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The Moluccas

11.30 am

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the urgent issue of sectarian violence in the Moluccas islands of Indonesia. According to Moluccan Church leaders, there are 7,000 or more Islamic militants in the Moluccas waging a violent jihad--a so-called holy war--against Moluccan Christians. Church leaders believe that the Islamic militants are intent on destroying the Christian presence in the Moluccas by killing, forcibly converting or driving out all the Christians.

In many parts of the Moluccas, Christian villages have been wiped out by Islamic militants. Reports from local churches suggest that 75 per cent. of the island of Ambon has been cleared of Christians. The Maranatha Church and the Masariku Network, a human rights group, both of which are based in Ambon, report estimates of 487,000 internally displaced Moluccan Christians. Of those, about 300,000 have fled the Moluccas islands to other parts of Indonesia. Semmy Weileruny, one of the Moluccan Church's team of lawyers, states that at least 5,000 Moluccan Christians have been forced to convert to Islam by the Islamic militants, and that thousands more are under threat of death if they do not convert.

The allegation is that the Islamic militants are assisted by elements of the Indonesian military, which has also helped to equip them with automatic rifles, hand grenades and even mortars. Moluccan Church leaders report that, since sectarian violence began in January 1999, at least 455 churches have been destroyed, and more than 5,000 Christians have been killed. Those figures are, again, according to the Masariku Network. We think that that is a conservative but reliable estimate. We do not quote estimates with a considerably higher death rate.

Many, perhaps thousands, of Muslims have also been killed. Muslims and Christians have used violence in the conflict. That is not surprising, given that Christians have mostly been defending themselves, especially as the Indonesian military is generally reluctant to protect them. One must be balanced. Some Christians have used violence out of a desire for revenge, which is unforgivable. They have used violence in more than self-defence, but we are told that such incidents are rare.

One must recognise that there are aggressors in most conflicts, and that conflict is rarely even handed. In the Moluccas, the evidence suggests that the aggressors are militant Muslims. That view is supported by the fact that the situation in the Moluccas had relatively calmed down by April, but the chances of peace and reconciliation that we had all hoped for between Moluccan Muslims and Christians were sharply reduced when thousands of Islamic militants from other parts of Indonesia entered the Moluccas to wage what they described as a holy war against Moluccan Christians. The influx of thousands of Islamic fighters from outside pushed the Moluccas into its most intense phase of violence.

The issue will worry the Foreign Office. As the Christian Serbs were generally viewed as the aggressors against the Muslims in the sectarian conflict in Kosovo--despite the presence of an armed Muslim

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organisation, the Kosovo Liberation Army--so, too, the Foreign Office should be prepared to recognise that there are aggressors in the Moluccas conflict: the Islamic militants, including the group Laskar Jihad.

The level of violence in the Moluccas is already as bad as, if not worse than, in East Timor, and we allege that agents of the state--that is, elements of the Indonesian military--are actively participating in atrocities. The Kostrad unit, a particularly notorious Indonesian army unit, has been carrying out such abuses. For example, in August 1999, soldiers from the Kostrad unit herded 25 or more Christians into the Yabok Protestant church in the Galala area of Ambon and then opened fire on them. After killing them all, the troops tried to cover up the evidence by cutting up the bodies and setting fire to them.

Until now, the Indonesian authorities do not appear to have punished the soldiers responsible for that or for any other atrocities. On 19 June 2000, more than 200 Christians were massacred by Muslims in the village of Duma. The Indonesian military did nothing to stop the slaughter, and Moluccan Church leaders are desperately appealing for United Nations peacekeepers to come to the Moluccas because they cannot rely on the Indonesian military to protect the Christian community. Instead of supporting the request for UN peacekeepers, the Government have chosen to keep repeating the distinction that East Timor was not recognised by the United Nations as part of Indonesia but that the Moluccas are.

That argument is far from satisfactory. It implies that, merely because the Moluccas are part of Indonesia, the Indonesian military and Islamic militants should be left free to destroy the Moluccan Christian community and that, if the Indonesian Government do not wish to do much to try to stop it, we can do nothing. That was not the attitude that the Government took when they intervened in Kosovo, which was part of Serbia at the time. Perhaps it is as a the result of taking a selective approach to suffering and human rights issues that atrocities in Europe are treated with more gravity than atrocities in south-east Asia. I do not blame the Government for that attitude. We all suffer from it.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle ): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me intervene. The crucial difference is that the whole UN did not accept East Timor as part of Indonesia, but that the whole UN does accept the Moluccas as part of Indonesia. It is not only our bilateral relationship with Indonesia that is at stake, but the role of the UN.

