Sep 26, 2023 Last Updated 8:24 AM, Sep 13, 2023

What caused the Ambon violence?

Published: Sep 12, 2007

Perhaps not religious hatred but a corrupt civil service sparked the bloodletting

Gerry van Klinken

Jefri was in the wrong place at the wrong time on 4 August. Walking around a shopping area in Ambon city he and his 21-year old friend Dominggus Hiraka were beaten by unknown men. Jefri later died of brain hemorrhage in a military hospital, while Dominggus was in a critical condition. At 4am on 27 July, Christian residents of Lateri near the city attacked the neighbouring Muslim village of Latta, leaving one dead. Latta residents sought refuge in Ambon’s Al-Fatah mosque, their story fuelling the anger of thousands of other refugees there fleeing similar incidents.

Ambon is in a state of simmering civil war. The latest outbreak in mid-July had by early August left dozens dead. Hundreds died in earlier fighting between Christians and Muslims from January till April 1999. Similar communal battles broke out in the remote fishing town of Tual, also in southern Maluku province, in April, again leaving hundreds dead. Many tens of thousands of refugees, mostly Muslim, have fled the conflict for South Sulawesi.

How do we explain such brutal violence between neighbours? Indonesia has seen so much violence lately, but this is the most difficult kind to understand. When it is committed by the state against the people, we can sympathise with the people. When, more rarely, it is committed by the people against the state, or even against privileged groups such as Chinese entrepreneurs, we might comfort ourselves with the thought that at least the people are standing up for their rights. But when it is neighbour against neighbour simply because they differ in religion or ethnicity, no such comfort is permissible. We can only think that this is a sick, bigoted society.

Certainly the view that Ambon shows us a society mysteriously disintegrating from within is widely shared. But is it accurate? In every other type of collective violence people seem to be driven by motives we can understand - to get a better deal for themselves, or to protect their interests. Why should religious strife be any different?

I’d like to suggest a better explanation than that such conflicts are triggered by pure bigotry. It is based on the idea that people often identify with a particular religious community for quite worldly reasons. In Ambon at least, joining the Protestant or the Muslim community means being part of a network that not only worships God in a certain way but does practical things for its members - provide access to friends in powerful places for example, or protection when things get tough. These networks extend up the social ladder to influential circles in Jakarta. And they extend downward to street level, where gangs of young men provide the protective muscle that an inefficient police force cannot provide.

Communal violence has been episodic in Indonesia. The previous largest cluster of events occurred in 1965-66, when a quarter to a half a million (or more) alleged communists were slaughtered mostly by their Muslim neighbours in the countrysides of Java, Bali and some other islands. This cluster was associated with the fall from power of long-serving President Sukarno, and the rise of General Suharto.


During the years of Suharto’s ascendancy, communal violence rarely broke out. However, it flared up again in various places at the end of 1996, just as metropolitan elites were beginning to feel serious concern about Suharto’s mortality. Several high profile corruption scandals showed us a picture of rival elite factions, some identified by religion, growing anxious about losing privileged access to money and power. For example Transport Minister Haryanto Dhanutirto, a member of the Islamic group Icmi, found himself the target of a bitter corruption allegation in late 1995, apparently launched against him by cabinet rivals.

Such conflict was not just a spat between a few people in Jakarta. Each faction had its hangers-on down the social ladder and out into the provinces. These provincial people were dependent on their patrons in Jakarta to get senior appointments in the public service, as well as business opportunities in the form of untendered government contracts. Call it corruption, it’s how things works when the law is weak.

Ambon’s urban population is rather heavily dependent on direct employment in the civil service: over a quarter by my crude calculations. Compare that with less than 10% in urban Java. More derive a living from contract work for the government. To get hold of that government money, you need connections. That’s where the religious networks come in.

Maluku’s Governor Mohamad Saleh Latuconsina himself said there were two main reasons for the violence in Ambon. One was local feeling against ‘newcomers’ from Sulawesi, who are aggressive small business entrepreneurs. The other, more important for our purpose, was a rumour in Ambon that Saleh Latuconsina had replaced ‘all 38’ top civil servants in the province with Muslims.

Latuconsina was referring to an anonymous pamphlet that circulated in Ambon in October 1998. It must have had quite an impact, for Latuconsina felt called to deny it vehemently and repeatedly, always affirming his belief in the importance of ‘balance’ between Protestant Christians and Muslims. The issue was given a boost when just after the outbreak of the conflict, and as an explanation for it, Nahdatul Ulama chairman Abdurrahman Wahid repeated the allegation contained in the pamphlet. Afterwards Wahid made repeated attacks on Latuconsina’s alleged Islamic nepotism.

