is the traditional Moslem village of Batumerah, directly adjacent to Ambon City. This influx of non-Ambonese Moslems had already been going on back in the 1960s and 1970s but then the village was still controlled by its traditional adat elite. At one time, there was a brawl between students of adjacent Christian and a Moslem schools of higher learning in Ambon City. Young people from Batumerah wanted to join their Moslem brothers in the fight against the Christian students, the raja stopped them by challenging them to first go and attack their Christian pela village of Passo. At the time, it was considered sacrilegious to attack one's pela and the hotheaded youths returned home without fighting anyone. With the traditional adat leadership gone and with a large segment of the population being non-Ambonese, the pela alliance with Passo, which itself has become somewhat urbanized, has become meaningless for both partner villages. Batumerah has been since the beginning of the conflict in the forefront of the battles with Christians.40 A part of Passo was destroyed as a result of the hostile clashes. Another source of unrest on Ambon island is Tulehu, formerly a Moslem village with RMS sympathies, now grown into the second largest city in the Central Moluccas due to influx from non-Ambonese Moslems.

Work opportunities, especially in office jobs in the private and public sector, as well as access to better and higher learning, have made Ambon City always attractive for ambitious Christians from all parts of the Moluccas. There are sizable groups of Protestants and Roman-Catholics from the Tenggara (Southeastern) region. The Catholic bishopric of Maluku has its seat in the capital. In addition, an increasing number of Protestant villagers from Ambon-Lease and Seram are moving there. People from any given village tend to cluster in one area, or ward, of the city. For example, many former villagers from Aboru (Haruku) live in the ward of Batu Gajah, while people from Oma (Haruku) settled in Batumerah. The same pattern is true for Ambonese Moslem villagers who have taken up residence in Ambon City. Most of these former villages have close ties to their relatives in their respective home villages. Thus, when fighting broke out in Ambon City, the news spreads rapidly to the home villages and there leads to tensions, and often violence, between Christian and Moslem villages, escalating the conflict.

Power Struggle on the Provincial Level

The Christian political elite was on the defensive but could hold its own in the Sukarno era when two of them were appointed governors of Maluku and one military leader.41 The loss of power is symbolized by the fact that no Christian was ever appointed to these two key positions in the Suharto era. In total, the Moslems also had only three governors but, significantly, two of them were the most recent ones. The majority of provincial governors were non-Moluccan Moslems. In praxis, it didn't really matter beyond symbolism since the power of the provincial leaders was quite curtailed by Jakarta. The reform of village government tied the villages structurally more into the national system but, because of the provincial elite's national focus, they did not increase their hold on the rural districts - in fact the leadership become isolated from its own local constituency.42 Likewise, both urban religious elites also seemed to have become somewhat detached from their rural followers, partially at least because they too had a strong national focus. In economic terms, the Christians, and even most Moslem villagers, traditionally looked down on commerce, leaving the field largely to the Chinese and non-Ambonese Moslems, with the result of becoming increasingly more economically backward and dependent.

The Time Bomb Explodes

As Moslems became more and more successful in politics and business43 and as their numbers steadily increased,44 they became increasingly bolder and assertive, not only among the elite but also among the lower classes, including the non-Ambonese immigrants.45 Thus it was no accident that the initial spark that ignited the unrest was a fight involving low-class Moslem migrants and Christian Ambonese. Long suppressed resentments on both sides were vented with a vehemence that shocked everyone. This unbridled violence is not particularly Moluccan but a result of the “political sadism and gangsterism” of the New Order (Orde Baru) of Suharto which expressed itself not only in the brutalization of the police and military but also of their victims (Anderson 1999:10 and throughout). Indonesians, including Moluccans, have become accustomed lashing out with impunity at anyone they perceive as enemy with utmost cruelty and barbarity.

