The War’s Over in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi — But No One Knows Why
Why did the rebels take to the hills?
I recently took my first road trip through the mountainous countryside of an Indonesian island.
Sulawesi, unlike Aceh, could be a tourist attraction with its beautiful beaches and blue skies. But few tourists travel to Central Sulawesi.
My guide and I journeyed from Palu, the provincial capital, to Poso, a small coastal city. Sectarianism had plagued Poso in the early 2000s, and, according to the Indonesian news media, a paramilitary group that had joined Islamic State was still active there.
When Indonesia transitioned from dictatorship to democracy 1998, the delicate balance of power between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority tilted in some provinces.
Christians and Muslims in Central Sulawesi, namely Poso, armed themselves and threatened each other. Terrorists bombed and shot civilians. Most of the problems had subsided by the 2010s, but by then Poso was notorious.
Several Indonesians from outside the province warned my guide, a middle-aged teacher from South Sulawesi, against traveling there. My guide insisted foreigners and travelers had little to fear in Poso.
Poso surprised me. Children played on busy streets lined with churches and mosques.
But wanted posters on walls all over the city center were reminders that Poso struggled with ethnic and religious conflict.
My guide and I sought Hajji Adnan, a local cleric once considered an intermediary between the Indonesian government and the militants.
“Are you still in contact with them now?” I asked Adnan about the militants.
“No,” he said. “The rebels don’t talk to me anymore.”
“The violence started when some Christians armed with swords attacked Muslims and burned down mosques,” Adnan said. “Muslim boys responded by joining together, defending the mosques and attacking the Christian groups. Later, the government tried to calm the situation. I worked as a spiritual guide for the rebels and tried to persuade them to surrender and accept peace. Some did. Others didn’t.”
“Are the ones who didn’t surrender much of a threat?” I continued.
“Not really, no,” Adnan replied. “They’re hiding in the woods with their weapons. There are just a few dozen of them. Sometimes, they come back to get food and money from family members, but, otherwise, they largely have nothing and do nothing.”
An Indonesian soldier whom my guide and I had met during a parade confirmed what Adnan claimed. “We’ve mostly defeated the terrorists,” he added. “A handful are still in the jungle because we pushed them out of Poso. They are deep inside the forests and mountains, but we are closing in on them by setting up outposts and conducting raids.”
He smiled. “The rebels are almost finished.”
“Things don’t seem so bad now,” I said, my guide nodding.
“Certainly,” her friend agreed. “Poso has improved quite a bit. We’ve rebuilt. The government has helped us construct new buildings and shops. We hope to get some tourists soon.”
Poso might never have been a tourist attraction, but it was trying to become one.
My guide and I scheduled a bus to return us to Palu. “Did you get what you came for?” she wondered. “Was the trip all the way out here worth it?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. Poso seemed an anomaly. In southern Thailand, terrorism rooted in years of sectarian conflict persists. In Central Sulawesi, it more or less ended after a few years. Civilians moved on and fighters moved into the forests and mountains, losing their relevance.
Regional development seems to have eased Poso’s problems. The same applies to Aceh even though it suffered a more complex and much more violent conflict. However, the peculiarity of the conflict in Central Sulawesi, a remote Indonesian province, baffles me to this day.