Indonesia: cautious calm in Ambon

13 February 2012

Five months after an outbreak of Christian-Muslim violence in Ambon, the city is outwardly calm and bustling, but many issues remain unresolved.

This briefing from the International Crisis Group looks at how the city is faring after the unrest that led to eight deaths and the displacement of thousands last September.

Months after an outbreak of Christian-Muslim violence in Ambon, the city seems quiet. Local authorities learned some lessons from the clashes on 11 September 2011, sparked by the death of a Muslim motorcycle taxi (ojek) driver in a Christian area. Security forces, for example, have been quicker to arrive on the scene in fights that break out along religious lines. While not all those displaced have returned home, some innovative efforts have been initiated to use reconstruction to foster reconciliation. The government is much more conscious of the need to work with the telephone company to get mass text messages out when trouble occurs. Many issues remain unresolved, however, including physical segregation and mutual distrust between Christian and Muslim communities, inadequate police capacity and lack of transparency in investigations into high-profile incidents. Ambon is hosting a national Quran reading contest (Musabaqah Tilawatil Quran, MTQ) in mid-June, and local authorities see it as an opportunity to showcase the city as a model of harmonious relations and a desirable place to invest. Christian and Muslim leaders alike want the contest to succeed as a matter of local pride, and its starting date has become an informal deadline by which all physical reminders of the September violence are to be removed.

Another eruption of violence in mid-December, this time triggered by the unexplained death of a Christian public transport driver, was evidence of ongoing tensions. The city remains segregated, mutual suspicions run high and violence frequently flares from the most trivial of causes. Basic flaws in policing have not been fixed, and the absence of any serious investigations into high-profile incidents keeps the communities polarised and gives rise to conspiracy theories. When investigations do take place, as happened after the death of the motorcycle driver that triggered the September violence, the results are not made public, leading to allegations of cover-ups. Radical elements are active in Ambon, and their tendentious websites suggest a deliberate effort to fan communal flames.

Everyone interviewed could point to possible flashpoints ahead: elections for Central Maluku district head on 27 March 2012; the anniversary of the defunct independence movement, Republic of the South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan, RMS) on 25 April; and the MTQ from 9 to 19 June. But as Ambon’s bishop said in an interview in January, “I’m not worried about the big days. The danger is on the ordinary days when no one’s paying attention”.

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