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Briefing 128 / Asia

Indonesia: Trouble Again in Ambon

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.

I. Overview

Clashes on 11 September between Muslims and Christians in Ambon, capital of Maluku province, and sporadic incidents thereafter raised fears of a return to the communal fighting that wracked the region from 1999 to 2002. This time, an extraordinary effort by grassroots “peace provocateurs” and local officials largely kept the violence from spreading further in Maluku. But the unrest triggered efforts by extremists elsewhere to manipulate communal tensions, apparently motivating the bombing of a church in Solo, Central Java on 25 September.

The outbreak exposed the lasting impact of the earlier conflict, the depth of the fault-lines between the communities and glaring police inadequacies on every count: community relations, intelligence, investigative capabilities and preparedness. The government must quickly answer questions about how the violence started, who opened fire and why, as well as rebuild homes and address the needs of newly displaced without the usual corruption. An independent review of local police performance should identify shortcomings and solutions. Most importantly, government, civil society and donors must intensify efforts to build interaction between the communities through practical projects of mutual benefit.

The violence was sparked by the death on 10 September of Darfin Saimin, a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver. Police said it was an accident; circumstantial evidence convinced the family he had been murdered. Text messages that he had been tortured and killed by Christians began circulating, and by the time Darfin was buried (about 1:30pm on 11 September), hundreds of mourners had gathered. Violence erupted as they left the cemetery and continued in two areas until about 9pm, leaving three dead and dozens wounded. Over 100 homes, mostly Muslim but about twenty Christian, were burned to the ground. Around two the next morning, a clash that claimed four shooting victims erupted at the opposite end of town, in a sensitive area dividing the communities. About 50 Christian houses were burned.

By 13 September, markets, schools and offices were returning to normal, but Ambon had some 4,000 newly displaced, with some having lost their homes for the fourth time in twelve years. Polarisation was greater than ever, with mostly Christians believing the accident theory, most Muslims believing the murder theory and many on both sides seeing provocateurs active from the sidelines.

Speculation about who might possibly benefit from the violence – the army, the police, local political figures, national political figures, extremists – obscures the fact that post-conflict Ambon is a tense, violent and divided city, much as local boosters like to evoke the idyllic image of “Sweet Ambon” (Ambon Manise). Inter-village gang fights are frequent, as are common crimes that, because of the victim’s or perpetrator’s religion, can instantly take on communal overtones. Everyone knows where the borders are between Muslim and Christian communities; public schools are largely segregated. Where the two groups mix, in the state university, government and a few large markets, there is an obsession with communal balance. A high population density, exacerbated by a steady influx of economic migrants from Southeast Sulawesi, does not help. Thus, even though many in Ambon believe that the latest violence had to be planned rather than spontaneous, there was more than enough kindling to start the fire.

The government in Jakarta made clear its concerns by taking two unusual steps: sending its top three security officers – the armed forces commander, the police chief and the coordinating minister for political, security and legal affairs – to Ambon on 15 September to meet with local officials and community leaders to discuss solutions; and sending a team of investigators from police headquarters to examine the accident/crime scene. It also acted quickly to stop potential troublemakers from travelling to Ambon to exploit the unrest. Three weeks after trouble erupted, however, the issue of “attacks by Crusaders” against Muslims in Ambon is still roiling extremist websites. Old grievances are being dredged up, and a new narrative of Muslim persecution is taking root that needs urgently to be countered. An independent forensic analysis of Darfin’s death and quick rehabilitation of burned-out neighbourhoods would help. Longer term action is also needed to improve policing and break down communal barriers.

Jakarta/Brussels, 4 October 2011

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013