This article first appeared in Jakarta Globe, May 24, 2012
Flickering lights from hundreds of paper lanterns adorned the sky above me, bringing hope for peace and a prosperous Ambon. At Pattimura Park, I saw people from various regions and religions joyfully gathered to celebrate Pattimura Day on May 15. They waited all night for the Pattimura torch parade, but as dawn approached, it had still not come.
Instead, the group received unexpected news: A riot and explosion near the border of Mardika and Batu Merah villages had broken up the parade. The news later on national television was discouraging, reminding me of the 1999 conflict. No less than 46 people were injured, and almost all of them were Christian.
My thoughts went out to the victims and the Ambonese people in general, whose resilience in the face of conflict has been tested repeatedly. In September of last year, the city did well and stopped a riot from growing, partly thanks to “peace provocateurs,” an interfaith group that tried to prevent violence by spreading accurate information about the situation to the public through social media.
That’s actually why I found myself in Ambon — to visit these peacekeepers for research for the Paramadina Foundation, an Islamic learning center that promotes tolerance. I wondered, how would the group respond to the situation this time?
Considering the police’s performance, increasing segregation and the terror during the last incident, their task won’t be easy. And the pressure is on, with the upcoming National Koran Reading (MTQ) event at stake along with the region’s general prospects for peace.
I began following updates from social media and national television, watching the situation normalize as the days passed, and then I started talking with key players.
One evening I met the Rev. Jacky Manuputty, a respected interfaith leader in Maluku who initiated the peace provocateur movement. He introduced me to Abidin Wakano, who is his partner at the Maluku Interfaith Institute (LAIM), a lecturer at the State Islamic University of Ambon (IAIN) and a board member of Indonesia’s highest clerical body, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI)
As we walked through the city, I noticed Jacky and Abidin were well connected to people at the grassroots level, talking with residents and shopkeepers and encouraging them to continue with their daily routines. Then we went to a tent cafe near Ambon Plaza.
“In troubled situations like now, people usually feel reluctant to go outside and prefer to guard their own areas,” Jacky said. “That only separates people more, whether it’s physical segregation or segregation of beliefs. Our visits to coffee shops like this are attempts to break through that segregation.”
The atmosphere become warmer as the night went on. One by one, others came to join us, including a chaplain, a priest, a youth leader, interfaith activists, journalists and bloggers, as well as the city’s deputy mayor, M.A.S. Latuconsina. There were no security guards, though peace provocateurs stayed on alert to update us with information while others in the group spread our conversation through social media on their phones.
The group talked about how the police and military had failed to adequately prevent and cope with the chaos, with some suggesting that security forces were behind the riots. They also said the national media had exacerbated tensions with disproportionate coverage, focusing more on the violent riots than on the resilience of the Ambonese people. And they said the city needed to work toward better integration, in part by promoting more encounters in public spaces.
Of these three issues, the first one, about the police and the military, is least often addressed. If the police had a better relationship with the community, they could be a strong force in preventing and mitigating conflicts, but the people do not trust them. The city should aim not only to increase dialogue among its people, but to increase dialogue between the people and the police, allowing both sides to voice their constraints and concerns while searching for a common solution.
This idea also applies to the issue of media bias. The peace provocateurs were able to confront the national media’s negative bias by interacting with local contributors and promoting peaceful journalism through social media.
They tried to unite the city by meeting people and expanding their friendship networks. With a shortage of public spaces, they turned to social media, but there are limits to that method. Beyond Pattimura Park, the city should create more public spaces such as coffee shops, especially in border areas that are most prone to conflict.
The MTQ Koran event could be a milestone in opening public spaces and spreading the message of peace, Jacky suggested. “Will Christians in Ambon thwart MTQ because of the explosion that injured 45 Christians?” he tweeted at the end of the meeting. “We say, ‘Let’s support MTQ!’ ”
Amid rising intolerance in many parts of Indonesia, Ambon’s struggle with violence provides some useful lessons, encouraging us to get serious about the maintenance of harmony and freedom.