The government needs to quickly answer questions about an outbreak of violence in Ambon on 11 September that has raised communal tensions and may have been the motivation for the 25 September bombing of a church in Solo, Central Java.
Indonesia: Trouble Again in Ambon , the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the unrest that followed the death of a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver under disputed circumstances and led to seven more deaths, the destruction of more than 150 Muslim and Christian homes and the displacement of thousands. “The local police failed on every count: community relations, intelligence, investigative capabilities and basic preparedness”, says Sidney Jones, Crisis Group Senior Adviser.
An extraordinary effort by a group calling themselves “peace provocateurs” used text messages, Twitter and Facebook to counter misleading and inaccurate information and may have prevented violence from spreading further. Local elected officials also worked hard to calm tensions.
In the immediate aftermath, conspiracy theories emerged about who could have provoked the violence and why, but it could well have been spontaneous, building on accumulated tensions and unresolved issues left over from the earlier conflict that wracked the region from 1999 to 2002. Ambon is a tense and segregated city where everyone knows the borders between Christian and Muslim residential areas, and communal distrust is high. More sensitive handling by police of the driver’s death might have averted trouble, but much work remains to be done in breaking down communal barriers.
Among the groups seeking to exploit the violence have been extremist elements from outside Ambon. Following the Solo church bombing, a radical website posted a claim, ostensibly from the bombers, that included a warning to the “oppressor government of Indonesia” that as long as “you allow our brothers in Ambon to be massacred and their homes burned”, explosions would follow.
Crisis Group says the Jakarta government has made clear its concern over the Ambon unrest, but it should follow through on a number of steps, including conducting an autopsy on the driver’s body with independent doctors present; quickly rebuilding damaged homes; investigating who shot into the crowd and why, since most of those killed died from gunshot wounds; and addressing the shortcomings of the local police, including a review of why they were not better prepared to respond on 11 September.
“There are several quick fixes that would help in the short term”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “But there are also chronic problems caused by fear, suspicion and segregation that can only be addressed by longer-term projects to break down social divisions in Ambon”.