The Indonesian government responded to the turmoil by sending in more troops.46 Like elsewhere in the Outer Islands, the local population has little trust in the military, feared for its ruthless repression of the civilian population. Both Moslems and Christians immediately, and not without foundation, accused the armed forces to take sides according to their own religious affiliation. Rather than being the stabilizing and pacifying force it claimed to be, the military seems to have aggravated the conflict through its terror tactics already in Phase I of the conflict. Moreover, neither side had much trust in the government of the bumbling President Habibie and its credibility was further undermined by all the tales of scandals surrounding ex-president Suharto. The mistrust of both army and government was further deepened by conspiracy theories about rogue army officers and so-called preman, urban gangsters from Jakarta both linked to the Suharto family, acting as provocateurs, trying to destabilize the nation.47 As we saw above, Ambonese like to believe that trouble is instigated from outside the Moluccas. The evidence leads to the conclusion that this was actually the case in Phase I. However, it does not fully explain the scope and vehemence of the violence. It was one of the triggers, together with other “inter-connected processes of transmigration, commodity capitalism, and indigenous dispossession as forms of state violence” as Pannell (1999:27) has pointed out.

Pela and the Failure of Reconciliation

Appeals for restoration of order by the Indonesian military fell on deaf ears. Neither side trusted the armed forces which many saw as part of the problem and not of the solution; both groups claiming that soldiers are taking sides consistent with their own religious affiliation. As mentioned earlier, the political leadership had lost touch with the general population and so had largely also the religious leaders who often were fiercely nationalistic and put their Indonesian identity above their Ambonese one. Not surprisingly, their calls for peace and reconciliation remained unheeded.

Suddenly there was talk of “Pela Gandong” but not in the context of traditional genealogical alliances between certain Moslem and Christian villages. Rather, “Pela Gandong” miraculously has become some sort of mythical pact of brotherhood encompassing all Ambonese Moslems and Christians. This “Pela Gandong” idea was soon picked up by the media around the world. The problem is that there is no, and never was, such a pela alliance binding together the two religious groups beyond the village level. Moslem and Christians traditionally believed, in the context and framework of Nunusaku religion, that they were “gandong,” i.e., literally translated, “from the same uterus,” thus confirming that they had common ancestors.

However, the common ancestry does not entail any rights or obligations between the two religious segments - just as a genealogical relationship between clans from different villages does not call for any commitments. Such commitments come into effect only, if the genealogical ties are formalized into a “pela gandong” through a ceremony, complete with an oath of loyalty and compliance, between the villages in question. Such a formalization of a pact between the entire Ambonese population of the Central Moluccas never occurred - therefore there was no pela alliance to be broken at this level.

Traditional pela alliances function on the village level alone and each pela pact has a life of its own, separate from all other pacts, even from other pacts of any given village. Pela pacts, as such, had little influence on the politics of government, religion, and economy beyond the village level. What was important was that just about every Ambonese came from a village that had a pela alliance and, whether or not this pact included a village adhering to the opposite religion, most people subscribed to the tenets of Moslem-Christian brotherhood as expressed in Nunusaku religion and celebrated during the frequent pela renewal ceremonies. In other words, the concept of pela was more important than the actual pacts themselves. Since most Ambonese living in Ambon City proudly traced their descent to their home villages, as did people living elsewhere in Indonesia and even in the Netherlands and the United States, they too subscribed to the ideal of pela intricately tied to religious harmony.

A common misconception about pela is that alliance partners should rush to each other's aid if one of them is attacked. This was, at least in the modern era, rarely the case.48 Long before the present violence, during the dispute over land between their allied village and a neighboring village, allies usually did not meddle but tried to stay neutral. Apparently, that is exactly what the village of Haria did during the initial skirmishes between their Moslem pela partner Sirisori Slam [Islam] and surrounding Christian villages, even though Haria people living in Ambon City had come under Moslem attack. Rumor has it that later people from Haria and Sirisori Slam fought each other but by that time the conflict had escalated to a full-blown religious war. In Haria, it was denied that they had engaged in fighting with Sirisori Slam but stated that they were guarding the border with Sirisori Serani [Christian] to prevent an attack on “their Christian brothers.” It was further stated that while there cannot be any official contacts at this time, when people of the two villages meet accidentally while fishing at sea, they are still exchanging fish in recognition of their pela.49 An incident in which a sniper from Sirisori Slam fatally shot a Haria man, is seen as accidental: It is believed that had the sniper known that his victim was from Haria, he would not have killed him.

