Dark forces strike Lombok

A quiet, beautiful island is the latest and most mysterious victim of the wave of violence racking Indonesia, writes Richard Lloyd Parry
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On Mataram's Avenue of the Five Businesses, next to the ice cream parlour and the Chinese hair salon, is the crisp white bungalow where, until last week, the magazine Inilah had its editorial office.

On Mataram's Avenue of the Five Businesses, next to the ice cream parlour and the Chinese hair salon, is the crisp white bungalow where, until last week, the magazine Inilah had its editorial office.

Published six times a year, Inilah - the name might be translated as "Voilà!"- was a glossy celebration of everything that is beautiful about the island of Lombok. There were photographs of the beaches and coral reefs and of Rinjani, the mighty volcano which rises from its centre, a mile and half high. The magazine carried advertising from Lombok's luxury resort hotels and from the new restaurants and local tour businesses which have sprung up in Mataram over the past three years.

But Inilah's offices are now burned and roofless. The ice cream parlour and hair salon are similarly gutted and policemen armed with rifles stand on the streets. A week ago, Lombok was a peaceful and optimistic place, with a burgeoning reputation as one of the most promising new tourist destinations of south-east Asia. Today it is on the critical list, the latest and most mysterious victim of the crisis of violence sweeping through Indonesia.

Six days on, the reasons for the destruction are dark and entangled, but the course of events itself is fairly clear. It began last Monday morning, when a large crowd gathered in the main square for a communal meeting. Its purpose was to express solidarity with Muslims in Indonesia's Spice Islands, who are in bloody confrontation with the large Christian population. Such gatherings have taken place all over Indonesia: in Java and Sumatra - big, crowded islands with numerous, highly organised Islamic groups - there have been angry calls for a jihad, or holy war.

There are a few Christians on Lombok and a larger community of Hindus from the nearby island of Bali, but if the island is known for anything in Indonesia, it is for its elegant folk pottery rather than its religiosity.

And yet: "On Sunday, we were visiting friends, sitting in a hotel, taking it easy," said Graeme McGrory, a former British civil servant who now runs a travel company in Lombok. "On Monday, there were churches burning. It's just not the kind of thing anyone would ever have expected on Lombok."

Something happened to inflame the crowd, which split into groups and rampaged through the city. By Monday evening, a dozen churches and scores of houses, shops and offices had been razed or vandalised. The violence was directed principally towards Christian targets, but also against Indonesia's favourite scapegoats, the ethnic Chinese.

"A group of Muslims came to my house," said Victorius, an ethnic Chinese businessman. "First they asked for Coca Cola. I gave them Coke, and then they asked for cigarettes. I had no cigarettes, so then they asked for money, more and more of them coming all the time. I told them that I am a Buddhist, not Christian, but they didn't listen." That night, Mr Victorius fled to the police station where hundreds of refugees are still sheltering. By the next morning, his home had been ransacked.

By midweek, a shoot-to-kill policy had been announced against looters - at least five who ignored it were killed by police. The damage has been estimated at 60bn rupiah (£5.7m). But the long-term harm is incalculable.

Ten years ago, there was one three-star hotel in all of Lombok, but in the last three years the tourist trade has swelled beyond recognition. Compared to Bali, its teeming Hindu neighbour, Lombok is still quiet and uncommercial, but to growing numbers of travellers this is its attraction. Australian and European backpackers head for the snorkelling and magic mushrooms on the tiny, coral-rimmed Gili Islands. At Senggigi beach is an enclave of some of Indonesia's finest hotels, including the five-star Sheraton and the exquisitely expensive Oberoi. Saga, the British operator for tourists of a certain age, recently began sending its customers to Lombok. Last week, all bookings for January and February were cancelled.

The violence has all kinds of knock-on effects. Bidy Tour, the island's best-known local travel company, had its office burned down, and so was the home of Dr Felix, the Chinese who ran the island's tourist clinic. On the day of the first riots, a new international school opened north of Mataram, an effort to encourage foreign investment by providing Western-style education for the children of expatriates. When it re-opened its doors on Friday, only three students turned up.

"We just have to hope that it turns out to be a flash in the pan," said Mr McGrory, who will return to London this week to persuade his travel clients not to abandon Lombok. "People still take holidays in Northern Ireland, don't they? They'll still go to Spain after the bombs last week."

The catastrophe is all the crueller for being so inexplicable: concerning the root causes of the violence there is nothing but rumours. Like the rest of Indonesia, Lombok has suffered from the economic crisis of the last two years - but why should this island explode, rather than another? From the Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid, to Mataram's taxi drivers, there is agreement on who is to blame: agents provocateurs, supported by elements of the military, who are deliberately stirring up a people already disillusioned by poverty.

People point to the speed and precision with which the riots took hold; they speak of seeing rioters carrying documents, listing exactly which houses were owned by Chinese and Christians. You hear such rumours all over Indonesia wherever trouble occurs - in the Spice Islands, in Jakarta, and in East Java where an intermittent campaign of murder has been carried out against alleged practitioners of black magic. There is never any solid proof but, in the absence of other explanations, such theories are universally believed.

"There is a kind of frustration because we are chipping at their power," said President Wahid about the "dark forces" behind the mayhem. "We are trying to make the rule of law supreme. They don't like it." The most fearful thing about the violence in Lombok is the near certainty that it will happen again somewhere else, some time soon.