What could Myanmar learn from Indonesia? The Malino Accord

An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he stands in front of a house that was burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities. Photo: Reuters

This post is also available in Indonesian and Burmese.

Why violence broke out in Poso, Central Sulawesi in 1998-2001 is a long story recounted in our Indonesia Backgrounder: Jihad in Central Sulawesi. How it was stopped might be worth examining for the benefit of the recently formed 27-member commission set up by Myanmar’s President Thein Sein to investigate recent inter-communal violence in Arakan State.

The fighting in Poso between 1998 and 2001 was part of a broad sweep of conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the Maluku Islands and on the island of Sulawesi that took place after Indonesia itself lifted the lid off more than 30 years of authoritarian rule with the resignation of President Soeharto. In a series of incidents, hundreds were killed and thousands of homes burnt as communities turned on each other with deadly results in inter-communal tensions often made more virulent by the involvement of Muslim Jihadis. For Poso, a town in Central Sulawesi province, the 2001 Malino Declaration did not end the killing but it was the turning point. There the conflict broke roughly along the lines of indigenous Christians and migrant Muslim communities. Farid Husain, deputy to Jusuf Kalla, then the Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare and later vice president, started talks with the warring communities on behalf of the Megawati Government in late that year in what was a highly complex environment with ongoing violence. [Kalla and Husain were later key players in the 2005 Helsinki Agreement that ended the insurgency in Aceh, see our report Aceh: A New Chance for Peace.]

After initial consultations with both Muslims and Christians, each community in Poso was invited to send 25 persons who they felt represented them to a series of talks that started in the town of Malino, South Sulawesi. The Indonesian government made a serious effort to get those who were actually in command of militias committing violence or parties to the conflict to the table, but each side chose their envoys differently – Muslims from the top down picked out of town leaders and Christians from the bottom up selected a more grassroots team. After a series of discussions, the final round of talks on 19-20 December 2001 led to the signing of the 10-point “Malino Declaration”.

As an official account recalls, Kalla, who in August met Thein Sein in his capacity as head of the Indonesian Red Cross, read the ten point-agreement before local religious and tribal leaders at the end of the meeting stating that the two sides agreed:

  1. To cease all conflicts and disputes
  2. To abide by due process of law enforcement and support the Government’s efforts to impose sanctions on any wrongdoers
  3. To request the state to take firm and impartial measures against any violators
  4. To maintain the peaceful situation, the two sides reject civil emergency status and interference from outsiders
  5. To respect one another in an attempt to create religious tolerance
  6. That Poso is an integral part of Indonesia’s territory. Therefore, any Indonesians have the right to come and live peacefully in Poso by respecting the local habits and custom.
  7. To reinstate property to their rightful owners
  8. To repatriate refugees to their respective original places
  9. To rehabilitate, along with the Government, the economic assets and infrastructures of the area
  10. To respect all faith followers to implement their respective religious practices and beliefs as stipulated by the Constitution.

Indonesia is not Myanmar. Their histories are very different. A decade ago, the Indonesian Government said it was “distressed” by the violence in Poso “since this kind of communal conflict undermines the very principle of “Unity in Diversity” upon which the Republic is founded”. Its founders with great insight chose a minority language to be its national tongue. Myanmar, on the other hand, has a fraught history with its ethnic minorities and six decades of civil war with ethnic armed groups to show for it. As we’ve argued, even in Burmese, the long road to a lasting peace starts with dominant Barma ethnic group “re-imagining” the country as the multi-ethnic and multi-religious community that it actually is.

A first step in that direction would be to acknowledge that the 1982 citizenship law is a product of what should now be a bygone authoritarian era. The outdated laws of the colonial era and oppressive dictates of the past military regimes should be the first targets of reform for the still new parliament. Defining citizenship by where people lived before the arrival of the British in 1824, as the citizenship law does, is an anachronistic way of looking at the issue. It unnecessarily marginalises one large group of people – the Rohingya — giving them less access to education and making them poorer and therefore less able to contribute to the nation’s transition. It also contravenes Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according everyone the right to a nationality, and as such is just not the way a modern and aspiring democratic state behaves.

Neither is it the ASEAN way. As Naypyitaw prepares for the 2014 chairmanship of the regional organisation the country’s leadership should engage in a simple counter-factual reflection: What if every member of ASEAN acted by this standard? Resetting citizenship based on where colonialists drew the borders almost two centuries ago would be a demographic disaster that would displace and disenfranchised tens of millions within the boundaries of its ten member states. Other ASEAN members for very pragmatic reasons should be quietly telling their counterparts from Myanmar that we just don’t do things like that anymore.

The rights of citizenship are a key principle that quietly underpins the Malino Declaration. People should be treated first and foremost as Indonesian citizens who are equal under the law rather than a member of any one religious group. Indonesia is not perfect and still struggles with this fundamental idea, especially with its Muslim minorities. Also relations between Muslims and Christians in places like Poso, Ambon, and West Java can still be tense. But the Poso peace process shows some practical steps to finding a way out of the death and destruction fomented by inter-communal hatred. For example, after it was signed, the declaration was disseminated by both sides at the grass roots level as well as by local officials and the military. Two joint commissions were set up to deal with law and order as well as addressing inequalities in social and economic conditions. The government then provided $10m for resettlement and reconstruction.

Malino is neither a model, roadmap, nor off-the-shelf-solution for Myanmar, but remembering the declaration and the process behind it is instructive as it should allow us to start imagining a way out of tensions in Rakhine State.

Postscript: The slightly more extensive eleven point Malino II agreement signed on 12 February 2002 to resolve inter-communal conflict in Indonesia’s Maluku islands can be found here.

Author: Jim Della-Giacoma

Jim Della-Giacoma joined Crisis Group in April 2009 as South East Asia Project Director. He oversees the organisation's work in this region, including staff based in Indonesia, Thailand, and Timor-Leste. You can follow Jim on Twitter @jimdella.