If Ambonese customs and beliefs would not have been subjected to the systematic destruction discussed earlier and people on both sides would still have considered themselves as Ambonese first and Moslem or Christian second, I believe the pela concept could have had some soothing influence on the conflict. Ambonese Moslems would still have felt more akin with Ambonese Christians and perhaps reacted to the influx of non-Ambonese in a similar, negative manner as the Christians - which was still generally the case in the 1970s. At the very least, they may have stayed neutral or could have been in the position to become mediators between Ambonese Christians and non-Ambonese Moslems. The “healing power” of adat was demonstrated in the Kei Islands in Maluku Tenggara where adat has much less deteriorated as in Maluku Tengah. There peace was restored between Moslems, Protestants, and Catholics using the traditional adat structure.50

Now Ambonese intellectuals slowly seem to realize the damage that was done by the destruction of adat. One Christian group, Yayasan Sala Waku, pleads for the “revitalization of organization and functions of the traditional village institutions.”51 This would be theoretically possible since the national government has rescinded the law which forced the desa model onto the Moluccans.52 However, the traditional belief system has been mortally wounded. It is highly doubtful that the clock can be turned back. The wisdom of the ancestors has lost out to the teachings of Mohammed and Jesus and those people in the villages who benefitted from the destruction of the adat structure are unlikely to pull out their stakes. If anything, attempts going back to the old system without modifications to make it viable in an democratic setting could cause more strife and unrest, only this time within the village and religious communities themselves. On the Moslem side, law scholar M.G. Ohorella (1999) would like to see the Pela Gandong concept modernized and formalized to become a “new Force” (gaya baru) in a process of renewal of Moslem-Christian relations. He envisions a pela system beyond the village level by creating first pela pacts encompassing all villages in a given provincial subdistrict (kecamatan) which eventually will be expanded to a system of alliances between the various kecamatan in the whole province, presumably including areas where pela has hitherto not been practiced. The whole process has to be given the force of law and officially sanctioned by the provincial government. A major flaw of Ohorella's plan is that, like the Sala Waku proposal, it does not address how to remedy the causes which triggered the unrest.

Mending the Torn Fabric

Once the fighting stops, Moslem and Christians will indeed have to come together and redefine their relationship and strive for a new intra-ethnic symbiosis in a contemporary context. First and foremost, the intertwined problems of overpopulation, land shortages, and immigration have to be solved. As a next step, it seems likely that the Ambonese in the Central Moluccas will have to do what the Ambonese exiles in the Netherlands have been doing ever since they arrived in the Netherlands in 1951, namely engage in a continuous process of reinventing adat to reflect contemporary socio-political reality. Pela on the village level can still have its uses in restoring overall harmony. Before visiting the Central Moluccas in June and July 2000, I was very pessimistic about the survival of interreligious pela. Most people who don't have pela with a Moslem village believe that these pela are forever destroyed. However, people who do have such pacts are not as ready to pronounce their alliances dead. This was certainly the case in Haria. Villagers from Samasuru (Seram) who have pela with Islamic Iha on Saparua do not dare stay there overnight as they did before when visiting Saparua but it seems they do it more out of consideration for Christian villages adjacent to Iha but are still in communication with Iha. They had given Iha land in the 1960s which was laid to waste during the unrest by outsiders. Iha insisted that Samasuru was innocent and that their alliance is still intact.53 The heavy attacks and counterattacks between Moslems and Christians in North Saparua occurring between September 22 and 24 were apparently instigated by the Laskar Jihad. As a result, many villagers from Iha fled to some of nearby Christian villages, seemingly to trying themselves to escape the Laskar Jihad. Their peaceful reception in these villages is perhaps one of the indicators that not all bridges have been burned.

