Central Sulawesi and its town of Poso lie at the intersection of four peninsulas which make up Sulawesi, the fourth largest island in Indonesia. Sulawesi is an impoverished, and comparatively under-populated, region of Indonesia where most earn a living from fishing and farming. Traditionally, the majority Muslim population has co-existed harmoniously with the minority Christians, most of whom live in the north and in the Poso area. Following President Suharto's resignation in 1998, tensions between the two religious groups rose when Poso's Muslim governor proposed a Muslim successor instead of the customary alternate Christian. The influx of Muslim migrants from Java has contributed to inter-religious tensions between Christians and Muslims, an influx which has reduced the numbers and influence of the Christian population.
A brawl triggered Muslim attacks on Christian homes and churches, and sporadic violence continued until it escalated in April 2000 when hundreds of Christian homes were destroyed and many people killed. In May 2000, Christian retaliated by attacking Muslim villages, terrorizing and killing occupants, and reportedly dumping bodies of many victims in the Poso River.
In mid-2001, hundreds of members of the Java-based Laskar Jihad began arriving on the island, allegedly from fighting between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas, and violence escalated again in November. A paramilitary group called the Red Force emerged to retaliate on behalf of the Christians. since early 2002 clashes have been sporadic. In addition to more than a thousand deaths, the fighting has displaced an estimated 50,000 people.
In December 2001, leaders of the Muslim and Christian communities met in government-sponsored peace talks. These resulted in the Malino Declaration and an apparent end to the violence. Following that declaration, in August 2002 more violence occured when armed civilian militias began bombing Christian churches, buses, and homes, leaving about 25 people, mostly Christians, dead. As a result, the Indonesian government sent security reinforcements to the province as part of a country-wide effort to crack down on civilian militias like the Lashar Jihad which was blamed for the latest round of violence. Christian leaders in the Poso district accused these security forces of complicity in the atrocities committed against Christians by Muslim extremists. Despite the violence, some Christian and Muslim leaders met in August, 2002 to reaffirm their support for the peace deal reached in December 2001 and security forces reported the collection of over 30,000 weapons.
In 2003, the relative calm of the first part of the year enabled the Indonesian government to withdraw about 1000 of its soldiers and police deployed to Sulawesi at the height of the conflict. However, several attacks occured in October 2003 aginst Christians, leaving over 30 people dead. Several members of the Sulawesi-based militant Muslim group, Mujahidin KOMPAK - widely believed to be linked to the regional militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) - were arrested in connection with the attacks. A fatal attack on two Balinese Hindus suggested the conflict, which thus far has been limited to Christian and Muslim communities, could envelope other religious groups as well.
Following the October attacks roughly 200 police and soliders were redeployed to the province. The arrest of al Qaeda operative Hambali in June was a significant development in the government's nation-wide campaign against Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group widely believed to be involved in the Sulawesi conflict.
In 2004, less than 25 people were reported killed in sporadic inter-religious clashes. That year, reports from Indonesian and international human rights groups also accused government forces and police personnel of more than 80 human rights violations over the past two years.
Despite coverage of Indoensian human rights abuses, the government conducted a door-to-door police operation in the region searching houses and properties for weapons was conducted over several months and resulted in the confiscation of hundreds of weapons and homemade bombs. Former Army General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, campaigning on economic and security issues, won a September 2004 election for Indonesian president by a wide margin.
In May 28, 2005 an explosion in a busy market in the Christian town of Tentena killed 22 people, while in October 2005, 3 masked Muslim attackers decapitated 3 teenage Christian schoolgirls in Poso. To stop revenge attacks against Muslims, Indonesian President Yudhoyono sent 400 additional security and police patrols into Sulawesi
In September 27th, 2006 three Christian leaders of the Red Force, Fabianus Tibo, Marinus Riwu and Dominggus Silva were executed at 1:45am in Palu, central Sulawesi. They were sentenced to death in 2001 for leading an attack in 2000 on an Islamic boarding school in Sulawesi, in which some 200 people were killed. Violence erupted across several parts of eastern Indonesia as a result because their trial and death sentence were viewed as unfair and pressured by Muslim majority mobs who threatened judges and prosecutors with death.
