HL Deb 06 December 2001 vol 629 cc942-4

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

What support they are able to offer the Indonesian Government in responding to the activities of Laska Jihad in Maluku and Sulawesi.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, Laska Jihad is one of several extremist groups perpetrating a cycle of violence between Christians and Muslims in Maluku and Sulawesi. Her Majesty's Government deplore the resultant loss of life and, together with EU partners, have strongly urged the Indonesian Government to reduce the level of violence and promote reconciliation. We are also considering ways to offer practical help within the context of our conflict reduction strategy, and have funded conflict-reporting workshops for journalists in both provinces.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. Is she aware that the conflict, in which both Christians and Muslims have attacked each other, has recently escalated drastically with the influx of Jihad warriors? For example, when I flew into Ambon, there were seven foreign Jihad warriors on the plane. Their leader now claims that there are more than 7,000 in Sulawesi, where they are attacking Christian communities. Many have been killed, tens of thousands have been displaced and there are threats of a bloody Christmas. Will Her Majesty's Government therefore take the kinds of measures outlined by the Minister to support President Megawati, who is committed to religious tolerance, and do so as a matter of enormous urgency to avoid that bloodshed this Christmas?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of the escalation of the conflict. I thank the noble Baroness for the valuable work she has done in keeping in contact with the Foreign Office. I know that she had a valuable round-table session on this issue with my colleagues in the Foreign Office at the end of November. On 4th December, together with our EU partners, through our ambassador in Jakarta, we made representations about these issues. There are conflicts about the numbers of people who are believed to be involved in this activity. The UN has stated that it is not 7,000 but only 1,000. The noble Baroness can rest assured that the issue is being taken very seriously. Representations are being made—bilaterally, through the EU and, of course, through the United Nations.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, can my noble friend assist the House in two respects? First, is it the Government's view that the Indonesian Government are unable to control the situation and restore order, or is there a lack of will? Secondly, does the violence come entirely from the Laska Jihad and the other extremist groups, or have they persuaded the local Muslim population to support them? Would any purpose he served in inviting distinguished leaders, both Muslims and Christians, on an international basis, to appeal for peace and tolerance?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not think that the Indonesians can be accused of being either unable or unwilling to do something about the situation in both provinces. I remind your Lordships that the Indonesian Government have sent five battalions to the northern Moluccas, 10 battalions to the southern Moluccas, and, very recently, two battalions to Sulawesi. Indeed, the Minister for Political and Security Affairs visited Sulawesi yesterday. That indicates that the Indonesian Government are taking the matter seriously.

We must remember that it is always difficult to assess exactly who is involved in violence. Undoubtedly the Jihad movement has involved itself in a good deal of violent behaviour, but I stress that the United Nations has reported that some local Christian groups have also been indulging in violence recently. One must be very careful about laying the blame entirely on one side or the other. The picture is more complicated than that.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the organisation in question has admitted that Osama bin Laden offered it arms and money some five or six years ago, and that the leader of the organisation personally met Osama bin Laden in Peshawar in 1997? Further to the noble Baroness's previous answer, does she believe that the additional 50 battalions, which the Indonesian Minister said he was deploying to trouble spots, is likely to cure this or other conflicts, bearing in mind the record of the Indonesian military in the past? Does the noble Baroness not think that it would be more helpful if we offered the Indonesian Government advice on legislation to combat racial and religious hatred, which they might introduce with profit in their country?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of allegations about the links to which the noble Lord refers. Reports vary as to the number of Islamic extremists in the region and their international connections. A number of reports have speculated on the presence of international Islamic militants. I agree with the noble Lord that that is a serious position if it is proved to be the case.

The additional battalions are of help, but they do not solve the issue in itself. That is why I was careful in my initial Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, to stress what we are trying to do through conflict prevention. We are using the global conflict prevention pool—the pool of money across Whitehall to be deployed on such issues. We are also deploying DfID funds to the tune of some £33 million in poverty reduction programmes over the next three years. I hope that the programmes will make a useful contribution in helping to resolve some of these appalling conflicts.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the Government ask the Indonesian authorities to lift the siege of the town of Tentena, where there are many displaced people? Does the Minister consider that it would he helpful to have in place, on a long-term basis, international observers and human rights monitors?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have made a number of representations to the Government of Indonesia. The most recent, on 4th December, was made by the EU heads of mission in Jakarta. The agreed terms of reference were for a confidential EU troika démarche to the Indonesian Government on a number of issues. I hope the noble Lord will also be pleased to know that the EU has offered constructive technical and financial assistance in the framework for a long-term approach in an attempt to help to solve some of the underlying problems in the region.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, has the EU's developing relationship with ASEAN been effectively used? There seems little doubt that the influence on a basically moderate government would be likely to be greater if it came from countries in the area, many of which are also Muslim, particularly as—we know this from past experience—the Indonesian forces are not known for their commitment to the protection of the weak and the helpless.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the more interchanges there are between the Government of Indonesia and the EU, the more constructive those exchanges can be. If they are able to aid the economic recovery of Indonesia, that is very much to be applauded. We all know that the economy of Indonesia has been in great difficulty. The country still faces tremendous social challenges arising from that fact. It is important that those interchanges continue and that further efforts are made. The noble Baroness may know about the renewed IMF agreement and the Paris Club settlement. All of these are important building blocks in putting together structural reform for the future and in ensuring that we do what we can to help to stabilise the very difficult situation in Indonesia.