The following story also shows some hope, if though it may not immediately apparent: After the total destruction of Christian Kariuw on Haruku in the early phase of the conflict by neighboring Moslem villages of Pelauw and Ori, their Moslem pela partner Hualoi (Seram) sent a delegation with food to the village of another partner in the same alliance, Aboru (Haruku), where many Kariuwans had found refuge.54 The wounds were still too fresh and the food was rejected. Hope also can be found in the example of Wayame, a non-traditional, mixed Moslem-Christian settlement across the bay opposite Ambon City, which thus far which had been untouched by the conflict until late November 2000. Even then, it was not an internal conflict but an attack from the outside by Laskar Jihad forces. However, attempts by surrounding Moslem villages to officially declare Waai, a Christian village destroyed in July 2000, as a Moslem village and the intention to rebuild the mosque at exactly the same spot where it supposedly stood in 1670 when Waai was still Islamic, will inflame passions again. The suggestion was made by the chief commander (panglima) of the Laskar Jihad, Ja'far Umar Thalib, and thus it is quite likely that this declaration was made under duress.

However even if interreligious pela survive, it is too focused on parochial concerns to be employed to achieve new harmony and intra-ethnic balance. Even Ohorella's expanded scheme still is too fragmented. Perhaps only a formal conclusion of an all-encompassing grand “Pela Gandong” between all Ambonese Moslems and Christians will restore harmony. This new pact will symbolically seal whatever will be agreed on to normalize the relationship. It will also epitomize a regeneration of indigenous verities.
Reconciliation between ethnic Ambonese within the framework of traditional adat is, of course, only part of the solution. The fabric of Moluccan society will stay frayed if no political solution is found to resolve the demographic problems of overpopulation and land shortages. In this context it will be paramount to halt the unchecked in-migration of outsiders and if such a new pact will not also include those immigrants brave enough to have remained in the Central Moluccas and, particularly, their Maluku-born children. I believe that the pela system is uniquely suited to create a framework for peace between the religious antagonists, and flexible enough to integrate the non-Ambonese who are already residents. I have much less hope than many Moluccans that high-level government mediation will have lasting success.55 Ultimately, a solution satisfactory to all Ambonese will be needed and such a solution will be most promising when existing indigenous adat structures, and especially pela, are being taken into consideration. Perhaps then, after some reflection, the old village pela also can be revived and rejuvenated and Moslems and Christians can agree that some of the old adat may be still viable today and worth rescuing in order to restore ethnic unity and pride.

Together, they must then strive to regain a measure of control over their island group and, preferably, a certain amount of autonomy from the central government. The solution suggested here is only limited to the Central Moluccas The splitting of the province Maluku into two separate provinces of North and South Maluku will most certainly simplify the process of regaining control and reconciliation because it would reduce the numeric imbalance between Moslems and Christians and re-emphasize the cultural homogeneity. To gain even greater cultural unity, serious thought should be also given to the tripartition of Maluku into North, Central, and Southeast Maluku. Although a similar alliance system exists in the Kei Islands, the southern part of the Moluccas with its three religious players, Protestants, Catholics, and Moslems, have a quite different social constellation than the Central Moluccas and their inclusion in one province would only complicate the restoration of ethnic peace. Perhaps, and rather ironically, the simultaneous suffering of the Ambonese Moslem community under the reign of terror of the Laskar Jihad and certain army factions, may soften the existing bitterness and hatred between the two indigenous groups and facilitate ethnic reconciliation.


1) I want to thank Sandra Pannell, Fridus Steijlen, Victor Goldie, Iwanov Taihutu, and Helen Huwaë for their many suggestions and precious advice to improve this paper. Return ^

2) The Indonesian province Maluku was subdivided in fall of 1999 by the central government under President Habibie. The former Kabupaten Maluku Utara (Regency of North Moluccas) was split from the original province and became the independent province Maluku Utara. The central and southern regions remained intact and the name is also still Propinsi Maluku. The more logical name of Maluku Selatan (South Moluccas) was most likely rejected because of its political connotation, reminiscent of Republik Maluku Selatan, the failed attempt in 1950 to establish an independent Moluccan state whose exile-government is still active in the Netherlands. Return ^

3) The people of the Cental Moluccas refer traditionally to themselves, and are generally referred to by other Indonesians, as Ambonese (orang Ambon), named after the island which is the political center not only of the Central Moluccas but of all Maluku, Ambon. In the Netherlands, where a sizable Moluccan exile community exists, the term “Moluccan” is preferred. Return ^

