Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry

Indonesian extremists continue to portray Ambonese Christians as engaged in separatist rebellion against Indonesia, and a crusade against Muslims. This isn’t true, but raises the question: where on earth did they get this idea?

The adage that if a lie gets repeated enough times it becomes true is, apparently, applicable in Indonesia’s Ambon region. It was home to a brief separatist insurgency following the Indonesian revolution (1945-49).  Following their defeat in 1950, the separatists (who were Dutch loyalists and both Christian and Muslim) fled the region for asylum in Holland.  There they have carried the torch for an independent Republic of the Southern Moluccas (RMS) ever since.


A strange thing happened with the case of the RMS over time, however: It came to be perceived as a Christian movement that is anti-Islam in nature. Islamist sources in Indonesia repeated this claim Tuesday as the 25 April anniversary of the declaration of the RMS approaches:

History shows that the formation of the RMS is a kind of rebellion among a number of Christian Moluccans opposed to the Jakarta Charter (that would impose Shariah law as state law) as the foundation for the state… This proves that the Moluccan Christian Community has the spirit of separatism, where the church protects these separatist movements.

Nevermind that Islamist extremists aren’t particularly fond of the Indonesian state and its newfound democracy, and that some of them want the state dissolved into a pan-Southeast Asian caliphate that include Malaysia, southern Thailand, Singapore, and southern Philippines.

Scholars – notably Richard Chauvel – have noted that the RMS movement was supported by both Christians and Muslims, especially those who gained by their associations with the Dutch. This included village-level and higher Muslim authorities. They were supported by the Dutch and felt that they would lose the prestige and financial rewards – and be punished by the Indonesians – for this association with the former colonizer.

Because much of the fighting that occurred was between the Ambonese Dutch colonial soldiers (who were predominantly Christian and trusted by the Dutch) and the predominantly Muslim nascent Indonesian military, the perception that it was a war of Christians versus Muslims emerged and spread. This is despite the fact that Indonesia’s first president had Christian Moluccans among some of his most trusted (and rewarded) advisers.

While it is true that most Christians, including Moluccans (such as Johannes Leimena, co-founder of the Christian political party Parkindo and member of both Sukarno’s and Suharto’s cabinets) opposed the Jakarta Charter and lobbied against it, so did many Muslims. Opposing the Jakarta Charter did not make one a separatist, but rather merely one who disagreed with Sharia as the foundation of the state. But among some of today’s Islamist thinkers in in Indonesia, opposing sharia as state law makes one a separatist.

After the debate over the Jakarta Charter, many of the Muslims who supported it, such as Muslim cleric, scholar and prolific writer Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, essentially conceded their loss and accepted the desire of the majority. The country had more pressing problems to overcome. In the early years of Indonesian independence, Sukarno made repeated overtures to reassure the Moluccan Christians (and Christians elsewhere) that they would be welcome in the Indonesian fold, even while the smoldering remnants of the RMS waged a low-intensity guerrilla war on nearby Ceram Island (the main RMS rebellion was put down within a year or so).

When Suharto came to power, however, things changed. Following a bloody purge of communist and left-leaning Indonesians, Suharto imposed a security state based on fear to create stability. Despite the lack of danger from the extinguished RMS, Suharto treated the Ambon region as a threat, built up a strong military presence there, and continued to cite it (along with West Papua, Aceh, and after its 1975 invasion, East Timor) as a threat to the unity of the Indonesian state. He planned to ease population density on Java and elsewhere and to “water down” Christian communities perceived as supporting separatism. So Suharto ordered forced and voluntary transmigration to Ambon and other regions. This sparked resentment.

In 1998, the East Asian Economic Crisis caused chaos that crippled Indonesia’s economy and led to the abdication of Suharto. Violence between Christians and Muslims broke out in Ambon and nearby regions. Scholarship has shown that political competition and jockeying for power in a newly democratizing Indonesia was a major factor in the violence in Ambon. The violence started between Christian Ambonese and non-Ambonese Muslim immigrants.

But the government – and Islamists – blamed the RMS. Muslim senior military officials were implicated in programs to send arms and armed groups to the region, which swung the advantage clearly to the Muslims fighting the Christians. A nervous peace emerged in the region following the conflict’s cessation.

It was shattered last September and December as Muslims once again battled Christians (see COMOPS blog post here). Again, Islamists blamed the RMS.

In my experience interviewing Christian Ambonese in Java and the Ambon region, they, and the vast majority of Christian Ambonese, remain frustrated but loyal Indonesians. No matter what they do or how vehemently they refute the accusation that they are separatists, they continue to be framed as such by Islamists and by some in the Indonesian government.

This legacy, dating back to the Suharto era, is based on lies and fear. It goes to show, however, that state-sponsored strategic communication – albeit with dubious goals – can come back to haunt. The nominal enemies of the state – in this case, Indonesia’s Islamist extremist community –  use these arguments to support their calls for violent jihad among a predominantly peaceful and loyal Ambonese Christian community.

Despite the tremendous positive changes Indonesia has made since beginning its transition to democracy, it continues to struggle in some regions that have or are currently experiencing conflict. Ambon is one such region. If the Indonesian government actively worked to dispel the myth that separatism was somehow tied to Christianity in the region and more actively promoted the role of patriotic Christian Ambonese (such as Leimena, who was declared a national hero), it would help to deflate the argument that the Indonesian state’s enemies – the Islamist extremists – are making. It could also deescalate some of the tensions that lead to spasms of violence, and eliminate some of the resentment among Christian Ambonese, many of whom are frustrated with being portrayed as a threat to the state. A more peaceful Ambon is in everyone’s interest – except the Islamist extremists.