May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Waiting for peace in Poso

Lorraine V Aragon

Poso district residents have lived with religious violence since December 1998. After three years of episodic fighting, death toll estimates range from 1,000 to 2,500, with thousands more injured. Scores of churches and mosques have been torched. Nearly 100,000 have fled their burning homes, leaving the capital of Poso district described at one time as a 'dead city', though some are now returning.

It began as a street fight between hot-headed young men, one Protestant and one Muslim, during a tense local political campaign. The brawl quickly deteriorated into a religiously polarised battle in this formerly quiet, multiethnic region. Police and military forces could not, or would not, stop the arson and attacks between the two communities.

The infrastructure of Poso city and surrounding towns is devastated. Refugees in holding camps suffer harsh conditions and burden locals - mostly Muslims in Palu and South Sulawesi, mostly Christians in North Sulawesi, Tentena, and the Lore Valley. Fear and vengefulness have made it difficult to stop the cycle of bloodshed. A recent peace agreement formulated in Malino, South Sulawesi, shows promise but faces challenges in its implementation.

Dutch missionaries from the early 1900s converted indigenous animist groups in the mountainous interior of what is now Central Sulawesi province. The colonial administration envisioned these Protestants as an allied population buffer against Muslim-influenced coastal kingdoms. Many of these slash-and-burn farmers were resettled in model villages and taught wet-rice farming by the Dutch. Most groups living around Poso Lake, between Poso and the mission center of Tentena, came to identify themselves ethnically as Pamona.

The Japanese Occupation and independence in 1945 was followed by a chaotic period when Muslim rebels from South Sulawesi attacked interior animists and Christians. Yet, once the Suharto regime took control, the majority population of the region still was Protestant ('Kristen' in Indonesian), and Pamona leaders exercised partial control over the local bureaucracy.

Much had changed by the end of Suharto's presidency. In 1973, Suharto designated Central Sulawesi as one of ten new transmigration provinces. The Trans-Sulawesi Highway was cut into the rugged mountain forests to ease the path for transmigrants. The new roads and settlements also attracted a flood of voluntary migrants, especially Muslim Bugis and Makassar people from South Sulawesi.

The financial crisis beginning in late 1997 spurred further immigration into the ebony-producing Poso area. Entrepreneurial Muslims arrived from South Sulawesi to cash-crop cacao, an agricultural export that maintained an exceptionally high value during the crisis. Pamona Protestants lost their religious and ethnic majorities in the district. Many also had been displaced from their ancestral lands through processes of land commodification that had nothing to do with religion.

Pamona Protestant Christians, like many interior groups in the outer islands, had also lost some of their indigenous political control. After the 1970s, much local authority was removed from customary councils of elders and transferred to a national bureaucracy. Modernist Muslims were installed in high-ranking military posts and Christians found it harder to get their leaders selected for local governance. By the end of his presidency, Suharto himself had become more pro-Muslim. Protestant mission funding became closely regulated. The government seized many schools and clinics originally funded by churches.

District mayor

When the Poso violence began in December 1998, the district mayor (bupati) of Poso was a Muslim named Arief Patanga. Patanga's term of office was due to expire in June 1999. His district secretary (sekretaris wilayah daerah, sekwilda) was a Protestant Pamona named Yahya Patiro. This type of religious power-sharing at the district level had been known in earlier New Order Poso. Many Christians hoped Patiro would succeed his Muslim predecessor. Muslim factions, representing Bugis-influenced ethnic groups along the coast and towards South Sulawesi, promoted Muslim candidates. The new economic stakes raised the election heat. The 1999 Regional Autonomy Laws promised a shift in control over resources from the national to the regional level. Both Muslim and Christian elites in Poso viewed this election as critical to their future access to government contracts.

The street fight that began in the heart of Poso city on the eve of both Christmas and Ramadan, 1998, fed into religious tensions promoted by inflammatory graffiti during the campaign. Soon, supporters from allied towns arrived to reinforce the Protestant and Muslim mobs. After a week of chaotic street fighting and arson, about 200 people were injured and 400 homes burned.

Reportedly, Christians suffered most of the damage in what became the conflict's 'first phase'. A Pamona Protestant leader of the political campaign, Herman Parimo, was jailed for heading a group of fighting Christians. No Muslims were prosecuted. This apparently partisan response by the authorities increased Protestant resentment.