4) Foremost on the list are books by radical Moluccan Moslems, Putuhena (1999) and Rustam Kastor (2000a and 2000b). See also Tim Penyusun al-Mukmin (1999). The RMS idea has been dead in Ambon since the late1960s, if not earlier. The Christian population adapted rather smoothly to the new Javanese colonialism just as they had done in the later Dutch colonial period, savoring jobs in the bureaucracy and military. Ironically, the desperate situation since May, 2000 has led to panic with a sudden, if still fuzzy revival of the idea on all levels of Christian society. Return ^

5) This process was jeopardized when a meeting of reconciliation between youth groups from Kudamati ( a Christian district of Ambon) and Batumerah (Moslem) ended in an ambush of a joint procession in Waihaong (Moslem) during which several Christians were murdered. Return ^

6) I was on Ambon and Saparua from June 22 until July 16, 2000 and personally witnessed some of the attacks. Unanimously, Christians have declared that the phase of fighting beginning in May constituted thus far the worst period of the unrest. Return ^

7) The pattern in this period has been one of total destruction of the targeted Christian areas, generally not pursuing their fleeing victims, thus keeping the death toll relatively low. Therefore, in the Central Moluccas, the attacks have until August 2000 stopped short of genocide which however seems to be occurring in the North Moluccas. Return ^

8) The Ambonese are generally very well informed about world affairs and the Christians continually asked why the United Nations have interfered to save Moslems in Bosnia and the Kosova but are seemingly unwilling to come to the aid of Christians in the Moluccas. They don't accept the western response that the Indonesian government does not give permission for intervention. “They didn't ask Milosevic, did they?” is the usual response. Return ^

9) For an analysis Christian-Moslem violence in the Moluccas in the wider context of historical, political, and religious developments in Indonesia, as well as in terms of international machinations, see Karel Steenbrink (2000). Return ^

10) For a precise definition of the Ambonese culture area and its inhabitants, see Bartels 1994: 28-32. Return ^

11) A general overview of Central Moluccan history and culture is found in Bartels (1994). Return ^

12) 'A reverse situation seems to exist in Northern Seram and Buru where Christian immigrants have been attacked by indigenous Moslems. Return ^

13) In the uncounted hours in which I discussed Central Moluccan history with people in over a hundred Moslem and Christian villages, neither side ever pointed out dramatic incidents of betrayal which had left a bitter taste between the two segments during colonial times. Rather the emphasis was on frequent cooperation during Portuguese and Dutch times fighting the foreign intruders. Most fresh in memory was the Pattimura War of 1817, in which Christians and Moslems fought side-by-side, leading to many lasting village alliances between them. Only in discussing modern history, a small rift could be discerned, with Christians complaining about Moslem collaboration with the Japanese and Moslems about Christian attacks on Moslem villages. However, at no point, did I ever detect fanatical resentment, let alone hatred, for the other side. Return ^

14) Much of the original documents historians have available deal with native elites and colonizers but reveal little about common villagers. The village chiefs were part of the elite. During VOC times, as Knaap (1987:48-52) shows, the village heads were the link between the Dutch authorities and the common villager and often involved in internal power struggles. No mention is made of inter-village conflicts. In the later colonial .period, many of the village chiefs found life in the villages too cumbersome, choosing to reside in Ambon City instead. Thus, they had even less influence in the villages and their relationships with neighboring ones. Return ^

15) For details, see Chauvel 1990:173-196. Return ^

16) For more details on Moslem-Christian relationships, see Bartels (1977: 222-25). Return ^

17) With very few exceptions, Central Moluccan villages are mono-religious, i.e. either entirely Moslem or Christian. While in some areas there are clusters of either Moslem or Christian villages, in other areas they coexist side-by-side. Return ^

18) Ambon-Lease refers to the four smaller main islands of the Ambonese culture area: Ambon, Haruku, Saparua, and Nusalaut, with the latter three making up Lease. Return ^

19) The Ambonese openly refer to these pela as 'pela perut' or 'stomach pela.' For more, see Bartels (1977: 142-44). Return ^

20) Adat is the term used to describe all still practiced traditional beliefs and customs as they were instituted by the ancestors in pre-Islamic and pre-Christian times. Return ^

21) Pela between Moslems seemed to have existed in the beginning of the period of written history but since fallen into disuse as Islamic concepts about brotherhood became more entrenched. Return ^

