After Conflict, Youth Use Theater to Bridge Differences in Indonesia

Budi’s* friend was shot in the head, one of thousands of lives lost to the sectarian violence that has scarred Indonesia over the past decade. After the tragedy, Budi’s neighborhood in Ambon fractured on religious lines. The teenager, who is Christian, would not associate with Muslims and was trained by a militant group to use arms. Today, Budi is using a new weapon to wage war on the conflict itself: the stage.

“Theater is an awesome concept to promote tolerance,” says Edwin Louhenapessy, a music and theater teacher from Ambon who works with young people who made bombs and burned houses during the riots. He’s one of 18 Indonesian teachers trained in IREX Europe/IREX US’s interactive theater curriculum, which uses drama exercises to get teens talking about the conflict and to help them search for peaceful solutions. Edwin and his colleagues used the interactive techniques at two theater camps for 100 youth, some of whom were directly involved in the conflict, from four regions in eastern Indonesia where schools were burned and feuds still linger between villages.

By mixing participants from different religions, ethnicities and parts of the country and providing a space to work through often long-buried memories and emotions, the camps have made diverse youth more accepting of one another. Seventeen-year-old Edy* from Poso, who is Muslim, thinks the diversity of the camp is “perfect.” “Here we respect each other and I can pray five times a day. They are more than friends, they are brothers and sisters.”

“Everyone is equal here because we drink the same drink and eat the same food,” says 17-year-old Bayou*, a round-cheeked boy from Pasuruan who confessed to spending hours each night singing songs and talking with his new friends after the day’s official activities had ended. “We should go to sleep, but we stay outside our rooms and share from the heart about our families and the conflicts that took place in our regions.”

The theater techniques introduced at the camps provide additional structure for dialogue. In Forum Theater, young people stage plays based on real-life events and the story is left unresolved at the point of crisis, explains Ananda Breed, IREX Europe/IREX US’s interactive theater expert. A “joker” or facilitator steps in to solicit ideas and solutions from the audience, working to overcome the obstacles presented.

Budi directed a Forum Theater piece at the camp, sharing the story of his friend’s death and the resulting pressure to stop speaking to Muslim friends he’d known since childhood. He resolved to become “an ambassador of peace” after coming home from the camp. In November, he will bring the performance to a larger audience of 200 students and community leaders in Ambon.

"I used to have negative stereotypes about people from other regions, but I was wrong," said a camper. "I don’t want to be separated from my new friends and I don’t want to say goodbye to them."

Joint performances uniting actors from two divided towns, a theater festival, and drama workshops for street children are some of the other initiatives young people and their teachers have undertaken with IREX Europe/IREX US support to share the theater techniques and spread messages of tolerance to a wider audience. “I’ve been able to become friends with Muslims and to understand conflict beyond religion,” Budi says. “I hope to use theater so that conflict will not continue.”

Promoting Tolerance and Dialogue through Interactive Theater in Eastern Indonesia is a one-year program funded by Great Britain’s Strategic Program Fund and implemented by IREX Europe, IREX and the Center for Civic Education Indonesia (CCEI).

*Names were changed to protect the privacy of the youth participants.

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- UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

- Center for Civic Education-Indonesia

Camp days began with warm-up exercises to prepare the campers for theater activities

Using the Forum Theater technique, campers shared real-life stories from the conflict

Participants pose for a photo after establishing newfound friendships across regions

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