A second escalating street fight occurred in mid-April 2000. By that time, a Muslim (although not the prior incumbent's favourite) had been installed as the new district mayor. When a Muslim youth reported being knifed by a Protestant, a Muslim posse began a retaliation campaign that the police could not handle. Supporters with homemade weapons again arrived from allied Muslim and Protestant towns. Army personnel followed from Makassar, South Sulawesi, but the fighting continued for over two weeks. By early May, over 700 homes had been burned, mostly belonging to Christians, along with several church buildings and a police barracks. Thousands of refugees, mostly Christians, fled.

The 'third phase' began only three weeks later when a group of Christians made a night-time raid on the Muslims they considered responsible for the earlier destruction of Christian neighbourhoods. The masked 'ninja' group of about a dozen men is alleged to have included both Protestant Pamona and Catholic immigrants from Flores who resided in the Poso district.

Fighting then intensified throughout the region, abetted by teams of local Christian militias. This third phase culminated in a massacre of Javanese men who fled to a Muslim boarding school in a transmigration area south of Poso. Over a hundred were executed with homemade weapons, their bodies tossed in the Poso River and mass graves. The fighting continued until the end of July 2000, when three Catholic ringleaders were captured. These Flores immigrants were tried between December 2000 and April 2001, when they were sentenced to death. To date, their appeals have been rejected and they await execution by firing squad.

Despite a few high-profile reconciliation efforts in late 2000, many criticised the lack of government aid and biased processes of law enforcement. Sporadic fighting continued and most refugees were too scared to return home. Instead, the population underwent an increasing de facto religious segregation - Muslims in Poso city, Protestants in the highland towns.

During the first months of 2001, violence worsened again. In addition to surprise attacks on farmers, disgruntled factions planted bombs in religious buildings and police posts. After the three Catholics were sentenced to death, attacks on Muslims increased. This began to be called 'phase four.' Then in July, the Laskar Jihad group, based in Yogyakarta, sent emissaries to meet with senior religious and government leaders in Central Sulawesi.

Violence surged again at the end of 2001 when thousands of well-armed Laskar Jihad troops were added to the volatile mix of local fighters. Over a hundred more persons were killed in what we can call 'phase five'. By mid-November, desperate pleas emerged from Protestant towns. Christians reported invasions by Muslim militias who threatened to rule the area by the end of Ramadan. At least half a dozen churches and 4,000 houses in thirty villages were burned, seemingly under the blind eye of security forces. Roughly 15,000 more people fled their homes. Muslim militias seized control of fuel stations and roadside checkpoints, where some displayed posters of Osama bin Laden.

In the aftermath of September 11th, these reports caught the attention of government officials and human rights workers in the United States and elsewhere, and led to pressure on the Indonesian government to control radical Muslims.

Peace agreement

On December 4, 2001, Indonesia's chief security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, traveled to Sulawesi to meet with Muslim and Christian leaders. Jusuf Kalla, the Coordinating Minister for the People's Welfare (Menko Kesra), was assigned as mediator. Roughly fifty delegates, half Muslim and half Christian, met separately with Kalla in Malino, South Sulawesi.

On December 20, 2001, a ten-point bilateral peace agreement was announced. With the arrival of 4,000 military and police, as well as national and international attention on Central Sulawesi, Christmas proceeded peacefully. At New Year's, four Protestant churches were bombed in the provincial capital of Palu, but implementation of the accord continued.

The Malino Agreement includes some unarguable points: both sides should stop fighting, obey laws, expect security forces to be firm and fair, reject unauthorised 'outside' interference or militias, stop slander, and promote apologies and respect for all traditions and religions. Problems likely will come in implementing points such as weapons collection and the return of property to 'pre-conflict' status. It will be difficult to divide rehabilitation funds fairly and resettle about 90,000 refugees, who may claim land now occupied by other mobile citizens. Finally, there is the lingering issue of power sharing at the political level, an issue raised by the Christian delegates, but not included in the final peace agreement.

Lorraine Aragon ( teaches anthropology at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, USA. She has published several articles and a book on highland Sulawesi ('Fields of the Lord', University of Hawai'i Press, 2000). Her longer article about the Poso conflicts appears in Cornell University's journal 'Indonesia', vol. 72, October 2001.

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.