Mr. Leigh : I am grateful to the Minister for that comment, because it reinforces the point that I am trying to make. The Moluccas are, always have been and always will be part of Indonesia. I am not speaking on behalf of any sort of independence movement. I contend that, because everyone knows that the Moluccas always have been, and will remain, part of the UN, western Governments are reluctant to become involved.

East Timor was quite different; it was a former Portuguese colony and was never recognised as part of Indonesia. It was wrongly invaded by Indonesia but, because it had an obvious minority Catholic population,

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the west was prepared to act. This is different; the Moluccas are part of Indonesia. Surely we are not going to accept, simply because the genocide is taking place somewhere admittedly very far away that is part of another nation, that we should not become involved, that we should not talk to other members of the UN to try to put pressure on them to take an interest and, if necessary, to take action.

The intervention in Kosovo and the trials of those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda demonstrate that national sovereignty can no longer be used as an excuse to permit widespread atrocities. I should be grateful if the Minister were to confirm that that principle is now accepted in the western community. We cannot be indifferent to such atrocities, wherever in the world they may be taking place.

I emphasise that I am not suggesting a Kosovo-style military intervention in the Moluccas. I am simply asking that the British Government should do their best to put maximum pressure on the Indonesian Government to accept United Nations peacekeepers.

The Government imposed an arms embargo on Indonesia over atrocities in East Timor, and urged the European Union to take steps. They should seriously consider imposing a similar embargo over the Indonesian Government and military's continued failure to stop the violence in the Moluccas. The Indonesian military are a powerful force in Indonesia. We have strong bilateral relations with Indonesia and our view is listened to with respect--we have influence there.

The Indonesian Government have for more than 20 months repeatedly failed to control the same soldiers who were supposed to restore order but who, instead, have made the Moluccan situation worse by taking sides with the Islamic fighters and helping to arm them. An arms embargo would send a strong signal to the Indonesian armed forces that the international community is deeply concerned about the military's failure to act neutrally in the Moluccas and its participation in several of the atrocities that have occurred. I hope that the Minister will consider that point.

Mrs. Hanja Maij-Weggen, the European Parliament's rapporteur on the relationship between the European Union and Indonesia, recently returned from a working visit to Indonesia. She says that the situation is still disastrous and that things are worse than they were in East Timor in 1999, when the United Nations decided to send a peacekeeping force. She writes:

In light of those comments and of the systematic destruction of the Moluccan Christian community, it is time for the Government to put as much pressure as possible on the Indonesian Government to accept UN peacekeepers in the Moluccas. We should consider the attitude of the United Nations to this question. Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the UN, has said that the organisation is ready to play a role in resolving the violence in the Moluccas, if the Indonesian Government desire it.

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Indonesia's state-appointed national human rights commission has declared that UN intervention is needed in the Moluccas as the Government have failed to stop the violence. Despite the UN's willingness to help and the view taken by Indonesia's human rights commission, Abdurrrahman Wahid, the Indonesian president, obstinately continues to refuse to allow UN peacekeepers into the Moluccas.

The only chance of saving the Moluccan Christian community from eventual destruction is intervention by UN peacekeepers. The mistakes and tragedies in the Moluccas in the past 23 months show that no other credible security force can intervene and restore order. Moderate Muslims and Christians have demonstrated in Jakarta, calling for urgent intervention in the Moluccas by UN peacekeepers. They argue that what is happening in the Moluccas is nothing short of religious and cultural genocide.

Mr. Battle : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for introducing this debate, which allows us to discuss particular points in detail. He said that he was not asking for a military intervention in the Moluccas. During the difficulties in East Timor, I was party to the discussions to persuade the then Indonesian authorities to invite the UN peacekeepers to come in. If they had failed to invite the UN in, I do not think that even the hon. Gentleman would have argued for sending in troops and fighting our way into Indonesia. Does he suggest that that should happen in these circumstances? Does he expect British soldiers to go into the Moluccas?

Mr. Leigh : No; but, if the Minister will excuse me, I will throw the question back at him. Has he invited the Indonesian Government to allow UN peacekeepers into the Moluccas, as he did so effectively in the case of East Timor, on which I congratulate him?

