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AUGUST 4 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 30 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Demont Tatlow .


Living on the Edge of Terror
Sometimes, only those caught up unwillingly in Asia's ethnic tugs-of-war can see clearly enough to pull for peace
By PENNY CRISP

ALSO:
The Federalism Option: It's been tried, but a new model is needed

What face does violent conflict wear? Is it among the ones we see on television each night -- the inscrutably hard mask of the professional soldier or the sharp eyes that a rebel's disguise cannot conceal? Is it inherent in the bellicose president or the smug coup-leader? Or is it the face of a child, shocked, puzzled, wracked by nightmares and tears? A face we try not to examine. What will 14-year-old Nordi, orphaned by machete-wielding mobs in Indonesia's Maluku islands, see in later years when he tries to conjure memories of his murdered parents and his razed home? Right now, Nordi sees very little from his squalid refugee shelter. He's too afraid to look.

Nordi's story (see page 52) is one of four told in the following pages. As an increasingly empowered Asia shakes off the arbitrarily drawn lines of its colonial past, as its governments wrestle corruption and embrace a more global outlook, old and new rivalries seem to gain fresh impetus. In Sri Lanka, war rages again on the Jaffna Peninsula while international peace-making efforts to unite Tamils and Sinhalese are spurned. In the Mindanao region of the Philippines, the government has claimed a military victory against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but cannot claim to have quashed the Muslim separatists. For Acehnese in Indonesia, both the autonomy and aid promised by President Abdurrahman Wahid's government are yet to arrive; fighting and atrocities remain part of everyday life. On the Maluku islands, particularly the Ambon flashpoint, the unfathomable internecine war between Christians and Muslims continues to tear the people apart. In West Papua, traditional Melanesians have voted for independence -- a desire already rejected by Indonesia. Political tension (steeped in ethnic rivalry and land claims) simmers in the Solomon islands. And the arc of conflict even reaches into the South Pacific, where Fijians await post-coup bargaining to decide the formation of their third government in as many months.

What are the forces roiling Asia's ethnic conflicts? What can realistically be done to move toward peace? And how can people caught up in conflicts stay alive and keep their sanity? Shattered East Timor often gets the blame for the upsurge in hostilities. Its long-sought independence from Indonesia, finally delivered last August, is said to have given voice to other malcontents around the region. Indeed, Philippine President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, in his State of the Nation address on July 24, told the MILF: "There is simply no space in our geography, in our demographics, and in our national mentality for forcibly carving another state out of the present Philippine territory. For that reason, the foreign models you invoke, like East Timor, will not work for you."

But, of course, blame is quite the wrong way to go. Part of Sri Lanka's current problems stems from the insistence on both sides of harking back to past wrongs or historical claims. By squabbling about things that cannot be changed, all parties avoid the need to tackle differences peacefully. A recent book on Tamil nationalism, written by a professor emeritus of political science at Canada's University of Brunswick, wastes most of its academic argument on who might have settled first in Sri Lanka: Tamils or Sinhalese. The author, a Tamil, concludes it probably was the Tamils. Ergo, Tamils are the wronged party.

Such logic causes people such as anthropologist Darini Rajasingham of the Colombo-based Social Scientists' Association to cast their eyes skyward. Rajasingham believes the war has nothing to do with ethnicity, but is a result of colonial and post-colonial nation-building that marginalized various groups. (This also applies to Mindanao and Maluku.) And these days, she contends, even most Sri Lankans are uninvolved. "The conflict is between two armed groups -- the army and the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] -- both of whom have a stake in keeping the war going," she says. "Civil society is not fighting. Ordinary Sinhalese and Tamils are not beating each other up on the streets." Certainly, Colombo residents Kumudini Samuel and Chandragupta Thenuwara are more likely to join an anti-war protest than to take up arms. Their mixed marriage has produced a son (see page 56), whom they would prefer to call a Sri Lankan. The government, however, insists he is Sinhalese.

