Dec 08, 2023 Last Updated 10:51 AM, Dec 7, 2023

Shifting faultlines

Shifting faultlines

In the aftermath of religious conflict, ethnic difference is becoming more prominent in Ambon

Jeroen Adam

The pasar kaget in Batu Gantung

Walking in the bustling market of Mardika in the city of Ambon, close to the place where a brawl between a Christian public bus driver and a Muslim passenger in January 1999 triggered years of religious unrest in the Moluccan region, I witnessed a discussion between two men. As these sorts of lively discussions in Mardika are common, I did not pay much attention to the men until suddenly the argument turned nastier and the men became more physical. The customer angrily denounced the seller as a ‘BBM’ who did not sell his goods at fair prices to locals like himself. The acronym refers to three ethnic groups seen as outsiders in Ambon: Bugis, Butonese, and Makassarese (it is also a play on the standard Indonesian acronym for Bahan Bahan Minyak: fuel oil).

This quarrel immediately reminded me of another incident a couple of days earlier, when I took an angkot (minibus) around the island of Ambon. During the ride the minibus filled up with teenagers who had just finished school. When they realised that I was able to speak their language, a casual discussion of my opinions on Ambon and their school and daily life developed. Suddenly, the cheerful conversation took a more aggressive turn when one student pointed to another one and warned me to be careful of her because she was Bugis and all Bugis hide knives behind their backs. The student added that many Bugis people also have a nasty smell. The rest of the teenagers in the bus all thought this comment very amusing - except for the girl.

These kinds of superficial incidents point to underlying ethnic divisions that are becoming increasingly apparent in Ambonese society. On one side are the original Moluccan people or anak negeri. On the other side are the non-Moluccan people, lumped together in the acronym ‘BBM’. (The ethnic Chinese are not included in the BBM label.)

This ethnic faultline in Moluccan society is striking in a region that from 1999 to 2002 was plagued by high-intensity religious violence between Christians and Muslims that caused the death of some 10,000 people. At the height of the violence, around one third of the total Moluccan population had become displaced. Although the fighting largely stopped with the signing of the Malino II agreement in January 2002, the region has since been periodically affected by shorter outbursts of violence, such as the riots in April 2004 in Ambon city which resulted in the death of about 40 people.

Arriving in Ambon as an inexperienced student, I expected to be confronted with a society full of stereotypes and symbols about religious identity. Nevertheless, it was immediately obvious that religious conflict, while important, is undeniably cross-cut by other communal faultlines.     

Competition over market space

Ethnicity has always been a live issue both in Ambon and throughout the Moluccan region. Long-term economic migration, mainly of impoverished people from Sulawesi, has led to a steady growth of migrant communities both in the city of Ambon and on the more remote surrounding islands. The economic competition resulting from this influx of migrants has always been a source of tension. Recently, however, these tensions have been exacerbated.

The main reason for this is the economic transformation caused by the recent religious conflict. Because the violence caused displacement and economic decline, many Moluccan people have had to adopt short-term coping mechanisms, working in the informal economy to ensure their daily survival. Before the crisis, these kinds of occupations were almost totally monopolised by non-Moluccan migrants. The entrance of ‘indigenous’ Moluccans to these fields during and after the conflict has led to a growing ethnic polarisation between the anak negeri and the ‘BBM’.

An example of this process can be seen in the so-called ‘pasar kaget’ or ‘spontaneous markets’ that sprung up during the conflict in the city of Ambon. Most of these spontaneous markets came into being shortly after the outbreak of the violence in January 1999 in the Christian part of the city. Because Christians were fearful of going to the market in Mardika, which is located in a Muslim area, they opened up new markets in the Christian parts of the city. Most of the sellers who set up these new markets were internally displaced women looking for new means to provide for their families. The first market appeared in the Belakang Soja neighbourhood.  Similar markets soon opened in Citra, Batu Meja, Benteng and Batu Gantung. Some of these markets, including Batu Meja and Batu Gantung, still exist today.

Once the violence subsided, the Mardika market recovered its position as the centre of economic activity in the city of Ambon. As a consequence, the markets that had been established during the violence came into fierce competition with it. Although the market in Mardika is sometimes called a ‘Muslim market’, it is also called a ‘BBM’ market, meaning that the bulk of the sellers are non-Moluccan migrants. Many of these ‘BBM’ petty traders were displaced during the violence but returned once conditions were safer. The newly established markets saw their clientele shrink as the Mardika market thrived again. 

The Mardika market has been the city’s main market because it is closely linked to the public transport terminal. Every morning, people from all over the island arrive in the angkots which drop them at Mardika, where they can sell or buy their fresh fish and vegetables. The Mardika market is also the place where wholesalers distribute their products to petty traders who then resell these products in smaller quantities. Many traders want to set up their shops in Mardika market but it is currently full and there is no room for expansion.  When interviewing Christian traders at the new market of Batu Meja, I quickly learned that the growing dominance of so-called ‘BBM’ in the Mardika market was a significant source of frustration.

Many Moluccan Muslim traders share the same frustrations as their Christians counterparts in Batu Meja and Batu Gantung. The Muslim community of Iha is one such example.  Prior to the conflict, this community lived on the island of Saparua. In 2002, they were resettled in the village of Liang on the island of Ambon. This displaced community earns much of its income from fishing and the cultivation of short-term crops such as vegetables. To sell their products, the Iha-Saparua community of Liang prefers to go to Mardika because it is more accessible by public transport and attracts more customers. However, these traders face many difficulties entering this market. They wind up selling in the local markets of Liang or Tuleho or even from their homes and earning lower profits. Competition with the ‘BBM’ communities has sharpened their sense of ethic difference.

Greater ethnic awareness

This example of competition over access to the Mardika market shows how the religious conflict that began in 1999 pushed local Moluccans, both Christian and Muslim, into economic spaces that had been almost completely monopolised by the ‘BBM’ migrants. One notices in other economic fields, such as land ownership and transport, that both Muslim and Christian Moluccans have been in fierce competition with the ‘BBM’ communities since the end of the conflict. 

Further evidence of this ethnic competition can be found in the propaganda of most politicians in contemporary Ambon, who emphasise their ethnic identities to win the hearts of voters. The implicit message is that each ethnic group has to vote for its own leaders to guarantee access to vital economic resources and political power.

Although these sorts of growing faultlines may not necessarily lead to a huge outburst of ethnic violence in the near future, any analysis of contemporary Moluccan society will inevitably have to deal with this new ethnic awareness.   ii

Jeroen Adam ( ) is completing a PhD on displacement and access to land in Ambon at the Conflict Research Group, Ghent University, Belgium.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

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