Mr. Battle : If the Indonesians invite the UN peacekeepers, our offer to support and accept that invitation is there. We have regularly made it plain to the Indonesian authorities that we view what is happening in the Moluccas with great concern. I will spell that out in detail in my response.

Mr. Leigh : I am grateful for that little debate because, although the answer was not absolutely firm, it has highlighted that our Government are happy for the UN to go in. They have expressed their concern. However, I want the Minister to convince me that he is putting pressure on the Indonesian Government to invite UN peacekeepers in.

Mr. Battle : I have made it plain throughout our debates on this subject, and in my regular correspondence with the hon. Gentleman, that we would stand by the Indonesians if they felt that they could not resolve the situation.

Mr. Leigh : I am grateful to the Minister for his interventions.

We believe that mass forced conversions are going on. More than 1,000 Christians in Bacan island in the northern Moluccas have been forced by Muslim militants to change their religion. There is not enough time to give all the many examples that I have. An

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ultimatum has been given that those Christians in Bacan who do not convert by 31 December will be killed. One of the Christian pastors in Bacan was caught by Islamic militants, tortured and killed. And so it goes on. On Seram island, about 400 Christians from Hatu village and 300 from Hatumete were told by Islamic militants that they had until 30 November 2000 to convert.

I apologise for reading out all these examples but it is important to get them on the record. Mr. Weileruny, whom I have quoted before, reports that eight people were killed in the attacks on Christian villages. About 3,000 fled to the forests. Their attackers, including Muslims from the Gorong island group, pursued them and had captured about 671 of them by the next day. So far, about 93 Moluccan Christians have been killed by Islamic militants on Kasiui island for refusing to convert to Islam. About 760 Christians on Kasiui island are reported to have been forced to convert, as have 75 Christians in Bonvia, 215 Christians in Solan and 300 Christians in Dawang villages. The list goes on and on.

The conflict in the Moluccas appears to be part of a general attempt to promote violence against non-Muslims, especially Christians, throughout Indonesia. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. However, its constitution is based not on Islam, but on Pancasila, the five principles. The first principle is belief in God. Since the formation of Indonesia's first constitution in 1945, some Muslims have tried to change the multi-religious basis of the country's constitution to one that that is solely based on Islam.

The apparent goal of the Islamic militants is to Islamicise by force not only the Moluccas but Indonesia as a whole. Attempts have already been made to provoke sectarian violence in provinces with large Christian populations such as Sulawesi. That attempt to change the Indonesian constitution and impose Islamic Sharia law was made by Muslim parties during the Indonesian parliamentary session in August 2000. The incitement by Islamic militants of anti-Christian violence throughout Indonesia is likely to trigger widespread violence and chaos, and that will probably weaken and ultimately unseat the Government of President Wahid if we do nothing.

There was the incident of the armoured car, although there is not time to go into it in detail. There has been correspondence between the Minister and Lord Alton about it. The present Government are not responsible for exporting the car to Indonesia but it is reported to have been involved in attacks there. The Government have denied that it was used in attacks, but I hope that they will send someone out to check the story. Richard Lloyd Parry of The Independent who was on the spot quoted Andi Jatmiko as saying:

I hope that the Foreign Office will check that story, as it is extremely worrying. It shows just how concerned we should be about the use of British military resources that have been sold to the Indonesian Government. That was not the first time that British armoured units have been misused in the Moluccas. On 26 December 1999, the Silo Protestant church in Ambon was attacked and destroyed by Indonesian troops and Muslim militants.

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Indonesian soldiers took part in the attack and even used the British-made Saladin armoured car in the assault.

What action are the British Government taking to persuade the Indonesian authorities to stop the Islamic militants from mass forced conversions of Christians in the Moluccas? Will the British Government urge the Indonesian Government swiftly to evacuate all Christians from Muslim-controlled areas of the Moluccas to rescue them from pressures to convert to Islam and place strong pressure on the Indonesian Government to accept United Nations peacekeepers in the Moluccas? Will the British Government, if necessary, institute an arms embargo on Indonesia and urge the European Union to do likewise, at least until the sectarian violence in the Moluccas is stopped?

The Moluccas are one of the few areas in the world where such large numbers of Christians are being killed or forced to change their religion. I hope that the Government will show a strong sense of urgency about the matter and not be deterred from taking action, despite the islands being so far away.

