Indonesian traditions of peace at work in Poso

by Sholehudin A. Aziz
26 May 2009
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Jakarta - When most Indonesians think of Poso, a town in eastern Indonesia once famous for its cacao, they think of the 1998 inter-religious conflict between Muslims and Christians. The violence is believed to have begun as a result of fighting between two young people from different religious communities during Ramadan, the fasting month for Muslims. The resulting conflict cost not only thousands of lives, houses and places of worship, but also hindered the town's development and hurt its local traditions, practices of coexistence and intercultural tolerance.

The government made various efforts to stop the conflict, including facilitating a 2001 meeting between Muslim and Christian religious leaders in Malino, a town in South Sulawesi, which concluded with the signing of the Malino Peace Accord on 21 December. In this accord Christian and Muslim delegates agreed to cease fighting and foster an atmosphere of religious coexistence. While this did not stop the violence completely, it helped reduce the mob-mentality that had characterised the early stages of the conflict.

Since then, despite some sporadic incidents of violence, the inhabitants of Poso have undertaken different initiatives to restore peace and re-integrate the conflicting communities. During a research visit to Poso in early 2009, I had the opportunity to observe some of these initiatives.

Local Christian and Muslim leaders have re-established communication amongst themselves and their followers; they have restored traditional markets in which people from different communities can mingle and conduct business transactions, assisted refugees from different religious groups to return to their homes and encouraged members of all communities to clean up and rebuild their neighbourhoods, including schools and public bathrooms.

The inhabitants of Poso have also proactively engaged one another in activities such as soccer and volleyball competitions. As part of a "reconciliation tour", a group of women from Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods went together to visit houses and places of worship destroyed during the conflict. Both groups saw firsthand the grievances of the other and realised that they were equally disadvantaged by the conflict.

Peace is almost fully restored in Poso and inter-religious relations have improved significantly. People are able to carry out their daily activities going to work and to the markets without fear of getting caught in the violence of the past. A forum to facilitate communication between religious communities has been established, and in some areas religious communities have agreed to suspend activities during major ritual observances like Sunday mass or Friday prayer. More importantly, people are less inclined to respond with violence to the provocative incidents, such as small explosions, that do occur.

Yet wounds from the conflict still need healing and some fear that certain groups are trying to take advantage of the tenuous post-conflict situation. As a result, additional steps are needed to maintain and improve peaceful relations and social integration.

A culture of active tolerance between different groups needs to be revitalised as a foundation for stronger integration where all parties not only recognise the legitimacy of each other's perspectives, but also respect them.

Efforts to grow such a brand of tolerance and to encourage integration between communities can be carried out by revitalising concepts prevalent in Poso, such as Sintuwu Maroso, working together and helping each other; Pamona, social responsibility; Nosialapale, transparency; and Membetulungi Mombepalae, social awareness. The performance of local cultural practices such as the traditional Dero dance bringing men and women from different ethnic and religious backgrounds to dance hand in hand should be also revived and encouraged.

Some of those who are involved in violence have been tried and sentenced. But the government must work harder to uphold the law equally, so no group feels that the government victimises some and protects others. This neutrality must extend to all government policies relating to Poso, based on principles of good governance and transparency, and a commitment to avoid and eradicate corruption and nepotism.

Community empowerment programmes involving both communities would enable individuals and groups to come together and cooperate on common interests. Building roads, places of worship, and public facilities, and organizing business development activities, when they are carried out jointly, would help tighten the bond that was loosened.

Ultimately, maintaining the peace that has been flourishing in Poso will take more than the absence of violence. But building tolerance and fostering the desire and will to cooperate will enable all inhabitants to enjoy prosperity, freedom and justice together.

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* Sholehudin A. Aziz is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture (CSRC) at the Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 May 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
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