22) Tempat sirih = betel box. Sirih is a quid consisting of betel leaf, areca nut, tobacco, and lime. Return ^

23) For a more extensive discussion of the interplay between economic exchange and religion, see Bartels (1980). Return ^

24) Much of the money provided by pela partners is collected by exiles in Holland for whom their continued participation in village affairs is not merely charity but a symbolic statement of their “Moluccanness” and their untiring claim to full membership in Ambonese society. For more details on the relationships between the Dutch-Moluccan exiles and people in the Moluccas, see Bartels (1989: 301-46). Return ^

25) There are a number of government-sponsored institutions, e.g. community development, which require inter-village contacts but they entail little emotional capital. Inter-village soccer matches often were also between pela-partners. Between non-pela villages, they may have been more conducive to conflict than to create unity. Return ^

26) Matthew, XXII: 21. This specific quote and other Bible citations are always used by Ambonese Christians in defense of adat. The Moslems defend adat by citing appropriate quotations from the Koran.Return ^

27) Some adat was performed in semi-secrecy and there was a certain amount of embarrassment vis-a-vis Westerners. Living on the compound of the Sekolah Tinggi Theologia, the predecessor of the Universitas Kristen Indonesia Maluku, I had been given, unbeknownst to me, the nickname Pendeta Amerika (Minister America). Assuming that all white ministers would ridicule beliefs in ancestors, people were most reluctant to answer my questions concerning anything closely related to the forefathers. Only, after I made it clear that I have respect for their traditional beliefs, I succeeded in getting the desired information. In Moslem villages, I was also known under the same nickname but Moslems were not worried the least about my opinions and were not hesitant to answer the same questions. Return ^

28) The performances of the Tiga Malam ritual on the third night of the death of a person is a case in point. It was believed that the spirit of the deceased lingers about his former domicile after death and the ritual is held to make it possible for him to sever his ties with the living and move to the abode of the dead. Sometimes, in attempts to justify this ritual, it was said to be performed in commemoration of Christ's rising from the dead after the third day, but the implied comparison between the son of God and common mortals is in itself a heresy hardly acceptable in Christian terms. Yet, neither the Dutch clergy nor their Ambonese successors have had much luck in their efforts to eradicate this “superstition”. A breakthrough was achieved, after the church stopped opposing the performance of the ritual, but instead offered an alternative by encouraging the bereaved to hold a prayer meeting under the leadership of the minister or some church elder that night in order to ask God for the salvation of the deceased. The belief that the spirit remains nearby for three days has not yet completely disappeared, but since the ritual took on a Christian context, the Christian meaning has been rapidly replacing the traditional one. (For more details on symbolic conversion, see Bartels 1978). Return ^

29) The exception to this Moslem openness seemed to have been that they appeared to have discriminated against Moslem Butonese who they considered as being of inferior status just like the Ambonese Christians. The latter were formerly much more ethnically exclusive in dealing with religious brethren from other ethnic groups than the Moslems. For example, in pre-WW II times, Chinese Christians were, at times, refused entry into Ambonese main church in Ambon City (Kraemer 1958: 20) because Ambonese then conceived Christianity parochially not as a universal brotherhood but rather as an ethnic privilege they were willing to only share with their Dutch masters. Return ^

30) At the time, 'Ambonese society' was used by both sides to exclusively refer to the bi-religious community of ethnic Ambonese living in the Ambonese culture area. While, the urban areas has always been multi-ethnic and multi-religious, the rural regions were still considered Ambonese domain with non-Ambonese living mostly in separate villages. Both Ambonese Moslems and Christians considered them as outsiders with whom they had to put up with because of governmental restraints. There was some symbiosis on the economic level between natives and non-natives, some intermarriages with Ambonese Moslems also occurred but, culturally, there was a strict separation. This unbridgeable gulf existed even with Butonese who had been living there for generations. Overwhelmingly, both Moslems and Christians, considered them as inferior, backward people. Return ^

31) 'Negeri' means 'country' or 'land'. In the traditional Central Moluccan political system villages were considered as independent entities, called 'dorpsrepublieken' (village republics) by the Dutch in the colonial period. Return ^

