#Ambon: Conflict and Containment Through Virtual Networks


Image Courtesy of the Author

The story that follows is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), whose working conclusion is that the riots that occurred on September 11th and 12th, 2011, taking  seven lives and causing 65 injuries on the small island of Ambon, Indonesia, may have been intentionally provoked by certain parties through text message rumors.

 

Despite a slow and ineffective response by police on the ground, the violence did not engulf the entire island.  Some say that the riots were contained by efforts in the same vessel through which they were spread: text messages and virtual social networks.

Early last month, in the middle of a small city on Ambon, one of Indonesia’s Maluku Islands, a Muslim ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver was found covered in blood in a gutter in a Christian part of town, where Muslims don’t often go. Barely alive, Darmin Saiman was discovered by a police officer and driven to the hospital in a car by a neighbor, blood gushing from his nose and mouth. By the time he arrived at the hospital, he was dead.

 

Motorcycle deaths are not uncommon in Indonesia. However, Ambon has an unfortunate history of religious tension and violence. In 1999, not long after Suharto’s fall, up to 5,000 died and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. The conflict itself lasted until 2002, but since then once-intermingled communities have divided along religious lines, and occasional clashes have broken out every few years, claiming lives and re-displacing the population.

 

After his death, some reports say that Darmin Saiman’s autopsy results were not immediately released to his family, and some say the evidence surrounding Saiman’s death was unclear. The wounds found on Saiman’s body seemed inconsistent with a motorcycle accident, such as a strange puncture wound in his back. Text messages, some including a photo of the wound in his back, cited his torture and death as they flew throughout the community and to other islands, including Java. (Later, posts on radical websites would cite the “massacre of our brothers in Ambon” as the motivation for a church bombing on Java.)

 

The next day, on September 11th, hundreds of Muslim mourners attended his funeral. Before long, the chant “Allah is Great” went up, loud enough to be heard by residents of a nearby Christian community. Members of the Christian community, agitated by the sounds and by texted rumors that a Christian schoolgirl had been injured or killed by mourners, confronted funeral attendees.

 

The violence that ensued claimed seven lives and left 65 others injured over a period of approximately two days. Hundreds of buildings were burned down. Rumors were spreading quickly through SMS and Facebook, the activity on social networks so great that some Indonesians report that it became difficult to contact friends in the area, possibly because of an overloaded network.

 

In the vacuum left by the absence of police action, another force began circulating information throughout Ambon. A small team piloted an effort to contain the rapidly spreading misinformation by catching and dispelling rumors that came through their social networks. A Christian pastor, Jacky Manuputty, and a Muslim lecturer at the State Islamic Institute, Abidin Wakano, led a group of about 10-15 self-entitled “Peace Provocateurs,” including members of Ambon Bergerak and the Moluccan Interfaith Institute. Utilizing a strategic team of contacts located at flashpoints throughout the city, they verified or defused reports of mobs, roadblocks, and injuries in real time in an attempt to provide factual sources amidst the rapidly escalating situation.  For example, when one member of the network received a rumor that the Silo Church had been destroyed, they contacted someone close to the church to take and circulate a photo of the undamaged church, proving that the rumor was false.

 

The Peace Provocateurs were not alone. Other channels also reported using their social networks to attempt to contain the violence that was threatening to engulf the small island. Helena Rijoly-Matakupan, a member of the Young Ambassadors for Peace in Ambon, reports turning first to her mobile phone and social networks when news of the violence broke out: “Throughout that night, I used my phone and social networking pages to receive and share the latest updates, information and clarification.” She reports that another member of the YAP sent messages of peace throughout her Ambonese network, cross-checking rumors and information with friends from the “other side.”

 

The Indonesian government eventually sent 400 troops to help bring the situation under control and police worked to contain mob violence, enforcing a curfewand at one point firing into a crowd. The violence gradually drew down in downtown Ambon City.

Image Source: AP

 

Investigations into the incident, including into the false text message rumors, have suggested the possibility that the unrest had been intentionally provoked, possibly by a political party unhappy with the results of a nearby election in West Seram. The Commission is also looking into the slow and largely ineffective response of the police to the riot to determine whether it was due to a lack of resources or an intentional ignorance of the situation.

 

According to some, the riots had been confined to the city and had not spread to outlying areas in part due to the efforts of small groups of dedicated Peace Provocateurs, whose messages of peace and factual texts helped to keep many out of the fray.