I was recently given a book about the spice islands by Giles Milton called "Nathaniel's Nutmeg: How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History"--

Mr. Battle : I have read it.

Mr. Leigh : I am delighted that the Minister has read it. At one time in our history, the spice islands were incredibly important economically because of their nutmeg. The book states:

As far as much of the British press is concerned, it is the moon. There were oceans of column inches at the weekend about what our politicians are or are not saying about each other, but how much coverage was there of the slaughter and the genocide in the islands? How many British journalists go there? I would not be surprised if there were none, but I wonder how many will cover Madonna's wedding? I do not expect reportage of this debate but I do expect British journalists to take an interest in genocide, torture and forced conversions.

I also ask the Foreign Office to take the matter seriously. The Minister invited me to a briefing on Burma, where we heard lots of harrowing stories. At the end of the briefing, when someone from a well-known Christian human rights group stood up to make allegations, a Foreign Office person of ambassadorial rank, a senior former diplomat, who had already spoken, said, "Oh, my God," in a tone of exasperated contempt.

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The Minister, whom I respect, does not take that attitude; he takes a genuine interest in human rights. At prayer meetings with ministerial colleagues--Conservative Ministers held them every morning when we were in power, although not much praying went on--and when he talks to the Foreign Secretary, I ask him to raise the issue to ensure that his office takes a stand. If the Minister visits the islands and does what I know he can do, he can save lives.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair ): Order. Three Members have sought to catch my eye, all of whom will be able to speak if they keep their remarks relatively short.

11.53 am

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): I shall try to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on raising the urgent issue of human rights abuses that are part of the sectarian conflict in the Moluccas, which seems to be more than an internal matter.

It appears that Islamic fighters in the Moluccas are receiving assistance from radical foreign Muslims in carrying out their objective of exterminating the Christian community. Reports from the Catholic Church in the Moluccas indicate that non-Indonesians, including Afghans, southern Filipinos, Pakistanis and Saudi Arabians, have been fighting alongside Islamic militants. The leader of Laskar Jihad, the main Islamic militant group attacking Moluccan Christians, has stated publicly that it receives financial backing from people in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Yemen. All those actions are in line with the general tendency of radical Islamic movements to possess agendas on both a national and international scale. Victory in the Moluccas will encourage Islamic militants to take their violent and intolerant agenda to other parts of Indonesia with large non-Muslim communities. With more than 20 million Christians in Indonesia, such tactics will, if left unchecked, result in horrific chaos and bloodshed and have serious consequences for the region's stability.

Recently, there have been repeated Muslim attacks on the remaining pockets of Christians on Ambon island and in Halmahera. Such attacks appear to be an attempt to exterminate what is left of the Christian presence in those areas. Following threats by Islamic militants that no church bells will be ringing in Ambon by Christmas day, Christians in Halmahera and Ambon are worried about a possible major Muslim offensive around that time. In anticipation of such an attack, some Christians are celebrating Christmas early this year.

Sectarian violence has raged in the Moluccas for 23 months, but the Indonesian Government and military have repeatedly demonstrated their unwillingness to do whatever is necessary to end it and protect the Moluccan Christian community, which faces impending annihilation at the hands of Islamic militants. Moluccan Christians are besieged on all sides and elements of the Indonesian military are working in close co-operation with Islamic militants to wipe out Christians.

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Moluccan Church leaders know that they cannot rely on the Indonesian military to protect their community, so they continue to appeal desperately for United Nations peacekeepers to come to the Moluccas. However, while failing to stop the systematic destruction of the Moluccan Christian community, President Abdurrahman Wahid refuses to allow UN peacekeepers to enter the Moluccas. For nearly two years, Moluccan Christian leaders have called repeatedly for UN peacekeepers to be sent to the Moluccas, for UN human rights monitors to be allowed to investigate atrocities committed in those islands and for those responsible for such atrocities to be punished.

Since the influx of thousands of Islamic militants into the Moluccas in April, the violence has escalated sharply and desperate appeals have been made for the Indonesian Government and military to remove those Muslim fighters from the Moluccas islands. Until now, the Indonesian Government have ignored those requests. As a result, Islamic fighters have overrun most Christian areas of the Moluccas and thousands of Christians in Muslim-controlled areas are confronted with the difficult choice of converting to Islam or being killed. The very least that the Indonesian Government should do is evacuate Christians from Muslim-controlled areas so that they can escape the pressure to change their religion, but they have not taken even that measure.

