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'Provoking peace' in Indonesia

Christians and Muslims in Ambon, Indonesia, have relearned how to live together after a 1999 - 2002 war killed 5,000 people and displaced half a million.

By , Staff writer

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    Muslim residents (foreground) clashed with Christians in Ambon, Indonesia, on Sept. 11, 2011. Religious leaders on both sides are working to improve relations.
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When trouble finally came to Ambon, it came hard. Centuries of tradition that had kept the peace in this tropical corner of the world, where Muslims and Christians had lived mostly harmoniously since the late 16th century, were washed away in a spasm of violence that reverberated across Indonesia.

The war in Ambon and the wider Maluku islands started for a variety of reasons. But it quickly boiled down to a question of identity, of Christians versus Muslims, as more than 5,000 people were killed and 500,000 were displaced from their homes between 1999 and 2002.

The religious passions and communal hatred stirred up in the war put a question mark over Indonesia's moves to build a democracy after 40 years of dictatorship. Could Indonesia's Muslim majority coexist with Christians and other religious minorities without an authoritarian hand on the tiller?

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Sitting in Ambon's Joas Coffee House 13 years after the fighting ended, the answer is clear: Yes. And sitting across from me is Jacky Manuputty, one member of a brave group of local community leaders, Muslim and Christian alike, who have helped heal the wounds of war and today act as the first responders of harmony when the fragile peace looks threatened.

Mr. Manuputty and his friends half-jokingly call themselves the Peace Provocateurs, and the tale of what they've accomplished is a rare message of hope not just for Indonesia, but in some ways for the world.

A Protestant pastor, Manuputty says it would be a mistake to see Ambon as a society that's fully healed. But he says he and his colleagues have at least found a way of containing small sparks – those rumors of "provocateurs" in their midst seeking to start another war.

"That term, provocateur, made people angry, so I tried to find a counternotion. It should really be a neutral term. It means how to steer people to do something, to grab the youths' attention," he says. "I don't believe we 'make' peace – everyone has the seeds of peacefulness inside themselves, but for some reason they struggle to see it, make it public. All we're trying to do is to bring out what's already inside of them."

What the Peace Provocateurs brought out in individuals here has in some ways brought together a nation. At the height of the fighting between Christians and Muslims, political commentators wondered if this diverse nation of 270 million people could survive the political demise of President Suharto. The word on many lips then was "Balkanization."

That may seem absurd now, with Indonesia since emerging as Asia's second largest democracy and the world's largest Muslim-majority one. It has ended two of its three longstanding separatist wars, and put out sectarian brush fires all along the way. The fire that burned in Ambon was among the country's hottest after long-ruling dictator Mr. Suharto was ousted in 1998.

That it was put out helped damage the interests of the small militant Islamist movement, bolstered respect for the central government, and helped set the stage for Indonesia's economy to start growing again.

So it's worth examining how it was done – and how still-existing tensions and disputes are kept from erupting again into open warfare. It wasn't easy, and success on the island had as much to do with local knowledge as with easily generalizable principles that might apply in countries like Egypt or Libya.

But if you're looking for examples of how people can put the horrors of sectarian war behind them, you could do worse than Ambon.

Manhattan traded for Moluccas

Ambon was once a center of attention for European imaginations, home to almost unimaginable riches for the bold.

What kind of riches? In 1667, the Dutch formally ceded control of Manhattan Island to the British in exchange for Britain granting to the Dutch control of Run, a postage stamp of an island in the Banda Sea south of Ambon that the two empires had fought over because of its nutmeg.

It was a comically bad trade from the perspective of today. But in those days, local farmers looking down the barrel of a European rifle sold nutmeg for next to nothing, which would be worth 1,000 times or more what was paid for it by the time it reached the salons of Europe.

For centuries, the European with the gun was the Dutch East India Co., which transformed Ambon and the surrounding islands, traditionally called the Moluccas in English and Maluku in Indonesian, into corporate possessions. Anyone who got in its way was likely to be killed, with methods particularly ruthless against native populations.

