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Erik Meinema on peacebuilding in Ambon, Indonesia

Dr. Marjo Buitelaar interviews Erik Meinema on his research on trust and building local capacity in the community of Ambon, Indonesia.
I have invited for an interview Eric Meinema, whom Erin Wilson and I had the pleasure to supervise during his research on peacebuilding activities on the Indonesian island of Ambon, a research that he did for his research master at our faculty of theology and religious studies. Eric, welcome back. Thank you. It’s a pleasure. Before you tell us something about the peacebuilding activities that you studied, could you say something about the parties involved? Who were the people involved? And also what was the conflict? And where did religion come in? The conflict mainly took place between Muslim and Christian communities, the conflict on Ambon.
So the interesting thing was when I asked my informants what the conflict was about and why the violence took place, they mostly referred to an incident that took place on January 19, 1999. The incident took place between a Muslim bus driver and some of his Christian passengers. There was a fight that took place between them and this fight escalated into riots. And the riots, in turn, provoked a large-scale conflict between Muslim and religious communities that lasted for several years.
This incident mostly refers to a certain trigger that happened during the conflict, but other scholars, they also refer to certain tensions and competition between Muslim and Christians, and also in other levels of society that were already present within the Ambonese society. So what do scholars say about the background of these violent acts between different communities? Well, scholars actually refer to several factors. And two of the main ones have to do with the colonial past of Indonesia and also democratisation processes that took place right before the conflict erupted on Ambon. First, the colonial past.
During the colonial times, the Dutch colonisers gave Christian communities Ambon and also the broader area of the south Maluku province of Indonesia, a privileged position within society. They gave them better prices in trading and also more access to local government positions. Locally, Christians have managed to maintain their dominant position vice versa Muslims on Ambon. While in Indonesia as a whole, most of you may know, Muslims, because they are a large majority, are more dominant. The other factor is the democratisation processes that took place in Indonesia.
When the New Order Regime of the dictator Suharto fell down in 1998, democratisation processes were initiated in Indonesia, which gave local communities in Ambon, local Muslim communities, an opportunity to regain a more dominant position vice versa Christians because of the elections. Two important factors were the Dutch colonial policies regarding different religious communities in the Dutch Indies and the recent democratisation process in Indonesia. That sounds as though the conflict is more between communities, religious communities, rather than a conflict about religion as such. Could you say something about that? That’s a very interesting question.
That’s certainly true that at least at the start of the conflict, theological discussions or dogmatic issues were not that important during the conflict. But what makes it even more interesting was that there were not only tensions between religious communities from Ambon, but also tensions on several other levels within society. One of these levels is that there was tension between people who are originally from Ambon, Ambonese communities, and immigrant communities that migrated to Ambon from other parts of Indonesia because of the transmigration programmes of the government. There was also competition and tension between Ambonese and these immigrants, especially in the local economy. Another level in which competition and tensions were there was between competing patronates networks.
And Ambon’s economy is organised through family structures that are also related to several villages and neighbourhoods. And having a person from your family network or from your village network in a good government position or a good economic position could give the rest of the community access to economic opportunities or political opportunities. So this was also a level on which tensions were present within Ambonesian society that did not necessarily involve religion. Only when violence erupted and the violence itself was interpreted as religious violence, the framework of religious conflict being there started to get more and more important. And usually, incidents of violence were also accompanied by rumours about the violence. And in these rumours, a certain ideological [?
fuel ?] on the incidents were also present. For example, when houses were burned down that belonged to a Christian, people would say, well, this happened because Muslims hate Christians so much that they burned down their houses. So these kind of interpretations of the stories that were shared confirms the idea that the violence that the incidents that take place are actually the result of a religious conflict. While in fact, the cause of such violence may also be motivated not by religious hatred or a religious conflict, but, for example, by the competition that was present between immigrants and originally Ambonese communities. You touch upon a very relevant issue here.
In the course, we also reflect on the role of collective memories in conflicts. And what you say about rumours, is that related one way or another to collective memories that different communities have of each other?
Yeah, definitely.
The idea that the violence that took place on Ambon was a religious conflict is still up to this day reflected in rumours that are occasionally being spread about incidents that happened on Ambon or between Muslim and Christian relationships. For example, one of the rumours that continues to be spread every now and then is the idea that Muslims or Christians are setting up conversion campaigns to convert the other religious community to their own religion. In this way, the idea of a religious conflict is occasionally remembered collectively as well. But currently, the story that is being told about the conflict and the violence that happened is a different one. So these rumours are occasionally there.