The usual Indonesian Government solution of simply sending more troops to the scene of unrest is likely only to make the situation worse, until those soldiers are willing to conduct themselves neutrally and responsibly, instead of lending their manpower and firepower to the Islamic militants' cause. The Indonesian Government have verbally expressed many concerns about the Moluccas conflict, but little practical action has been taken in the past 23 months to end the violence. As the hon. Member for Gainsborough pointed out, that violence also results in Muslim fatalities. The mayhem that has been created in the Moluccas causes deaths and casualties on both sides, but those responsible for atrocities continue to walk free and cause destruction.

Evidence has been produced of British armoured vehicles being used to commit human rights abuses in the Moluccas, yet it appears that the British Government have not thoroughly investigated that claim. I should like to hear the Minister's view.

Violence caused by Islamic militants is unlikely to end with the Moluccas, as their objective appears to be to islamicise the whole of Indonesia. It should thus be in President Wahid's interest to stop the Muslim fighters in the Moluccas now, before their powers grow any further and they are encouraged by victory to seek further conquests in other provinces of Indonesia.

The minimum that the British Government should be doing is to impose an arms embargo on Indonesia and to urge the European Union to do the same, at least until the Indonesian Government agree to permit the entry of UN peacekeepers into the Moluccas. The British Government, along with their European partners, should also put strong and continual pressure on the Indonesian authorities to stop the forced conversions, evacuate the Moluccan Christians from Muslim-controlled areas, bring justice to the civilians and soldiers who are responsible for atrocities, and remove the Islamic fighters from the Moluccas. If the

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Indonesian Government are not prepared to take such action, Britain and the European Union should contemplate other sanctions besides an arms embargo against Indonesia.

It is misleading to think that the situation in the Moluccas has really improved while forced mass conversions and attacks on Christians continue. Such conduct by Islamic militants creates doubts about their willingness to make peace and the possibility of reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in the Moluccas--an outcome that I should dearly welcome. I hope that the Minister will be able to make such an outcome possible by means of diplomatic channels at national, European Union and United Nations levels. Perhaps the Indonesian Government will then intervene even-handedly to bring peace in conditions in which good will can be re-established. Unfortunately, it is too late for the Christmas message of peace and good will to be a reality in the Moluccas in the Christmas celebrations of 2000, but I hope that there will be a change for the better in 2001 and that that message will be a reality by Christmas 2001.

12.1 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): For 500 years Christians and Muslims have lived with each another peacefully in the Moluccas. We want to return to that situation, which is vital for the well-being of Indonesia. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) developed the debate effectively, but said that it was unlikely that the world media would pay much attention to it. All that I can say is that, having initiated a similar debate when I was in Australia with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation in September, I was informed that that debate was the first to alert the world to what was happening. I trust that the present debate will likewise stir up people, and particularly Governments, so that they will not remain silent in the United Nations or other arenas, but will use their influence to maintain pressure on the Indonesian authorities.

I do not want to speak at length because time is pressing, but I remind the Minister that the involvement of the Kostrad group in East Timor was a factor in the extreme way in which the situation developed. It was not defending but persecuting the citizens. It is important that that group and others like it should be restrained by the lawful authorities in Indonesia for the well-being of the whole country.

The authorities tried earlier to stop Jihad people going to the Moluccas. Unfortunately, because of our concept of civil liberties, they were allowed to enter because they had no weapons on them. The weapons entered by another route and some have since been supplied by the armed forces serving in Molucca. We need to keep up the pressure.

The tragedy is that the Moluccas and Ambon have been a haven of light in their area for centuries. The outstanding university in Ambon has been ravaged and burnt, and now there are plans to replace it with an Islamic centre on the same site. The Indonesian Government are trying to be fair and even-handed, but they are unlikely to be able to be so unless the

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international community combines to maintain pressure on them to restore property and land to families driven out of their communities after seeing many relatives put to death.

I know that others want to speak, but I wanted to make those simple points to enforce what the hon. Members for Gainsborough and for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) said. We are deeply concerned--we know that the Minister is worried--because we are not convinced that our representatives in the United Nations have pressed for UN input. It is not enough for one Government to maintain pressure. That job must be for the world population, especially when we realise that there are those outwith Indonesia who participate in the extermination of communities. It is not only Christians who have become victims of the jihad, but moderate Muslims who oppose what is happening. We cannot stand idly by while claiming to be human.

