Five months after an outbreak of Christian-Muslim violence in Ambon, the city is outwardly calm and bustling, but many issues remain unresolved.
Indonesia: Cautious Calm in Ambon, the latest 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.
“People still want answers about how and why the violence started, who opened fire and why the police were not better prepared”, says Sidney Jones, Crisis Group Senior Advisers. “In the absence of any investigation results, rumours and conspiracy theories are quick to fill the void, deepening mutual suspicions and making another outbreak more likely”.
Several “aftershocks” of the September violence have already occurred, most seriously with a brawl in the Air Mata Cina neighbourhood on 12-13 December, in which five Muslim homes were burned, followed by the murder of a Christian public transport driver the next day.
Local authorities are using Ambon’s hosting of a national Quran-reading contest next June as an informal deadline for reconstruction and a way to showcase harmonious communal relations. This means they are receptive to ideas, and some innovative NGO initiatives are underway, including using rebuilding as a vehicle for reconciliation in Waringin, one of the most devastated neighbourhoods. Both NGOs and government officials are making more sophisticated use of informal networks and information technology to try and keep tensions manageable.
Activists point to possible flashpoints ahead, including the elections for Central Maluku district head on 27 March 2012 and the anniversary of the defunct independence movement, Republic of the South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan, RMS) on 25 April. But Ambon’s bishop says, “I’m not worried about the big days. The danger is on the ordinary days when no one’s paying attention”.
The problem, one community leader said, is that once there is a perception of an attack on the community, the narratives and memories of past conflict are such that the same youths who might have been regular participants in a peace education class can be the first to rush to the frontlines with makeshift weapons. Militant Islamists trying to stir things up from the sidelines do not help.
“Segregation, poor policing and lack of transparency in investigations are still key issues for Ambon”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director. “Until they are addressed, Ambon’s apparent calm can easily be shattered again”.