Marriage is a metaphor used by Keith Fitzgerald, a former teaching fellow in national mediation and conflict resolution at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Now the director of Sea-Change, a negotiation consultancy based in Singapore, Fitzgerald points out that conflict exists everywhere -- even in the best marriages. "To try to rid the world of conflict is to plow the seas," he says. What needs to be defined is the problem causing the conflict -- then some progress can be made. Likewise, he says, resolution is the wrong word as well. "To imply that there is a signed piece of paper, a piece of legislation or a redrawn border that can make all this 'conflict' go away would be a serious mistake." Years of dictatorship (as has been the case in the Philippines and more lately Indonesia), create a forced unity that prevent people from developing the communication skills needed to live peacefully. Weak central governments, or those in flux, make people defensive about their identity. "All it takes is one charismatic presence with a good story," says Fitzgerald, and suddenly the next-door neighbor becomes the enemy.

In the Maluku islands, where President Wahid has again rejected calls for an international peace-keeping force, it seems parts of the Indonesian army are the insecure party. "This is not a religious war," says Tamrin Amal Tomagola, a University of Indonesia lecturer, who is from the islands. "This is a proxy war by supporters, members of a previous regime, to shake the current government so that their wrongdoings cannot be investigated." Indonesia's first human rights minister, Hasballah Saad, notes that each time probes into the wealth of ex-president Suharto and his family intensify, riots erupt all over Indonesia, including Aceh. The Maluku islands are just the worst hit. Even Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono admits that many members of the army, still loyal to Suharto, have become "a major cause of the clashes." Some experts say one common thread in Asia's conflicts is the fact that they could have been stymied had initial peace-making efforts been more determined. For Maluku, then, early success is of the essence.

The prognosis for Aceh is also promising, since the two combative parties appear to have the will to sort things out. Aceh's problem, like that of Mindanao, is born of poverty and distance from the seats of power. "Aceh was never allowed to handle its own resources," says Hasballah. "It was also never given the chance to develop." Wahid is trying to win back hearts and minds by jailing soldiers responsible for human rights violations. He also has promised a special autonomy bill, currently being drafted, which will allow Acehnese to institute Shariah law -- a demand of the Free Aceh Movement. "If the government can show it is sincere in solving the problems, the desire for independence may not be relevant anymore," says Hasballah. Atrocities by both sides, however, are unlikely to be forgotten. Nyak Jempa (see page 54), a poor village woman who was tortured and beaten, has had all hope kicked out of her.

In Sri Lanka, the ability of all peoples to move past appalling atrocities will be key to a lasting ceasefire. Yet in Mindanao last month, President Estrada waved a red flag at the separatist MILF -- and all the region's Muslims. After his soldiers captured the MILF stronghold of Abubakar, Estrada celebrated there in Philippine (Christian) style with a feast of roasted pig and beer -- both of which are proscribed by the Koran. Said MILF chairman Salamat Hashim, who immediately called for a jihad (holy struggle): "They may have occupied our camps, but not our hearts and minds." Last week Estrada announced a new strategy for Mindanao, including development and a resumption of peace talks. But even Muslims determined for peace remain unimpressed. The Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao cabinet secretary, Sharif Zain Jali, is adhering to the 1996 treaty signed by the Moro National Liberation Front. But, says Sharif: "I am a fan of Estrada movies. He can be my actor but, sincerely, he cannot be my president." (see page 55)

Conflict has been described as a global growth industry. Yet if Asia's clashes seem particularly intractable, perhaps ordinary people can just step back and take a deep breath. Observes Sea-Change's Fitzgerald: "Ethnicity, religion and nationalism are very effective smoke and mirrors used to cover chauvinism, greed and the lust for power." Of course, it is hard to see through smoke and past mirrors from a distance. Only those at ground zero can properly identify the face of conflict -- people such as grassroots politicians and those whose stories follow. And sometimes only they can call for, insist on, and live, a peace.

With additional reporting by Arjuna Ranawana/ Colombo, Antonio Lopez/Manila and Amy Chew/Jakarta

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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