12.6 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on securing the debate. I, too, will try to be brief, because I am interested in the Minister's response. The contributions made by the hon. Members for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) should have given the Minister the message that there is a high level of concern about the Moluccas.

It would be wrong of me to speak without acknowledging the tremendous work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Jubilee campaign. Both have been consistent in pressing the case of the Moluccas. I was privileged to meet the Rev. John Titaley earlier this year, who, at some danger to himself, came here to brief parliamentarians on the dreadful situation in the Moluccas.

The case of the Moluccas is especially tragic, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Belfast, South, because for centuries Christians and Muslims lived side by side in peace. The islands were models of religious harmony, but the tensions that built up during recent years have exploded into the dreadful sectarian violence in which many thousands of people have been killed and more than 250,000 displaced. Even now, more violence is threatened. It seems as though the situation is set to reach a tragic conclusion, unless the Indonesian Government demonstrate the political will to stop the violence, and friendly Governments such as ours help to give them the backbone to take action in the Moluccas.

It is appalling that religiously motivated massacres take place almost weekly in what amounts to systematic extermination of an entire religious community. The level of concern expressed in the Chamber today possibly understates what is happening in those islands.

The causes of the current conflict are complex. They include demographic, economic and political factors as well as religious ones. For example, the former Government's policy of encouraging large numbers of settlers into the region upset the demographic balance. The Christians started to be marginalised in local government, the military and the police force, and there were more injustices and tensions. All that was exacerbated by the arrival of large numbers of self-proclaimed jihad warriors. There was great concern

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about the tremendous influx of people, primarily men, who stated that their aim was to remove the Christians from the island. It has become clear from comments made by Laskar Jihad that the threats that have been issued are unacceptable. Indeed, they make one's blood run cold. The threat to which the hon. Member for Bridgend referred was that there will be no church bells ringing in Ambon by Christmas. That is probably the most appalling thing that we have heard in this Chamber for some time.

On the official Laskar Jihad website, the Muslims apparently refer to celebrating a bloody Christmas this year. I hope that the Minister will comment on the statements made by Laskar Jihad, and explain what representations the Government plan to make to the Indonesian Government, especially about such violent and inflammatory statements.

We have heard some blood-chilling examples of individual massacres and murders, which I do not want to repeat. However, I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions, which I hope he will answer when he winds up. Last week, during a debate on arms export controls, I drew attention to a report on the BBC website that the French had offered arms to Indonesia in exchange for a maritime exploration licence. Will the Minister comment on that in the light of remarks that have been made on the EU code of conduct? A response was not provided by the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), during last week's debate, or by Baroness Ramsay in another place yesterday, to a question on the Moluccas. Such an answer would be helpful, because to sit back and idly say, "We will not make any comment on the French arms situation" is, in light of the concerns expressed by hon. Members, not good enough. I hope that the Minister has come armed with the latest information on the French situation and, likewise, on the reports of the sale or donation of arms by Jordan to Indonesia.

Defence Minister Mahfud in Indonesia has said that the US embargo has semi-crippled the military capability in Indonesia. I hope that the Minister will say how successful that embargo was and whether he plans to make further representations on the arms situation, either to other countries with which we have diplomatic relations or to our colleague countries in the European Union.

The Government's response in another place yesterday contained many warm words. Indeed, Baroness Ramsay said:

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A clear message should go out today from this Chamber, the British Government and all hon. Members that there is no place for such slaughter anywhere in the world and certainly not in Indonesia. I had the great privilege of visiting that country last year and I must admit that I was impressed by the people whom I met and the prospects for prosperity and peace. It is a bitter pill to swallow that a section of the Indonesian people are being systematically wiped out in such murder. In echoing the words of the hon. Member for Bridgend, I hope that the Minister can offer more than mere comfort, so that a message can go out to the people of the Moluccas at Christmas 2000 that the British people are behind them and that we will help to restore peace in that area of the world.

12.14 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle ): I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) for raising the issue of what is happening in the Moluccas. It is important that such matters are debated. In the world of economic globalisation, I believe that the campaign for justice and peace internationally should be global, and I am sure that we share the hon. Gentleman's sentiments about the attention to such matters sometimes being less than negligible. I thank also my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and the spokesperson for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan).

