Ambon. The road that runs outside the Silo Church in Ambon is normally a one-way street, but for the last several weeks cars and motorbikes have been allowed to travel in both directions as motorists try to avoid the nearby Waringin area.
Tensions remain high in Waringin, the area hit hardest by bloody rioting on Sept. 11 that killed seven people and left 67 injured. The streets are lined with burned-out homes and stores, even down alleyways accessible only by foot or bicycle.
Structures that were spared are now heavily guarded by military and police personnel carrying assault rifles and clad in heavy, bulletproof gear and helmets.
My guide Azis and I were the only two civilians out on the streets after dark. “We should get off the main road,” Azis says, making a right turn into a small alleyway away from the barricade of riot-control vehicles.
Azis seems hesitant to pass the Talake area, a Christian neighborhood devastated by the riots. If we continue further down the road, he says, we will be confronted by security officers as police snipers watch us from inside people’s homes.
Messages of peace are conveyed through hordes of billboards, banners and graffiti across town that depict the national symbol of unity, the Garuda Pancasila. But to many, particularly those whose properties were torched as well as the relatives of those killed, the words are empty rhetoric.
Memories of the 1999-2002 sectarian conflict in Ambon, which killed 7,000 people, still run deep in the collective psyche of its people. Waringin, a Muslim neighborhood, has already been destroyed and rebuilt twice, making this the third such instance.
“In times like these, people are agitated. We become paranoid of strangers. A misunderstanding can grow into tension, and the next thing you know a riot breaks out,” Azis says. “Particularly if you survived the conflicts of the past, the pain of the lives lost starts rushing back.”
He describes the past conflict as “a time when everyone “went mad.” People, he says, were treated like animals — and butchered like them, too. He confesses to killing a Christian man himself some 10 years earlier. The man, he says, was part of a group that attacked his neighborhood in Mardika.
“I didn’t feel a thing when I drove a knife into his chest. It was like I was someone else, possessed by the spirit of a sadistic demon or some sort,” Azis says. “I got a taste of what hell must have been like because I have seen his face every day for the rest of my life.”
The Widening Gap
Muslims and Christians have always been heavily segregated in the 400-year-old city, dating back to the Dutch colonial era and its policy of “divide and conquer.” Not much has changed today. In fact, the bloody conflict widened the rift between both religious groups as people tended to live and mingle among their own.
“Ambon has all the ingredients of a conflict zone,” said the Rev. Jacky Maniputty, of the Maranatha Protestant Church. “The city is heavily segregated, there is little public space for people to mingle, the political dynamics are high and it is congested.”
The violence in 1999 began as a clash between the native Ambonese and the so-called “BBM” group, short for Bugis, Buton and Makassar, who make up the majority of migrants to the city.
Like the recent riot, rumors exaggerating a trivial event sparked the 1999 conflict. A public minivan driver was killed after refusing to give money to a thief. Both sides claimed to be the victim as the religions and ethnicities of the driver and his killer were widely disputed.
Another factor preceding the deadly rioting of last month was the killing of Ambonese thugs in Jakarta a year earlier. Hundreds of their friends returned to their hometown and wreaked havoc.
But the violence failed to escalate into a matter of national security — initially.
“Suddenly, the conflict was perceived as one between religions,” human rights advocate Semuel Waileruny said. “Yet Ambonese include both Christians and Muslims, and the bond of common ancestry is so strong that there has never been a problem between the two.”
Claims of religious violence in Ambon prompted many Muslims in the country to join the Laskar Jihad, or Warriors of Jihad, in 2000, pledging to retaliate against the Christians for shedding the blood of Muslims.
The militants departed from Surabaya on board a Navy ship with the full support of the government to maintain order and stability.
But their presence only prolonged the conflict and the city deteriorated into a war zone, with smuggled arms — which some believe were supplied by the military — falling into the hands of each side.
The Ambon conflict and another act of religious violence in Poso, Central Sulawesi, led to the fall of then-President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid in 2001. Wahid was a well-known pluralist and staunch critic of the military.
Old Tactics, Old Players
The death of a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver in a Christian neighborhood triggered this year’s riot. Andreas Harsono, the Indonesian consultant for Human Rights Watch, points to “the roles of disinformation, unverified information, spreading through text messages, photos, videos and gossip” as the root cause behind the clash.
Maniputty says there are similarities between the Sept. 11 riot and past conflicts.
“The tactics are the same: distribution of unfounded rumors, unknown provocateurs directing the masses, mysterious shootings and deployment of troops,” he says.
He says he is convinced by the way the incident unfolded that there are signs of people who want to see Ambon in disarray.
“First, Ambon is attacked by rumors. If that fails to generate widespread conflict, there are bombs uncovered, first unexploded then exploded. If that doesn’t work, there will be corpses dumped by the side of the streets by unidentified men,” he says.
So far this year, Ambon has seen at least two of those four signs. Police have found at least four unexploded bombs in recent weeks, including one planted outside Maniputty’s church.
But finding someone to blame is an exercise in speculation.
One Ambon media outlet reported that the Jakarta administration had devised the riot to make it easier for business interests to infiltrate and exploit the Spice Islands’s natural resources. Another theory says Ambon’s corrupt leaders engineered the clash so they could benefit heavily from reconstruction projects in the devastated areas.
The Ambon chapter of the Islamic Students Association (HMI) suspects it was meant to scare off investigators from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), who reportedly arrived in Ambon that day to investigate Maluku Governor Karel Ralahalu over allegations of graft. The KPK has denied investigators were in the city that day.
Rights activists accuse the military of profiteering from people and businesses’ need for protection. One youth organization claims someone was trying to disrupt its national congress, which was in the city last week. Some conservative Muslims even believe a Zionist agenda is to blame for the chaos.
No matter the theory, no one doubts the recent clash was engineered. Even Djoko Suyanto, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, says there are people who created or at least benefited from the instability of Ambon.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Setara Institute for Freedom and Democracy, says the police appear reluctant to move their investigation forward and find the masterminds behind of last month’s violence.
“They might think that if they continue the legal process, they could be accused of taking sides, which could lead to more conflict,” he says. “They might also think that time will heal the wounds and if the police get actively involved, that might only heat things up.”
National Police spokesman Insp. Gen. Anton Bachrul Alam says police have yet to name any suspects.
“The investigators are still gathering evidence and giving assurances to the family of the [driver] that [his death] really was an accident,” he says.
But Bonar says police need to widen their investigation to identify the root cause of the violence. By limiting their focus to keeping the peace, he adds, they are almost guaranteeing that violence will break out again.
Prior to the latest events, Maniputty had established an interfaith communications forum aimed at countering rumors.
“We gather all of these hate messages and unfounded information and verify them ourselves. Then we disseminate the correct information using the available technology, which we hope can appease a wary public,” he says.
Tribal leaders in Maluku have told their people to stay calm and warned that rioters would be expelled from the community.
“People are now more selective in receiving information,” local rights activist Semuel Waileruny says. “But even then, violence still occurs.”
In February 2002, the Malino II Accord between Muslims and Christians was signed, ending years of violence. A “Peace Gong” now sits in the heart of Ambon, a reminder of its violent past.
Without a thorough investigation into how the latest conflict flared up, though, suspicions remain high.
“Don’t ask why violence broke out again. Ask why the past conflicts are still unresolved,” Maniputty says.
This report is supported by the Pantau Foundation