32) During a visit in 1998 to a number of villages on the islands of Nusalaut and Saparua, I found that most of the village heads either displayed a very limited knowledge of traditional adat, including pela or called former adat officials to aid them to answer my questions. One village head even gave me the Dutch-Moluccan interpretation of pela marriage which is in contradiction with Ambonese custom. In some instances, the old raja, or someone from his line, was elected kepala desa, making some continuity possible. However, the absence of the tuan tanah, kepala adat, and the soa heads from the village council eradicated adat as a guiding principle in village politics. (For more details on traditional village structure, see Cooley 1962 and Bartels 1994). Return ^

33) Some villages, both Christian and Moslem, elected the hereditary rajahs as kepala desa, as well as other traditional leaders as council members, making the transition less drastic. These villages generally have been much less fanatical vis-a-vis the other religious groups. Return ^

34) Pastor Agus Ulahaiyanan presented his findings at the Seminar Nasional Pertahanan dan Konsolidasi Perdamaian bagi Masyarakat Indonesia Timor (Seminar for National Security and Consolidation of Peace in East Indonesia) in Maumere (Flores) on August 26, 2000. The Catholic priest is convinced that the youths are exploited by outsiders with larger political designs on the national level. Aditjondro (2000) supports this statement saying that “the presence of these thugs....enabled the masterminds of the Moluccan violence to 'indigenize' -- or more accurately, 'Ambonize' -- the state-sponsored violence in Maluku.” He stresses that these gangs operated openly during the Suharto era. Return ^

35) Kairatu was the site of heavy fighting on February 3-5 between indigenous Christians and resettled Moslems who were assisted by Moslems from Haruku and Butonese living in the area. Other Seramese Christian villages also joined the fracas (Human Rights Watch 1999). Return ^

36) In the 1970s, the then village chief of Hatusua observed the diligence of the people in a nearby Javanese settlement and compared their lifestyle to the much more leisurely way of life of his own village. He warned the youth of his village to change their ways and learn from the Javanese, or “one day you will be the servants of the Javanese.” For the most part, his warnings were unheaded and the inability, and/or unwillingness, of the native Christians to adjust to the new reality contributed much to their economic dilemma. Whatever may be the case, the natives see their predicament directly caused by the newcomers and therefore direct their ire against them. Return ^

37) For the background of this schism, see Chauvel 1990: 165-168. Return ^

38) Kariuw has been attacked early in 1999, like Haruku-Sameth, by people from the neighboring Moslem villages of Pelauw, Ori, Rohomoni, Kailolo, and Kabau which form (together with Christian Hulaliu) the ancient village confederation of Hatuhaha. The land of Kariu has been occupied since by the Moslems, while the about 1,500 inhabitants of Kariu have found shelter in the Christian village of Aboru. They are demanding that Governor Saleh Latuconsina (who originates from Pelauw) allows them to return to their burnt-down village to rebuild their homes (Jakarta Post 2/12/2000). Return ^

39) Interview with Sekretaris Desa, Adbdul Gapur Teheloula Amahoru in Iha on July 3, 2000. Return ^

40) Batumerah is close to the Christian ward of Mardika in Ambon City. They were engaged in a fierce and ongoing conflict which led to the burning of churches and mosques, as well as private residences and businesses, and cost the lives of many people on both sides, often innocent bystanders. There are also Christians living within the village limits of Batumerah. They too have suffered horrendously. In Phase II, women and children of Mardika have fled while many of the men have remained to try to defend their property in case of an Islamic attack, although they know of its futility under the present unequal conditions. Return ^

41) Colonel Herman Pieters who retired in 1960. Return ^

42) I owe this analysis largely to Richard Chauvel who discussed this subject matter in a paper titled Ambon's Second Tragedy: History, Ethnicity and Religion, presented at the 5th International Maluku Research Conference in Darwin, Australia on July 14, 1999. Return ^

43) Ambonese Moslem business men are still quite rare. Even now, Moslem villagers, like their Christian counterparts prefer living off the land rather than engaging in business. In this sense, Ambonese Moslems also lacked behind their brethren who immigrated to the Moluccas from other parts of Indonesia. Return ^

