Clashes between Muslims and Christians in Ambon, Indonesia, raised fears of a return to the communal fighting that wracked the region from 1999 to 2002.
his time, an extraordinary effort by grassroots “peace provocateurs” and local officials largely kept the violence from spreading further in Maluku. But the unrest triggered efforts by extremists elsewhere to manipulate communal tensions, apparently motivating the bombing of a church in Solo, Central Java on 25 September.
The outbreak exposed the lasting impact of the earlier conflict, the depth of the fault-lines between the communities and glaring police inadequacies on every count: community relations, intelligence, investigative capabilities and preparedness. The government must quickly answer questions about how the violence started, who opened fire and why, as well as rebuild homes and address the needs of newly displaced without the usual corruption. An independent review of local police performance should identify shortcomings and solutions. Most importantly, government, civil society and donors must intensify efforts to build interaction between the communities through practical projects of mutual benefit.
The violence was sparked by the death on 10 September of Darfin Saimin, a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver. Police said it was an accident; circumstantial evidence convinced the family he had been murdered. Text messages that he had been tortured and killed by Christians began circulating, and by the time Darfin was buried (about 1:30pm on 11 September), hundreds of mourners had gathered. Violence erupted as they left the cemetery and continued in two areas until about 9pm, leaving three dead and dozens wounded. Over 100 homes, mostly Muslim but about twenty Christian, were burned to the ground. Around two the next morning, a clash that claimed four shooting victims erupted at the opposite end of town, in a sensitive area dividing the communities. About 50 Christian houses were burned.
By 13 September, markets, schools and offices were returning to normal, but Ambon had some 4,000 newly displaced, with some having lost their homes for the fourth time in twelve years. Polarisation was greater than ever, with mostly Christians believing the accident theory, most Muslims believing the murder theory and many on both sides seeing provocateurs active from the sidelines.
Speculation about who might possibly benefit from the violence – the army, the police, local political figures, national political figures, extremists – obscures the fact that post-conflict Ambon is a tense, violent and divided city, much as local boosters like to evoke the idyllic image of “Sweet Ambon” (Ambon Manise). Inter-village gang fights are frequent, as are common crimes that, because of the victim’s or perpetrator’s religion, can instantly take on communal overtones. Everyone knows where the borders are between Muslim and Christian communities; public schools are largely segregated. Where the two groups mix, in the state university, government and a few large markets, there is an obsession with communal balance. A high population density, exacerbated by a steady influx of economic migrants from Southeast Sulawesi, does not help. Thus, even though many in Ambon believe that the latest violence had to be planned rather than spontaneous, there was more than enough kindling to start the fire.
The government in Jakarta made clear its concerns by taking two unusual steps: sending its top three security officers – the armed forces commander, the police chief and the coordinating minister for political, security and legal affairs – to Ambon on 15 September to meet with local officials and community leaders to discuss solutions; and sending a team of investigators from police headquarters to examine the accident/crime scene. It also acted quickly to stop potential troublemakers from travelling to Ambon to exploit the unrest. Three weeks after trouble erupted, however, the issue of “attacks by Crusaders” against Muslims in Ambon is still roiling extremist websites. Old grievances are being dredged up, and a new narrative of Muslim persecution is taking root that needs urgently to be countered. An independent forensic analysis of Darfin’s death and quick rehabilitation of burned-out neighbourhoods would help. Longer term action is also needed to improve policing and break down communal barriers.