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The forgotten war in North Maluku

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Smith Alhadar

Fighting in North Maluku since October 1999 has by now left about 3,000 dead. Over a hundred thousand have become refugees. And it goes on. Yet this ugly conflict has been less reported than the fighting in Ambon to the south. The conflict reached Ternate, the largest town in North Maluku and located on an island just off Halmahera's west coast, early in November. Dozens died when Muslims went on a rampage after their religion was insulted. Three days earlier the same had happened in Tidore, a small island south of Ternate. Between ten and twenty thousand Christians and ethnic Chinese fled to Manado in North Sulawesi. Since then, fighting has spread to villages in north and south Halmahera.

The conflict was triggered by a pamphlet circulating in Ternate and Tidore that called on Christians to rise up in holy war against Muslims. It was signed by Rev. Sammy Titaley, synod chairman of the Maluku Protestant Church GPM. It urged Christians to convert Muslims, who were described as 'ignorant'. Little wonder people on Tidore were provoked.

Very likely the unsigned pamphlet was false. With fighting still going on in Ambon, no church leader would want another conflict elsewhere. North Maluku is mostly Muslim, and a move like that would only make Christians easy target


The Ternate and Tidore incident was preceded by another event on 24 October 1999. The largely Christian inhabitants of Kao, a district on the east coast of North Halmahera, burned down sixteen villages belonging to the neighbouring (and Muslim) district of Malifut. The Kao said part of Malifut belonged to them. Competition for territorial control began after a gold mine was discovered in Malifut. Many Makian people from Malifut were doing well as labourers at the mine. This made the Kao envious - they are the original tribe who have inhabited the area for thousands of years. The Makian are transmigrants from the Island of Makian, near Ternate and Tidore. The government moved them off their island in 1975 when its volcano Kie Besi threatened to erupt. As a result they became a highly mobile community, progressive and with a strong work ethic. When their homes were burned down, all the Makian fled Malifut for Ternate.

The government does not really understand what caused the Ternate outbreak, but it is difficult to believe it was spontaneous. Whoever made the pamphlet must have been a highly professional agitator who understands North Maluku society well. President Abdurrahman Wahid himself once said the Ternate riot was controlled from Jakarta. But by who? Perhaps by Suhartoists who felt threatened by the new government, working together with military and New Order ex-generals about to be taken to court for human rights abuse.

Ternate elite

But we should not overlook local factors either, beginning with the Kao-Malifut incident. The Kao, helped by Christians from Tobelo, held many meetings before they burned Malifut to the ground. The Kao attack was a real anomaly in the history of inter-religious relations in North Maluku. There has never been a religious riot among the people, let alone a non-Muslim attack on Muslims, since the Portuguese missionaries spread their gospel here in the sixteenth century. Christians are a minority here and acknowledge the political dominance of Muslims.

People do feel suspicious of the Ternate elite. The Malifut gold mine, which is owned by an Australian-Indonesian joint venture, lies on land traditionally owned by the sultanate of Ternate. Suspicion grew when the Sultan of Ternate very quickly brought his customary palace guards - pasukan adat, made up from various tribes including Kao and Tobelo - into the action to stop the rioters in Ternate. This made the Makian feel the Ternate elite were against them.

Not only the Makian dislike the Ternate elite, but so do the people of Tidore. Attacks on Christians by people in Tidore as well as in southern Ternate should be seen not only as an expression of solidarity with the Makian, but also as a form of resistance to the Ternate elite because of the Kao-Malifut incident, in which the Ternate elite had sided with the Kao. More generally, Tidore people did not like the recent campaign by the Ternate elite to go back to 'traditional values' in which the sultan has the decisive role.

Tidore people began to worry that their traditional enemies on Ternate were preparing to revive the cultural dominance they had enjoyed in the past in order to justify a resurgence of their political power. Between the thirteenth and the seventeenth centuries, Ternate was indeed 'the first among equals' out of Maluku's four Islamic kingdoms - Ternate, Tidore, Bacan and Jailolo. Tidore does not have pleasant memories of the subordination it experienced in the past.

Just as the administrative wheels began to turn in mid-1999 to split off North Maluku as a province of its own, the conflict began to escalate. Tidore demanded that its main town Soasiu become the provisional capital of the new province, and that the permanent capital should be the village of Sofifi, part of its customary territory on Halmahera Island. Ternate on the other hand wanted Ternate town as provisional capital, with the permanent capital to be Sidangoli, a Halmahera village located in Ternate's territory.

The Tidore claim only made Ternate laugh with scorn. Ternate is an old town full of history. It is the busiest town in Maluku after Ambon (before the riot). Soasiu is like a small Javanese village. They also said Sidangoli was much more suitable than Sofifi. It had a plywood factory for example. In any case, the final result as laid down in the law on the new province of North Maluku stipulated that Ternate would be the provisional capital, and Sofifi the permanent one - not a compromise either side found satisfactory.

The riots must be seen in the context of a government plan at the time to hold local elections for a new provincial parliament in June 2000. (The subsequent violence forced the government to cancel election plans and announce that a parliament would be selected on the basis of the June 1999 election results.) The Tidore and Makian elite, supported even by some people on Ternate, seemed anxious to prevent the Ternate elite from rising to the pinnacle of provincial power. The silence of the Ternate elite on the Kao-Malifut incident, conversely, was probably motivated by Ternate's desire not to alienate its traditional support base among the Kao. The Ternate elite were already in enough trouble as it was.

Ternate's community is divided in two. In the north live the original inhabitants of Ternate. They are extremely loyal to the culture of the sultanate, and they provide the core of the Ternate customary guards. There are a lot of these guards - 7,000. They played an important role in achieving the sultan's political goals in the past. During the Ternate riot no fewer than 4,000 of them were deployed to secure the town.

In the south live migrants from surrounding islands such as Tidore and Makian, but also Arabs and Chinese. This is a plural, modern, critical and open society, and they naturally oppose the conservative ideology of the Ternate sultanate, closed and oriented to the past as it is.

In response to Muslim attacks on Christians in Ternate, a coalition of Christian tribes in northern Halmahera around Tobelo and Galela on 26 December attacked Muslims living there, eventually resulting in the loss of probably thousands of innocent lives, many of them women and children. On 27 December people from south Ternate in turn attacked a Catholic school housing customary guards loyal to the Sultan of Ternate. The guards responded by burning a suburb in southern Ternate. This was a fatal mistake because it led the recently installed Sultan of Tidore, Djafar Danoyunus, to mobilise his own forces for battle with those of the Sultan of Ternate. As a result, Tidore fighters managed to penetrate the palace of the Sultan of Ternate. They forced him to sign an agreement to back off with his 'yellow guards'. This means the Sultan of Ternate, Mudaffar Syah, is now practically finished as a political force.


North Maluku now needs to move towards a new paradigm based on humanitarianism, rationality, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Muslim groups, some from outside North Maluku, who are still killing Christians in various places around North Maluku should stop. Violence only begets violence. The future of North Maluku looks grim. No one has benefited from the fighting. However, provided all the North Maluku elites wake up to the seriousness of the problem and decide they will do something to stop it, it is not too late to build a true civil society in North Maluku - a tolerant society, democratic, modern and oriented to the future. Worshipping the past, or fighting for fleeting political and economic advantage or for the superiority of this or that tribe or religion, can only undermine North Maluku society as a whole.

Smith Alhadar was born in Ternate and is a member of the Indonesian Institute for Democracy Education (IDE) in Jakarta, tel +62-21-7981149.

Inside Indonesia 63: Jul - Sep 2000

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