Separatist Group Defies Indonesian State To Mark 'Independence Day'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Defying a government crackdown, a banned separatist group pressed ahead Thursday with provocative displays of a republican flag in Indonesia's Maluku province, where thousands have died in Christian-Muslim violence in recent years.

The provincial government earlier invoked civil emergency powers in an effort to prevent an outbreak of violence, imposing press curbs, extending the hours of a night curfew, banning visits by foreigners, and arresting the leader of the Christian-dominated Maluku Sovereignty Front (FKM).

Followers of FKM leader Dr. Alex Manuputty said they would go ahead with their plans to raise the flag of the South Maluku Republic (Republik Maluku Seletan, or RMS), a short-lived state from half a century ago.

April 25 is the 52nd anniversary of the declaration of the RMS, marked by republicans as "independence day."

Muslims protested the FKM's attempts to hoist the red, white, blue and green RMS flag, but there were no reports of violence.

Republicans managed to fly some flags attached to air balloons, while hundreds of flags reportedly were seized.

The incidents come just two months after community leaders reached a fragile, state-brokered peace agreement in February.

The peace deal was aimed at ending a conflict that broke out in 1999. That conflict, spurred by the arrival in the province of thousands of Islamic fighters from a radical militia called Laskar Jihad, cost more than 5,000 lives. More than half a million people were displaced.

Amid claims by the Christian community that the government was not providing it with protection against the militants, the FKM was established in 2000, with the aim, it said, of defending Christians and reviving the dream of an independent state.

Neither the FKM nor the Laskar Jihad supported the peace deal - which did not require the militiamen to leave the area - and there have been some incidents since February, including an early April bombing in a Christian area of the capital, Ambon, in which seven people were killed.

Republicans say the Christian-Muslim violence has been a direct result of the loss of sovereignty in southern Maluku, one of the few areas in the world's most populous Muslim state to have a sizeable Christian population.

The FKM's formation added just one more separatist headache for the authorities in Jakarta.

Indonesian unity is already strained by a Muslim separatist movement in Aceh on the western edge of the archipelago, while Melanesian Christians agitate for independence in Papua (Irian Jaya) in the far east.

Determined to maintain the relative calm in Maluku, provincial governor Saleh Latuconsina ordered a crackdown on the FKM earlier this month.

Manuputty was arrested last Wednesday, and may face subversion charges carrying a maximum life jail term, the Jakarta Post reported this week.

It quoted Maluku authorities as saying local and foreign media had been banned from reporting on the situation there until April 30, in a bid to "create a feeling of safety among the people as well to restore security and order in the province."

A curfew was imposed from 10 p.m to 6 a.m., and during those hours, meetings of more than 10 people were banned.

Fr. Cornelius Bohm of the Ambon Catholic Crisis Center said Christians felt "betrayed" because Manuputty was in detention, while a well-known group of Muslim figures who also opposed the peace agreement were walking free.

Another FKM leader, Louis Risakotta, said the flag-raising would highlight two demands: the expulsion of fighters from outside - read Laskar Jihad - and a chance to vote for independence in a referendum. A U.N.-organized referendum in another part of Indonesia led to imminent independence for East Timor.

The RMS was declared in 1950 in the mostly Christian southern Maluku islands, amid the confusion of talks in The Hague leading to Indonesian independence from Dutch rule.

Forces of the newly independent Indonesia quickly overran the republic, whose RMS leaders went into exile in the Netherlands. The FKM says that move by Jakarta constituted an illegal annexation, and is campaigning for a restoration of "sovereignty."

Meanwhile, the Crisis Center and other local organizations have warned of a possible outbreak of violence in the days ahead.

Feeding concerns is the fact many weapons are believed still to be in the area, despite the February peace deal.

The UK-based Christian aid group, Barnabas Fund, said that although weapons were being surrendered in Maluku in the aftermath of the agreement, the voluntary disarmament may be one-sided.

"In Ambon at least, local Christian leaders believe that nearly all of the weapons surrendered, most of which were primitive locally-made devices, have been handed over by Christians who used them to defend their families and homes, whilst virtually none of the more sophisticated weapons used by Islamic militant groups have been surrendered."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow