From January 19, when violence first erupted, until February 14, when security forces intervened in the clash on Haruku island, the military were roundly criticized for failing to prevent the attacks on villagers of both faiths. The official National Human Rights Commission in Indonesia (Komnas) said the military was slow to respond, and the first accusations of security force bias that emerged were based on their inaction, not action. By mid-February, both sides were accusing the military of actively helping one side or the other to attack or of shooting at only one party involved in a clash.
At first glance, Ambon appeared to have no shortage of personnel. There are three companies of army Infantry Battalion 733, the Pattimura Battalion, whose headquarters are strategically situated along the main road on the island. A regional military command, KOREM 174, is based in Ambon, and there is a district military command, KODIM, as well as several subdistrict military posts. A mobile police brigade (Brimob) company is also stationed in Ambon.
But accounts of the fighting in Batu Merah and other areas of the city of Ambon on January 19-20 suggest that the army and police were both understaffed and wholly unprepared for the violence. The fact that violence broke out during Lebaran meant that many soldiers were on leave. In addition, on January 14, many soldiers from Ambon had been sent as reinforcements to help in quelling an outbreak of violence in nearby Dobo, meaning the citys core territorial force had been reduced.
People interviewed by Human Rights Watch noted the presence of police when mobs started rampaging through parts of Ambon city, but they were ineffectual. Warning shots of one or two police had no impact on crowds numbering in the hundreds, even thousands.
While both Muslim and Christian communities alleged that military inaction favored the other side, it would have been difficult to allege communal bias in those first weeks. Muslims got little help when their neighborhoods were being torched during the first two days of the conflict. Christians cited military inaction as leading to the destruction of the village of Benteng Karang on January 20 and subsequent violence the same day in the village of Nania. Muslims tried to call for help when they were being attacked in Kamiri, Hative Besar on January 20, but no one answered the telephone at the three military posts they called. When people approached individual commanders directly, as in Passo, the response was either that the various posts were short of personnel or that they did not have orders to intervene. The latter is no excuse when lives are in jeopardy.
In a matter of days, local perceptions of the security forces had changed. On January 23, four days after the fighting broke out, additional KOSTRAD troops were sent to Ambon from Ujung Pandang. Many of the soldiers sent were ethnic Bugis and Makassarese, and therefore automatically assumed by Christians to be biased toward the Muslim side. Those perceptions of partiality were reinforced by the fact that Maj. Gen. Suaidi Marasabessy, the head of the Ujung Pandang-based regional command, was himself an Ambonese Muslim. Marasabessy himself acknowledged the perceptions of bias and told the press on March 11 that because Christians believed that most of the KOSTRAD men were Bugis fighting with their Muslim brethren, he had taken steps to ensure they were not on the front lines.59 (This was somewhat disingenuous for two reasons: KOSTRAD troops had been on the front lines from the time they arrived in Ambon, and by March, they were manning military posts around the city where there was no possibility of being behind someone elses front lines.)
Even with the reinforcements, however, the military by and large refrained from using lethal force until the Haruku violence of February 14. From that point on, the death toll rose precipitously, as did accusations of bias. By and large,the Christians accused the army of favoring the Muslims, and the Muslims accused the police of helping the Christians, although Christians also accused individual Muslim officers of siding with Muslims. The fact was that on both sides, local police may have been partial to their own. Major General Marassabessy acknowledged this when he said that starting March 9, local forces were order to return to barracks. Conflict prevention would be the preserve of forces from outside Mauku.60
The problem of local forces taking sides was accurately diagnosed. For example, when additional troops were sent to the island of Haruku to try to prevent conflict between the Muslims of Pelauw and the Christians of Kariu, the Christians noted immediately that the commander of the extra troops was a Muslim Ambonese as were two of the soldiers stationed at a post in Kariu, one of whom was married to a woman from Pelauw. When the post was removed from Kariu shortly before Muslim villagers attacked, the army said there had been a decision from higher-ups to merge all the different posts into one, but the Christians interpreted it as a deliberate effort to leave Kariu defenseless.
Likewise, when police opened fire on Muslims on March 1, Muslim sources circulated names of several Christian policemen they said had been involved in the attack. Of the names circulated, one policemen was detained after witnesses identified him as having fired his gun. Christian sources said his house had been burned to the ground earlier that morning, and they did not discount the possibility that he had fired on the crowd.
It took almost two months for senior military commanders to realize that no one, including members of the security forces, was immune to the cancer of communalism, but even then, the solutions were not clear. When Christian sources first began raising questions about the KOSTRAD troops, they recommended that only local troops from Maluku be deployed to try and quell the violence. At least then, they said, they would have the confidence that local troops would understand the local culture. But when it was very clear that Ambonese were fighting Ambonese, it was a question as to how understanding Ambonese culture would make local troops any better equipped to confront communal warfare than troops from outside the area.59 Suaidi Sesalkan Pernyataan Gus Dur Aparat Lokal Ambon Ditarik ke Pangkalan, Republika, March 12, 1999. 60 Ibid.