But most of the times when I ask my informants about the violence and what took place, they explain it by sharing stories about provocateurs. So they say that the conflict on Ambon was actually not at all a conflict about religion. It was not formed or created because of tensions between religions, but it was because mysterious provocateurs provoked local communities, set them up, spread these rumours about a religious conflict and also hired people to fight and provoke others. So that is the reason why Muslim and Christian communities started to fight each other. So this is the way most people nowadays try to remember the conflict.
In this way, they downplay the role of religion within the conflict and also put the blame for the conflict outside of themselves. It is not them who wanted to fight, but they were tricked by the provocateurs. And they also in this way stressed the idea that the peaceful coexistence of Muslim and Christian communities on Ambon is the normal condition of Ambonese society life. It was only because of the outside involvement of provocateurs that local communities were provoked to start fighting each other. And who are these provocateurs thought to be in these stories? Well, that usually remains pretty much unclear.
So while some of informants said that they are usually high-level government officials or members of the military, who exactly are these provocateurs it doesn’t become clear from the stories that were shared to me by my informants. So this is also a way, I think, in which by keeping the identity of these provocateurs unclear, this is also a way in which they can manage or at least try to prevent the eruption of future conflicts. This is very interesting because very often you see that the kind of collective memories that play a role in conflicts are those in which previous conflict between the communities are remembered.
So to add fuel to the fight already whereas, in fact, what we see here are collective memories about peaceful situations, where the communities lived in peace in the past. These are recalled time and again. And that brings us to your actual research, the peacebuilding activities that you studied. You have studied peacebuilding project at grassroot level, meaning initiatives taken by local people to reconciliate the different communities.
In particular, you studied activities, projects set up by organisations in which both Muslim and Christian youth participated. Could you tell us something about what kind of activities these organisations were involved in? What kind of projects did they set up? Yeah. It’s indeed true that collective memories are now already used not to prolong the violence, but already in trying to ease the tensions. But as I said before, sometimes rumours are still being spread in which the idea that there was a religious conflict taking place on Ambon and also that there are still religious tensions present right now are still being spread. One of these examples is a rumour about a Muslim motorcycle driver who died in a Christian neighbourhood.
Well, some people say that he died because of an accident. The rumour was being spread that the Muslim motorcycle driver was killed by the residents of the Christian neighbourhood. This rumour in turn led to investigations by the police and all kinds of stories being shared about the incident, but nobody could really tell the truth about what exactly happened. Because of this, riots took place at the funeral of this motorcycle driver, which in turn led to a pretty large-scale incident of violence that took place in September 2011. This was six months before I went to Ambon to do my field work there. And the group that was the main focus of my research was Batati.
And this group was set up during the violence that took place in September 2011 because the young people in the group who consisted of both Muslims and Christians, they didn’t want violence to erupt again and they tried to do whatever they could to stop the violence from escalating further. So what they did, for example, was that they went together as a group of Muslim and Christian youth and they visited several neighbourhoods on the capital city of Ambon, Ambon City, to reassure local people who are organising themselves there to defend their neighbourhoods that the other neighbourhoods who were also organising themselves were only organising themselves for defensive purposes, not to attack each other.
And they also brought coffee and sweets and discussed with them the current situation in an effort to ease the tensions and make sure that people felt more comfortable again. When tensions eased again, they decided that they needed to continue working on making Ambon a more peaceful place. So that’s why they started to organise activities focused on art and music, theatre, and what so on. And whatever activities in which young people from Muslim and Christian communities could come together and meet each other and become friends. So what you are describing are very low-profile activities performed by youth. What is the importance of these youth being young?
Well, one way in which it’s important that these young people organise these activities are young is that they can use aspects of youth culture to bridge the divide between Muslim and Christian communities. So all of the activities that these young people are involved in that they use for peacebuilding purposes are activities that are interesting for young people in Indonesia in general, no matter whether they are Christian or Muslims. So activities surrounding music, art, sports, theatre, all these kinds of things are seen as very interesting by young people from both Muslim and Christian communities.