But the Dutch presence for centuries also led to the spread of Protestant Christianity in an area where Islam had arrived in the early 16th century. Christians were more likely to belong to local elites than Muslims.

While the region has never been entirely without conflict, faith rarely featured in disputes, with Ambon's Christian and Muslim inhabitants both looking to their shared past for answers to problems when they flared.

In particular, the people of Ambon had two customs that maintained bridges across faiths: pela and gandong. Pela refers to semiformal pacts between villages, and gandong derives from the word for "womb," emphasizing that all Ambonese are "brothers of the same womb."

A pela involved elements of mutual help. For instance, if a village were building a mosque, a neighboring Christian village would send men and supplies to help finish the roof. A Muslim village would act in kind. Gandong called on all Ambonese to look toward their common ancestry, embodied in a folk tradition that all people here descended from a tribe that lived on the large, mountainous island of Seram to the north.

But down the years, particularly since independence, the old ways have faded under pressure from newcomers from other parts of Indonesia, most of them Muslim, and from a central government that until recently was hostile to local, traditional forms of government.

Under Suharto, the power and respect of traditional leaders was steadily chipped away, shifted to officials answerable to the central government. That worked, in Ambon and elsewhere, for as long as Suharto's military-backed dictatorship remained standing. But when he fell, a network of control – taut strands composed of informants and soldiers and flunkies reaching out from Jakarta to every remote corner of Indonesia, including idyllic-seeming Ambon – sprang apart. Violence was coming.

In January 1999, about eight months after Suharto was pushed from power, a fight between a Christian bus driver and a Muslim passenger sparked ethnic and religious fighting across Ambon and neighboring islands. Among Christians at the time, there were rumors of national Muslim militias with designs on wiping out the Christian population of the region. Among Muslims, many whispered there was a Dutch-led conspiracy to create a breakaway Christian state in the region. Shops were smashed, houses burned, and men were bludgeoned to death in the street, by both sides.

In the early months of the conflict, local Christians, who were dramatically overrepresented in the regional police, had the upper hand. But as time went on, the balance shifted, as would-be jihadis from other parts of Indonesia were drawn in by national media that emphasized the Muslim community's plight.

While the fighting was originally driven by local issues involving economic and political competition, the Muslim fighters from the rest of Indonesia had a far darker agenda.

In September 2000, Jaffar Umar Thalib, a cleric who led a militia from Java called the Laskar Jihad, made no bones about the militia's intent. He described a lull in the conflict as only "halftime" and called for all Christians to be driven out of Ambon. A week later, he went to Waai, a Christian village that had been abandoned after a July 2000 attack. He decreed a new town, to be called Waai Islam, would be built there and praised its imminent "return" to Islam.

'Provoking peace'

In the end, Mr. Thalib and those like him lost the war. Christians like Manuputty had something to do with that. But so did Muslim leaders like Abidin Wakano.

Mr. Wakano, a Muslim scholar who teaches at the Islamic institute on the island and preaches at Al Fatah Mosque, its largest, chuckles as he recalls how he and Manuputty began working together, against considerable hostility in their own communities.

A few years ago he was putting the finishing touches on his sermon for Idul Fitri, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, and decided it wasn't quite right. So Wakano, one of the senior Peace Provocateurs, went over to Manuputty's office next to the Maranatha Church on the Christian side of town and asked him to edit the piece – a fact he shared with the thousands of Muslims he preached to at the service.

Manuputty has done likewise, recalling his efforts to get the Christian community of Ambon to see fellow Muslims as "subjects" rather than "objects" and to build empathy for their shared suffering. He invited a woman whose home had been burned and husband killed in the fighting to come speak before a Sunday service at Maranatha, the sort of emotional talk that was used to whip up anger against the other side during the war. There wasn't a dry eye in the audience as she wrapped up her speech – then revealed that she's a Muslim.

