A recent visit to Ambon shows that trade is helping to bridge the divide in a religiously segregated society
Hatib Abdul Kadir
Business is booming in Ambon’s markets. When Farid, a Butonese trader, first started selling glassware and housing materials in 2003, not many traders sold these products. Today he has a lot of competitors. Farid owns a grocery store adjacent to Ambon Plaza (Amplaz), which he bought from a Chinese merchant who fled the area when conflict erupted in 1999. He originally travelled to Surabaya to buy his glassware wholesale, but with the increasing number of traders locally, his wholesaler now comes to Ambon to deal directly with his clients.
From 1999 to 2004, religious conflict between Muslims and Christians in the Moluccas province of Indonesia led to the deaths of around 10,000 people and displaced more than 100,000. The conflict, which took place in the period of transition between the New Order authoritarian regime and stable democracy, paralysed economic activity in the Moluccas.
When conflict broke out most of the migrant traders who dominated the Moluccan markets left, taking their capital with them. Many of them were forced to move back to their homelands. When the conflict was over, they slowly returned and reopened their businesses. What they found was, in many ways, alienating. Although tensions had eased in the ten years following the conflict, the distrust among different ethnic and religious groups was still obvious. Residents lived in segregated areas based on their religion and ethno-religious affiliations had intensified in government agencies, settlements, schools and political parties.
Nonetheless, good economic prospects have attracted more and more migrant traders like Farid to the Moluccas. In turn they have become part of a significant transformation taking place in Ambon’s markets, helping to bridge the divide between Muslims and Christians in their local communities.
Migrant traders crossing the border
Pak Karman moved to Ambon in 2004 where he works as both an artisan and trader, fixing broken spring beds and selling curtains. Every day he walks house to house and village to village to attract business. In the last five years, Pak Karman has noticed that life is starting to improve.
Pak Karman is one of thousands of economic migrants who came to Ambon after the conflict. Business is so good that he can afford a round-trip ticket to his hometown in Java every six months. Unlike local Moluccans, who still suffer trauma from the conflict, many migrant traders have no anxiety about crossing borders between villages that are dominated by either Christians or Muslims. A Muslim, Pak Karman has no fear about entering Christian areas to sell his wares or offer his services.
He told me he knows the names of the regions in Ambon better than places in Java where he grew up. Every day he walks from Batu Merah up the hill and crosses into Kebun Cengkeh, from Air Kuning to Karang Panjang, through Kampung Rinjani, finishing in Mardika. Joining him are migrant traders from Sulawesi (from Buton, Bugis, Makassar, Toraja and Bantaeng) and although the majority of economic migrants live in Islamic areas, many conduct their businesses in Christian regions such as Batu Meja, Mardika and Passo.
Pasar Transit was built in 2011 in Passo, a Christian-majority district. Many Muslim vendors objected to the market being built there because they did not want to sell in a market dominated by Christians. When Muslim vendors eventually moved to Pasar Transit another problem arose when Christian vendors did not want to trade alongside Muslim vendors.
Finally, in 2012, after mediation facilitated by the local government, both Muslim and Christian vendors in Pasar Transit agreed to trade alongside each other. The Muslim Butonese mostly dominate kiosk ownership, with Christians occupying los (table stands). Moreover, in a somewhat extraordinary decision by both communities, it was decided that both Christmas and Idul Fitri would be celebrated in the market, following an initiative launched by the Butonese vendors. At Christmas Muslim vendors form a committee for the celebration and at Idul Fitri the Christians do likewise.
Many Muslim traders living in Passo are migrants with no direct experience of the conflict. The role of the local leaders has been crucial in bringing these traders to Passo. They feel safe to live and trade there because the local chief guaranteed the safety of Muslim vendors selling in his territory. When economic activity stagnated after the traders were forced out of the region during the conflict he recognised the importance of accepting new traders to revive the economy.
Closing the gap within a segregated society
The situation in Passo is not a unique story in the Maluku regions. In Wayame, a new emerging district in Ambon, Muslim Butonese traders selling clothing in the market give loans of credit to Christian peddlers who come weekly to pick up some used clothes to sell in Christian areas, such as Tawiri and Laha. A Butonese trader selling second hand cloth told me that without the Christians, she would have no customers. She adds, ‘money has no religion, and everybody needs money to meet their needs, while wars only lead people to obtain goods through barter because their money goes somewhere else’. Inside the market, I also notice many exchanges between Christians and Muslims. Bantaeng peasants from the districts of Nania, Waiheru and Tawiri supply vegetables (spinach and kale) to markets in both Muslim and Christian areas.
Ambon may appear to be religiously segregated across schools, settlements and the bureaucracy, but these boundaries fall away through trade and market activity, which continues without regard for religious backgrounds. Muslims and Christians can meet and interact amicably in the market, crossing religious boundaries and leaving aside their differences. Nowadays, traders hope more for peace than anything else.
Toward the end of my fieldwork, Hosni, a Butonese trader from Pasar Transit, told me, ‘I no longer worry about the reoccurrence of conflict – I am not afraid that Christians or Muslims will fight again. Rather, I’m more worried about a new monopoly of modern markets, malls and supermarkets, which are much more horrifying than a kerusuhan (conflict)’.
Hatib Abdul Kadir (email@example.com) is a lecturer at the department of Anthropology, Brawijaya University and a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also the co-founder of www.etnohistori.org