All who have spoken in the debate have sustained a high level of commitment to what is happening, whether in writing to me, encouraging others to write to me, tabling early-day motions or in meetings with me. I want to continue such meetings, as I do with the Jubilee Campaign and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which have contacts in the Moluccas islands through the churches and on the net. The information is valuable and makes it known that we are as aware as we can be of what is going on. Having said that, what do we do about it? A tragedy is taking place there and we all share the sense of urgency. Horrific events have unfolded this year. In fact, they go back further than that. We deplore the activities that have brought such pain, suffering and loss to the communities in the Moluccas over the past 18 months.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough asked whether we recognised the role of Laskar Jihad. Yes, we do. We kept tracks on those ships that carried its people from Java to the Moluccas. They were not armed, but they claimed that they were free to move about. That was a worrying development. We do not support Laskar Jihad, and nor do the Indonesian Government. I want to challenge some of the points that have been made. It is not true that no one in Laskar Jihad has been touched. On 5 July, 250 members of the group were arrested by the Indonesian navy, soon after the Duma massacre. I assure hon. Members that a blind eye has not been taken to such problems. The Indonesian military were instrumental in restoring order in North Maluku.

The conflict in the Moluccas has complex origins that go back many years. I also recommend "Nathaniel's Nutmeg" as a good read. It ties in 500 years of history of

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the Dutch, Portuguese and the British colonial traders in those islands fighting for control of them with their rich treasures. That colonial trading left Indonesia with a legacy of a diverse mix of Catholic, Protestant and Muslim traditions and local customs, and more than 150 different dialects. On 23 and 25 October, I visited Sulawesi, an island in the direction of the Moluccas, which was too dangerous to visit at the time. I never fail to be amazed by the sheer size of Indonesia, with its 212 million people and 17,000 islands that stretch across 3,000 miles. The Indonesian archipelago is a huge continent. I emphasise that, because sometimes it merely seems that the Indonesia islands are a few small dots on the map.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we must take seriously what is happening in the Moluccas. The rough split of 40 per cent. Christians and more than 50 per cent. Muslims is rare in Indonesia, but it has existed in the Moluccas since the 16th century. Communities have lived peacefully in close proximity for centuries. The Dutch exerted a strong influence over the islands until Indonesia became independent in 1949. Soeharto ruled it with an iron fist until 1998. We must remember the breakthrough in September 1999, with the democratic election of President Wahid and civilian control of the army--for the first time for generations. Given that move towards democracy in Jakarta, there has been increasing pressure at the periphery for a relationship between the edges and the centre. As we know, tension has been at the edges of the archipelago. In January 1999, violence and destruction erupted between Christian and Muslim communities in the Moluccas.

It is generally agreed by the United Nations that the peak of that violence was between December 1999 and January 2000--this time last year. Thousands died, hundreds of buildings were destroyed and more than 150,000 people were forced from their homes. We urged the Indonesians to pursue conflict resolution, and we raised the matter with the authorities. I say to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham that it was not a case of saying that we support, as we all do, the democratic forces in the emerging democracy. We must go further and say that, because of the conflict, the process does not appear to be working. We want the conflict resolved, and we have made that plain.

A UN resource centre was established. The United Nations Development Programme undertook humanitarian assistance and there was a period of relative calm. However, violence flared in the summer following the arrival of the Laskar Jihad extremists, and the escalation of the violence illustrated the fragility of the reconciliation that had been worked through in the previous months. That matter was raised with the Indonesian authorities, including the movements of Laskar Jihad, and our people in Jakarta supported that.

To add to the complexity, it is sometimes difficult when those even in the other place approach me, write to me and suggest that we give more support to some of those opposing Laskar Jihad. I point out that the issue is not always clear-cut. It is sometimes suggested that the conflict is simply Christian-Muslim. It is not. Social, economic and political tensions exist between local interests that are also factors. It is essential to

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understand that violence affects all communities. Christians and Muslims alike have been victims and perpetrators of attacks and atrocities. Churches and mosques have been destroyed.