A prison in Atambua, in West Timor, the home of one of the militants, was stormed and 200 men escaped and attacked the prosecutors' office. In the region of Flores, where the other two were born, police fired warning shots to save a parliament building from a mob. Protesters blocked roads and torched buildings elsewhere. In the Poso district of Sulawesi, where the conflict took place in 2000 to 2001, gangs burnt cars and police posts. These incidents escalated into an open clash between Muslim militants and police forces in October of 2006.
An investigation by a police counter-terrorism team in February 2006 resulted in the arrest of a JI teacher named Sahl and the beginning of revelations about JI involvement in the area. Islamic religious schools in Sulawesi were implicated as a hideaway for JI militants, many of which have since fled or been arrested. Police operations revealed that the organization was well established in Central Sulawesi, identifying three units that coordinated militant activity in Poso, Pendolo, and Palu, receiving weapons and explosives from Java, which is well known as the main base of JI activities. Arrests of two militants from the local terrorist group KOMPAK suggests that it was also involved in the violence and still retains a significant operational capability which could threaten the recently established peace.
Subsequent police raids in January of 2007 saw several shootouts and the arrest or killing of many of the JI militants in the dominantly Muslim district of Poso called Tanah Runtuh. By mid-2007, with a series of arrests, raids against religious schools that might be supporting Muslim militants, and increased military and police presence in Sulawesi, JI was effectively removed as a factor in the conflict in Sulawesi.
In order to capitalize on their success in early 2007 the Indonesian government decided to institute vocational programs to combat the contextual sources of the violence in Poso, which were identified as a lack of practical skill training for young Muslim men, resulting in unemployment and vulnerability to the recruiting methods of groups like JI and KOMPAK. Consequently, both training and financial assistance programs had been introduced for former members of the terrorist groups and those considered potentials by the police.
These efforts were turned over to an NGO, Y2B, which decided to expand them into programs designed to create reconciliation between the two communities by enrolling Christian men and focusing on economic projects that would include both Muslims and Christians such as fish raising. The government also plans the creation of a new pesantren- under construction as of 2009 -modeled on the prestigious Gontor institution in Indonesia, which combines religious education and technical training.
Recovery in Poso has been reflective of the difficult nature of conflict resolution in Indonesia, having been marred by setbacks due to the disagreement of local actors and rampant corruption. Often, cash grants and financial aid given by the national government to improve Poso that has been untargeted or without specific beneficiaries did not produce any tangible results and was wasted via corruption or fraud. Administrative graft, fraud by cooperative and fake proposals are common, and so far eight officials involved in distributing funds for economic recovery have been convicted on corruption charges. As a consequence of this corruption, much of the public trust in the government programs has been undermined and as of 2009 the NGOs maintain their dislike of the police, which in Indonesia continues to have a negative reputation as a highly corrupt institution.
As of 2009, it has been 10 years since the Poso conflict in Central Sulawesi, and various groups have met to evaluate peace developments in Poso following the Malino peace treaty, but many issues are still unresolved. There remains an atmosphere of tension amongst people in Sulawesi because Poso's special status has not yet beenlifted by the national government, requiring the government to post reinforcements of some 1,600 additional police personnel in the area. Local community leaders argued that the number of police officers in Poso should be adjusted to meet the needs of the local residents, and have urged the government to reevaluate Poso's status. The government has not yet taken steps towards that end.
The government has initiated various programs to resolve the conflict and associated issues, but these had focused on issues of security and law enforcement. Local residents protested that issues affecting women and children, the group they believe most susceptible to the impacts of conflict, have been overlooked, with many lacking access to proper education, health care and economic empowerment programs. In response to local complaints that the government has not done enough for social and economic reconstruction or development, Poso Regent Piet Inkiriwang argued Poso regency had disbursed Rp 600 million (about US$60,000) in 2009 for the Poso Women's Empowerment Program, which is a higher figure compared to the Rp 300-400 million spent in previous years.
As of 2009, Poso has beenrelatively calm compared to previous years but reports in 2009 suggested a number of terror suspects are hiding there. Police have so far listed six suspects in their wanted list: Taufik Bulaga (alias "Upik Lawanga"), Iin ("Brur"), Nanto ("Bojel"), Iwan Asapa ("Ale"), Enal ("Tao") and Hamdara Tamil ("Papa Yus").
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