So that’s why they are able to use this youth culture and create some sort of a new public space in which Muslim and Christians can meet each other and become friends. If I remember well from your thesis, the youth organised these initiatives, they took the initiatives, because they were rather critical of state level or state subsidised peacebuilding projects by established organisations. What is it they were critical of? Well, in my interactions with young peacebuilders, they often did not so much directly criticise these large-scale peacebuilding efforts by established organisations. But in the stories that are commonly told about the violence, you can see a lot of suspicion towards governments, institutions, and politicians in general.
So I think in this way they indirectly challenge the possible effectiveness of these peacebuilding efforts. And another way in which this becomes visible is that the peace talks that were initiated by the government in 2002 that mostly ended large-scale violence are not often referred to when I asked my informants, the young peacebuilders, about why violence on Ambon ended. They even say that these peace talks weren’t so effective because they didn’t involve very many representatives from the grassroots community. So not many common people. So that’s why these negotiations, while they had some effect, but they weren’t so successful in restoring the peaceful social relationships between Muslim and Christian communities.
So instead of that, young people usually cited very different reasons why the violence on Ambon ended, why the conflict in 2002 came to an end. So when I asked them they said, for example, that people got tired of the fighting, they got tired of losing their homes, losing relatives, risking their lives, losing their positions, having no economy at all on Ambon. So that was usually cited one of the main reasons why the violence stopped. And there was also one reason that was specifically mentioned by youth only, and that was that young people just became bored. They wanted to play basketball again. They wanted to play music. And they wanted to get together and have fun.
Looking at these different levels of peacebuilding projects yourself as a researcher, how do you assess the effectiveness of state level organisations versus grassroots activities, initiatives, taken by these youth that you studied? Well, that’s an interesting question because grassroots peacebuilding initiatives have often been criticised for having a very limited reach and also having a very limited impact on large-scale political events and broader society in general. And I think that those criticisms are generally true. So I think that you may need both state level efforts towards peacebuilding and also these grassroots peacebuilding effects. But it’s important to realise that state level peacebuilding also has its limits.
For example, higher institutional efforts towards peacebuilding are often aimed at achieving justice and also an account of the truth as some sort of conditions to create peace. And I think that the conflict on Ambon can perfectly illustrate the difficulties that may arise when state level institutes try to achieve justice and peace. For example, when you want to achieve justice, there usually have to make a divide between who was the victim of a conflict, who are the victims and who are the perpetrators of violence. And this is in the Ambonese case, a very, very difficult thing to do as the violence was organised on the communal level.
Almost everyone at a certain point became involved in the violence and almost everyone also became a victim. And whilst many people who were involved in the violence in the past are nowadays involved in peacebuilding activities themselves. So it is very difficult to make a clear separation between victims and perpetrators in a communal conflict, like the conflict on Ambon. And the same goes for creating truth accounts, official truth accounts. What exactly is true is often difficult to determine. So as soon as an outside political actor or a state comes into a conflict situation and [?
follows ?] one story, one version of the truth as the official truth, this can, in fact, generate even more conflict because other stories may not be heard anymore. I think that, in general, you have to be very careful promoting a certain version of the story as being true. And there might be a good possibility that, especially grassroots peacebuilding initiatives where a new version of the truth is built up slowly, step by step, and as young peacebuilders say themselves, friendship by friendship, in this way, new collective memories are also created in which the religious differences are no longer that much important. But also what happened before the conflict when there was peace and also what will happen in the future.
So it’s not about only the truth about the past, but also what can be true in the future. So I think that because they have a much more informal role and much more easy access to their communities and also much more easy access to all the sensitivities in their communities, the youth know very well what will provoke their communities and also what will bring them possibly together. So I think that’s why they can play a unique role in the peacebuilding process. Well, Eric, this has been very interesting. You have shed your light on several issues that we’ll address in the course about conflicts turning into religious conflicts, the role of collective memories.
What I find very relevant is what you have to tell us about the role that youth can play in creating different collective memories. And in fact, the different levels on which peacebuilding should take place to be effective. So once again, thank you very much for this interview. Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure.
Erik Meinema, a graduate of the Research Master in Religion and Culture at the University of Groningen, and researcher with various peacebuilding NGOs, has studied a community in Ambon and the conflict there extensively. His research sheds light on the importance of trust and building local capacity, as you will hear in the following interview with him.
If you do not have the time to watch the whole video, we suggest to watch two sections in particular:
00.00 – 05.40 : nature & historical background of the conflict
10.30 – 15.00: grass roots peacebuilding activities by Ambonese youth
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