In early 1999, relations between religious groups had been calm in northern Maluku for as long as local communities could remember. There were Christian minorities in the main towns of Ternate and Tidore and areas of majority Christian settlement in parts of Halmahera, but the region was predominantly Muslim, and Christians recognized Muslim dominance. As in many parts of Indonesia, there were local tensions in some areas, especially over access to resources. In the Kao area, most notably, long-established Christian communities resented the presence of Muslims in nearby Malifut. This Muslims community of about 30,000 was originally from the island of Makian, but had been settled there by the government in 1975 when their original homes were threatened by a volcanic eruption. The volcanic threat had passed, but the Makianese had remained, arousing Christian fears that the Christian identity of the region.
Tensions grew when a gold mine opened in the Malifut area in 1997 and the Makianese benefited from the resulting employment opportunities. Tension became violence in August 1999 when Malifut split from Kao to become a new sub-district (variously called Malifut, Makian and Makian Daratan). Administrative units were splitting all over Indonesia at this time, but the Kao people saw the move as an attempt by interlopers to steal their traditional lands. The split was all the more awkward because some Christian villages were left within the mainly Muslim Malifut sub-district. Some 2000 people were displaced in local fighting.
In October, the whole of northern Maluku split from Maluku to become the new province of Maluku Utara (North Maluku), prompting a struggle for provincial power between the established elite in Ternate, centred on the Sultan, who had been local leader of Golkar during the New Order, and his rivals, centred on Tidore. The Christians of Halmahera had traditionally been aligned with the Sultan of Ternate and had contributed members to his unofficial militia, whereas Makian was traditionally part of the Tidore alliance. On 24 October 1999, Christians from Kao again attacked their Muslim neighbours in Malifut, burning sixteen entire villages, including houses, schools and mosques. The Kao attackers were assisted by Christians from Tobelo. Nearly all the Makianese fled Malifut, some returning to Makian, others moving to Ternate, where they circulated stories of Christian antagonism. In early November 1999, after the circulation of a bogus letter purportedly urging Christians to convert their ‘stupid’ Muslim neighbours, anti-Christian (and anti-Ternate) riots broke out in Tidore and southern Ternate. Several people were killed and between ten and twenty thousand Christians fled by sea to mainly Christian North Sulawesi.
Fighting between Christian and Muslim villages then broke out across northern Halmahera. Christians were largely driven out of Galela and Morotai, and Muslims were expelled from Kao and Tobelo. There was also heavy fighting in Jailolo. It has been estimated that 2000 people were killed and 17,000 houses destroyed. About 200,000 people were displaced from their homes. In late December 1999, a civil war between the militias of the Ternate and Tidore sultans broke out in Ternate itself, in which Ternate’s forces were defeated.
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