"Brotherhood isn't just about sweet words; it's constant work and criticism," Wakano says. "Often we have meetings with both sides and the talk is ridiculously nice and then everyone goes home, and all Muslims become terrorists and all Christians become liars again. We have to break the stereotypes."

Talk to average Ambonese, and they insist the ugly past is well behind them. On a recent sun-dripped day in Waai, it's easy to believe them. The Christian town of about 5,000 was mostly destroyed in 2000 by an attack organized from the neighboring Muslim town of Tulehu just up the coast. About a dozen people were killed in the attack, and the rest fled for their lives. The townspeople didn't return home until 2006.

The rebuilding of the town's large church is now the only outward sign of the trauma. A freshwater spring feeds a clear pool holding eels that the people of Waai consider sacred. It's also filled with children frolicking, and downstream, women chatting over laundry.

Baldus Bakerpessy, a retired fisherman, says he was frightened and angry when they were driven out of town. But asked if he wants revenge today, he insists the village has moved on. "We're rebuilding. We've established good relations with Tulehu again – they've helped out with the church – it's all in the past."

For their efforts at peace, both Manuputty and Wakano received some hostility from former friends and death threats from within their own communities.

A new segregation

And while Ambon is much better off today, both say it would be a mistake to assume another war isn't possible.

The conflict itself led to a religious cleansing of all the mixed neighborhoods and villages around the island. Today, there are none left. While Christians and Muslims mix in markets and cross communal lines by day, at night everyone retreats to their own communities.

The town is still pocked with scars of burned homes and warehouses, and the countryside is littered with remnants of villages whose residents were driven out – never to return.

And the traditional ways aren't exactly returning. Muslim migrants from other parts of Indonesia, mostly from South Sulawesi and surrounding islands, continue to pour in, and they have no interest in Pela and Gandong or what it once meant. There are still preachers from other parts of Indonesia that trouble Wakano.

"There are people that praise Islamic solidarity above all other things, who say traditional beliefs are haram [forbidden], polytheism," Wakano says. "Any movement, Christian or Muslim, that rejects this kind of local wisdom is absurd. If Muhammad and Jesus were still alive, maybe they'd make Pela Gandong. Fear is not what either religion is about."

Stamping out sparks

In 2011 that premise was sorely tested. That September, a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver died in an accident in a Christian area, and soon rumors were flying that he had been murdered by a Christian gang, including an insistence from some of the dead man's relatives that his wounds weren't consistent with an accident.

The fire was lit. Within hours, Muslim attacks on two Ambon City Christian neighborhoods, Talake and Mardhika, were swiftly followed by an attack on the Muslim neighborhood of Waringin. In all, 750 homes were damaged or destroyed and more than 3,000 people temporarily displaced.

The whole island held its breath. Muslim extremists in other parts of Indonesia tried to capitalize, with one website calling Ambon the "Gaza of Indonesia" and complaining of massacres carried out by Christian "crusaders."

But a competent police and military response was matched by community efforts. Wakano, Manuputty, and others quickly began working with women in all the affected communities, helping them organize to reach out for government rebuilding assistance and setting up a sort of community exchange program: Christian women spent the night at the houses of Muslim families, and vice versa. The fire, that time, was banked.

But Novi Pinontoan, the editor of Suara Maluku, the small island's leading newspaper, says the danger remains: "It's still too easy to provoke people. We are getting good at putting a lid on things; that's the difference between now and 1999 to 2002. We keep it small."

Manuputty worries, too, that full healing remains elusive: "We need to work out the future, but we've lived as a wounded community for centuries," he says. "There's a serious post-colonial syndrome here. People are still segregated, and there's no clear permanent solution."

But he takes hope in the bridges that have been built and says the best that can be done is to keep getting people to sit down and talk.

"We're building friendship webs, like weaving palm fronds for a roof," he says.

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