44) In the late colonial period Christians made up roughly two thirds and Moslems one third of the Ambonese population. At the end of the colonial era the split Christians-Moslems was about 55-45 percent. Recent estimates suggest an about even split. The demographic shift was caused by Christian out-migration and Moslem in-migration (Chauvel 1999:4). Return ^

45) 'In Dutch times and even during the Sukarno area the Butonese were the dominant immigrant group but they usually kept a very low profile as tricycle (becak) drivers and in other unskilled manual labor jobs. Return ^

46) The military in the Moluccas was eventually placed under the command of a Christian, Pangdam XVI/Pattimura Brigjen Max Tamaela, probably to create some sort of balance to the Ambonese-Moslem governor of Maluku, Saleh Latuconsina. However, the Christians are very distrustful of Tamaela, calling him “Mohammad Tamaela” because they believe that he sold them out. Return ^

47) . President Abdurrachman Wahid himself gave credence to the rogue army officer theory when, in March 1999 as opposition leader, he accused Maj. Gen. Kivlan Zein, a Suharto family associate, of being behind the violence in Ambon. For more details on rogue military officers and gangsters, see Human Rights Watch (1999) and Klinken (1999). Return ^

48) During my fieldwork in the 1970s, it was stated by a plurality of informants that pela partners were obliged to enter a fight on the side of their allied village, regardless of religious affiliation, when the latter was feuding with another village, even if they thought that their partner was clearly in the wrong. However, some village leaders stated that they would refuse to do so only if their allies were innocent and about to be humiliated. Aid would also not forthcoming unsolicited and villages were reluctant to ask for aid. In some instances, pela partners actually functioned successfully as mediators and peace brokers in disputes. All out war between several pela alliances was unheard of (Bartels 1977: 201-202). Return ^

49) Interview with several village officials in Haria on July 4, 2000.Return ^

50) One of the reasons for the greater strength of adat in the Tenggara region may be its relative isolation. Also, the Catholic church there has been much more tolerant towards religious syncretism, being less threatened by an ancestor cult. During the current crisis in Ambon City, the Dutch-born mother superior told me that the ancestors of Greater Kei are protecting their convent of mostly nuns from the Kei Islands. When they had to flee to the Protestant village of Soya in the mountains behind Ambon City, they were housed in the baileo, the traditional, ancestral village council house. The Catholic sisters performed an adat ceremony to appease the ancestors of Soya. They were pleased when shortly thereafter a certain type of rain occurred, a sign of ancestral approval. Return ^

51) Hengky Hattu, Maluku pasca kerusuhan 1999 (Maluku in the Aftermath of the 1999 Riots). Paper presented at the Moluccan Historical Museum, Utrecht (Netherlands). May 27, 1999. Return ^

52) The Habibie administration responded to calls for more regional autonomy by revoking the Undang-Undang No. 55/1974 on regional administration and Undang-Undang No.5/1979 on village administration, replacing them with on combined Law (Undang-Undang) No. 22/1999 on regional administration, supplemented by Law 25/1999 on financial balance between the various levels of administration. (Soemardjan 2000:4). Return ^

53) Interview with Sekretaris Desa, Adbdul Gapur Teheloula Amahoru in Iha on July 3, 2000. Return ^

54) Booi on Saparua is the fourth village in this particular alliance. Hualoi was involved in the total destruction of the Christian village of Seriholo (near Kairatu) on the South coast of Seram on September 8, 1999. Mostly rebuilt with aid from the military, Hualoi and other Moslem villages attacked the village again at the anniversary of the first attack. The supposed participation of more than a thousand white-clothed warriors point to heavy involvement of the Laskar Jihad. Hualoi cotinues to be involved in assaults on Christian villages. Together with Latu, it attacked the inland village of Ahiolo on October 14 and together with Kelapa Dua, it assailed Waitasi (close to Kairatu) on October 17, 2000. Return ^

55) Visits by President Abdurrahman Wahid and Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri to Ambon to mediate between the combatants have brought no results whatsoever. Perhaps Wahid's rather helpless statement that Moluccans must solve their own differences has more truth to it than many Moluccans want to admit. Return ^


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