Tue, 25 Jan 2000

Roots of the North Maluku conflict

By Ester Indahyani Jusuf and Desideria Utomo

This is the first part of an article on the conflict in North Maluku.

JAKARTA (JP): The mass civilian killings in North Maluku have begun to subside with the increasingly forceful action taken by the government through the military. However, the dilemmas haunting the people of North Maluku, which are far more tangible than the superficiality of the conflict between two religious groups, remain untouched and unsolved.

The history of the fierce resistance and rebellion of the people of northern Maluku against external values is inextricably bound to the development, prosperity and, later, the deterioration of its sultanates. The sultanate dominion system in northern Maluku emerged in the 13th century led by Sultan Cico a.k.a. Masyur Malamo (1257-1277).

Surviving today are the Ternate, Tidore, Bacan and Jailolo sultanates. The four sultans are brothers, the youngest being the sultan of Ternate. The official religion of the four sultanates is Islam, which is also the dominant religion of the region.

Each sultanate is a member of a confederation, called Moloku Kieraha, which was established as a union of the culturally diverse sultanates by the Moti Confederation in 1322. Within the first three centuries of its establishment, the Ternate Sultanate ruled in northern Maluku. The other sultanates -- Jailolo, Tidore and Bacan -- existed under the umbrella of Ternate.

Ternate sultanate was recognized as the most brilliant maritime nation in North Maluku in the 16th century, during the rule of Sultan Harun alias Jamil (1570-1583). The golden years of the sultanate were reached during the reign of Sultan Baabullah (1570-1583).

The latter is the most famous of North Maluku's sultans, hence the immortalization of his name for the Ternate airport. The influence of the Ternate sultanate encompasses West Seram, the islands of Hitu, Buru, Buton and those of the Hoa Moal peninsula, which together form the center of clove production in the Indonesian archipelago.

From the 16th century on, sultanates in North Maluku -- led by the Ternate Sultanate -- entered a new historical chapter: the nationalist struggle against domination of the West, which was an expression of patriotism, tied to Islamic allegiance and solidarity. This new chapter emerged as resistance against the Spanish and Portuguese attempts to dominate the sources of spices, especially clove and nutmeg.

The Portuguese also set out to spread Christianity through northern Maluku. The first theology school in Southeast Asia was established in Ternate, inside the Santa Paolo fortress. The efforts involved coercion and violence, with Portuguese missionaries backed by full capacity armories.

In 1535, Portugal set out on a colossal mission to convert the sultan of Ternate, Sultan Tabiriji, to Christianity to ensure his submission to Portuguese rule. Portugal's Tristian d'Ataido kidnapped Sultan Tabiriji and the queen mother, who were then forced to convert. Upon his release, however, the Sultan disclosed the Portuguese action and retained his Islamic religion. The incident bolstered Muslim solidarity among people of northern Maluku and sparked a major people's rebellion.

The outbreak of unrest throughout northern Maluku to Hitu and Seram recurred in 1570, when Sultan Hairun was brutally murdered by the Portuguese during a peace agreement meeting.

Muslim allegiance and solidarity, which served as the driving force of the struggle against the Portuguese, subsequently developed into the basis for the expansion of Islam to other regions. During the rule of Sultan Baabulah, Ternate became the center of Islam proselytization to the southern Philippines, along the coast of Central and North Sulawesi, and Sabah.

The Dutch, who shared similar motives with the Portuguese, ignited similar feelings of distrust among the people of North Maluku. The people have a tradition of warfare and a deeply rooted resistance against external values.

Ester Indahyani Jusuf is the chairwoman of Solidaritas Nusa Bangsa, a private group campaigning against discrimination which conducted a study on the conflict in North Maluku. Desideria Utomo is a staff member of its research and development department.