This piece originally appeared in The Independent on 12 March 2012.
A Christian girl has her arm hacked off in a Muslim neighbourhood, and everyone in this tropical island city expects more trouble to follow.
Text messages multiply the news and calls for revenge exponentially in segregated Ambon, Indonesia, steamy with suspicion between the two communities ever since inter-communal violence in 1999-2002 left thousands dead and many more displaced, torched out of their homes.
But within an hour, a second round of texts spreads, along with Tweets and Facebook posts, bursting the expanding bubble of anger. It didn’t happen. The girl is fine and at home with family. Look, here’s a fresh photo of her. And here’s a video with her made a few minutes ago.
The klarifikasi message is signed, “Provakator Perdamaian”, or “Peace Provocateurs”.
An interfaith group with no formal structure, the Peace Provocateurs are as ambitious in their goal as they are simple in their method. After watching some in Ambon use SMS and social media to whip up fights, exaggerating or simply inventing incidents to spark trouble, they decided they could respond in kind with reverse intent.
“If provocateurs could use the new technology to incite violence, we could use it to undermine their incitement”, says Jacky Manuputty, a Protestant minister and one of the leaders of the group.
The movement emerged organically in September, when the suspicious death of a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver in a Christian area led to attacks, counter-attacks and fears of a repeat of the mass killings of a decade ago. A diverse network of students, lecturers, religious leaders, activist journalists and others who had strong connections across the religious divide contacted each other after the electronic rumour mill started churning, and they realised what they could do.
Manuputty and others were able to dispatch volunteers to any location in a matter of minutes to check the credibility of disturbing claims. They then sent the facts to the leadership, who double checked the details with other witnesses and crafted SMS messages to set the record straight before preparations for revenge attacks could pick up steam. SMS is king here, and while Facebook and Twitter are also employed (the latter being critical in reaching the local media), text messages spread news most quickly through both communities.
Given the weak response by the government and the general incompetence of the police, many credit the Peace Provocateurs with having played a critical role in keeping the violence relatively contained in September.
The network has been active ever since and has expanded its work, too, even posting volunteers in the streets to address flare-ups directly. They also send texts and Tweets in the calm times about cross-community events and distribute photos of normality, like a Muslim trader in a predominantly Christian area, to demonstrate and reinforce the fact that the vast majority of people here can get along and have no interest in the violence some are trying to stir up.
Of course, it is an uphill climb to ease lasting suspicions. Ambon remains a tense place, and even a small spark could set off the stacks of accumulated dry tinder here. Two potential flashpoints in the coming months -- the anniversary of a defunct separatist movement in April and a Qur’an recital contest in June -- offer opportunities for those who want to cause trouble.
“But it’s not the big, predictable events we have to worry about most”, says Bishop Mandagi, an outspoken leader playing an active role in trying to bring the communities together. “It’s the ordinary days, when the security services will be off guard, and a small incident could blow up quickly.”
As a network ready to respond at a moment’s notice, the Peace Provacateurs address exactly this concern. The costs are incredibly low as well -- individuals pay their taxi fares and phone bills -- and the group is not seeking national or international funding to run this project.
“Outside money could create competing incentives”, says Abidin Wakano, a lecturer at the State Islamic Institute and another key leader of the movement. “We all want to see our island avoid a return to mass violence. That’s motivation enough for us.”