In the past few days, I have obtained the latest report from our ambassador, which describes an attack on a speedboat carrying Muslims that triggered further violence in Ambon in November, although the situation has been calm since the beginning of December. The North Maluku governor reports that progress continues, with grass roots peace agreements now in place between Christian and Muslim communities in Halmahera. The two Christian provincial parliamentarians have already returned to Ternate. The report states:

I read that out not simply to say, "Is it one lot or another--is it Christians or Muslims?" We need to know the truth about what is happening, but, crucially, we must put on the pressure to resolve the basic conflict and crisis. Calm was broken on 7 December, when unidentified assailants attacked a boat carrying 40 Muslims from Ternate to Halmahera. The important point, however, is that we are now working together, trying to exert pressure internationally, but also trying to ensure that there are conflict prevention measures on the ground to work with the communities in an attempt to remove the violence.

Despite reports of over-reaction and partisanship from a number of police and military units, the role of the police and the military is generally not as negative as is sometimes suggested. A naval blockade is in place to stop more Laskar Jihad boats going to the island. That is welcome. The marine commander has proved especially effective in North Maluku. The death toll would almost certainly have been higher if personnel had not been deployed or had been withdrawn from the province.

As a result of the violence, the European heads of mission visited the Moluccas to see the devastation and to consider how best to deliver humanitarian assistance and support for conflict resolution. In October this year, the delegation visited Ambon in Maluku province and Ternate in North Maluku. It reported that Ambon resembled Beirut in the 1980s and that warring

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communities were separated in devastated streets, living with daily bombs and gunfire. However, the situation in North Maluku improved greatly when order was restored, largely as a result of the marine commander's efforts. The deputy governor believes that there is a strong desire for peace and reconciliation.

Mrs. Gillan : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, especially as he is running out of time.

Does he find it ironic that, at the same time as the EU is sending a mission to the region to try to bring aid and relief, the Defence Minister reports that the French are offering arms in exchange for maritime exploration licences? Will the Minister tell me what he knows about that?

Mr. Battle : I know little more than the hon. Lady. Those allegations have been made, and I urge the French strictly to apply the terms of the EU code of conduct on the sale of arms. I shall be happy to raise the matter with them at the appropriate time. The idea is to calm the situation down and to ease, not heighten, tensions.

Peace agreements are now in place in Christian Tobelo and Muslim Galela in north Halmahera, and internally displaced persons are returning home. The governor of North Maluku has persuaded two Christian provincial parliamentarians to return to Tenate, which will allow them to work in the communities. The UN and the international NGOs have started to deal with the immediate humanitarian problems, and we have worked closely with them to establish the mechanisms to deliver assistance.

Peace in the Moluccas is fragile. We are concerned about recent incidents such as attacks and forced imprisonments in Christian villages on Kasiui island and the attack on a boat carrying Muslims to which I referred.

I am often asked about the possibility of UN military intervention in the Moluccas. I must repeat that the

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situation is very different from that in East Timor. The UN Security Council did not recognise East Timor as part of Indonesia. To draw a parallel--without wishing to be offensive--I remember its being suggested that a UN peacekeeping force should be sent into Northern Ireland. People were not keen on that, because it was felt to be an internal security matter within the United Kingdom. We must respect such boundaries. Even in the context of the EU report, to which the hon. Member for Gainsborough referred, the role of the international community cannot be ruled out. I hope that I made that plain to the hon. Gentleman in our exchange.

We must wait for an invitation to intervene, thus respecting the democratic sovereignty of Indonesia now that it is established. However, that does not mean that we will not continue to put pressure on the Indonesian Government. We regularly raise such matters with the authorities, Government and President of Indonesia, as I make clear in my replies to hon. Members' questions on the subject.

President Wahid's reform-minded Government are intent on halting the violence. The people of the Moluccas want peace, not independence. That is the specification, although it is different in other parts of Indonesia. Nationalist tensions are running very high in Jakarta. The UK is actively trying to find ways of providing practical back-up and support. We funded two events promoting reconciliation and conflict prevention and we have helped to put people on the ground to work on those matters.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough mentioned journalists and the fair reporting of events. Reporting crisis, tension and war is a difficult business, and this year we have worked to ensure that journalists in the Moluccas participate in training programmes. The Department for International Development seconded a specialist to help establish mechanisms for managing the humanitarian response of the entire UN, and we are considering funding further conflict prevention work. As recently as last week, I discussed Indonesia's efforts with Foreign Minister Shihab at the EU-Association of South-East Asian Nations Foreign Ministers' meeting in Vientiane, and offered further practical support.

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