There is a lingering perception outside Ambon that this is a predominantly Christian society. A strong local elite certainly define themselves that way. However, figures show that Muslims now enjoy a slim majority. Maluku has in fact had a local Muslim governor since 1992, when Jakarta appointed Akib Latuconsina, another member of the extended Latuconsina clan, to the peak provincial job.

Akib Latuconsina’s chief rival in 1992 was Freddy Latumahina, a Golkar national parliamentarian and senior party functionary, and a Christian. He had been an anti-Communist student activist in 1966. In 1997 Latumahina, now even more senior in the Golkar hierarchy, tried but failed again to win the governor’s post.

Saleh Latuconsina, the current governor, is by no means fanatically religious. He is aristocratic in his demeanour, and has a technical degree from Germany. But personal religiosity is of no account in these matters. When he appointed a non-Protestant deputy governor, and a non-Protestant provincial secretary, the Protestant elite felt frozen out of the three most powerful jobs.


In April 1999 the Jakarta news weekly Tajuk published information from what it said was a top military intelligence report on the Ambon crisis. It alleged there were links between Freddy Latumahina, prominent among the frustrated Protestant Ambon elite, and certain figures within the criminal underworld. An intermediary for these links, it said, was retired army colonel Dicky Wattimena, who had been mayor of Ambon in1983-88, and before that commander of Suharto’s presidential guard.

Indeed, other reports confirm that the Ambon conflict was triggered by rivalry between semi-criminal gangs that operated both in Ambon and in the nation’s capital Jakarta. Each gang appears to have a more or less religious identity - one Christian, the other Muslim. The Christian gang was known in Ambon, bizarrely, as Cowok Keristen, the Christian Boys, abbreviated Coker. It was known to conduct meetings in the main Protestant church in Ambon, Maranatha.

Coker’s Jakarta connection was with a man called Milton Matuanakota and his colleague Ongky Pieters. Milton and Ongky’s gang of Christian Ambonese thugs ‘controlled’ the shopping malls, parking, and gambling dens in northwestern Jakarta. The trouble in Ambon began when perhaps 200 of its members retreated to Ambon after they lost a gangland turf war in Ketapang, Jakarta, in November 1998.

The rather unsavoury picture on the Christian side, then, if we can believe the stories about it, is of a network motivated by material gain but clothed in the language of religion. Near its top we have the failed gubernurial aspirant Freddy Latumahina. Below him an array of local movers and shakers connected with semi-criminal gangs spanning the archipelago from Jakarta to Ambon. The gangs run protection rackets in the national capital, but in Ambon are found in church halls holding meetings preparing for conflict with local Muslims.

The network on the Muslim side is not as clearly delineated. Certainly there is a similar gang in Ambon on that side. Like Milton and Ongky’s boys they have connections with the national capital at its highest as well as is lowest level. But no one has suggested that Maluku’s governor, the urbane technocrat Saleh Latuconsina, is in any way dependent on them.

Leader of the Ambonese gang that rivalled Milton and Ongky’s in Jakarta was Ongen Sangaji, Jakarta coordinator of the Moluccan Muslim Student Movement. They were involved with the recruitment of the largely Islamic PAM Swakarsa, civilian guards to ‘protect’ the November 1998 special session of the super-parliament MPR from anti-government protesters.

The Ambon conflict erupted, as the Human Rights Watch Asia report so graphically describes, because these rival gangs were at the heart of two completely separate and increasingly anxious communication networks. The so-called ‘Reds’ were based at the Maranatha church, while the ‘Whites’ were at the Al-Fatah mosque. Each had prepared contingency plans for an attack from the other. When a trivial incident occurred at the city’s bus terminal, the word flew around each side that ‘it’ had started. From here on, events escalated as each side believed only its own version of events. Muslims spoke of halting the ‘christianisation’ drive. Christians spoke of Islamic ‘fanaticism’ in Jakarta, while some spoke nostalgically of the Christian-dominated South Maluku Republic breakaway movement of 1950.

It is not a pretty picture. But if it is correct, it suggests the solution to the Ambon conflict lies not so much in the inter-religious area (important as that is), as it does in reforming government. In particular, the pattern by which government goodies are only available to friends and connections needs to be replaced with a more accountable and transparent one.

Gerry van Klinken ( edits ‘Inside Indonesia’.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

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