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Behind Ethnic War,

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By Dan Murphy

Christian Science Monitor
March 1, 2001

Over the past 10 days, a campaign of ethnic cleansing has been pursued in an often overlooked corner of Indonesian Borneo, where more than 400 people have been killed. Yesterday, as the initial wave of violence in Central Kalimantan province appeared to be losing steam, panicked refugees continued to pour out of the area. Ethnic Dayak leaders have promised to kill any Madurese who return. The violence has been portrayed as a revival of ritual headhunting by Dayaks, but diplomats and analysts in Indonesia say it has more to do with the compounded errors of the past three decades: misguided central government policies, race-based economic competition, and a failing justice system.


Ethnic interests are colliding throughout the country, not just in Borneo. Government response to the flare-ups is not improving, as poorly equipped and trained military forces are spread more thinly. Tuesday, rival police and Army units engaged in a firefight in Sampit, Central Kalimantan, where refugees were gathered. Witnesses said both sides were extorting money from refugees to ensure safe passage.

The Indonesian archipelago was already home to 1 million internal refugees before the latest round of killing in Kalimantan. Aid workers say as many as 40,000 Madurese have fled their homes in the past week.

"This conflict repeats a pattern we have seen in many places, on many scales," says Asmara Nababan, head of Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights. But the race war in Kalimantan is among the most frightening and direct examples of the danger Indonesia faces. Observers in Sampit, where the fighting began, say the streets have been littered with mutilated bodies. One sign of the government's impotence was the slaughter of 118 fleeing Madurese Sunday by a Dayak gang despite the presence of 15 armed policemen.

The seeds of conflict were planted more than 30 years ago, when the government of former President Suharto began shipping landless farmers from overcrowded Java, Madura, and Bali to the much less densely populated "outer islands."

Forests in Borneo, used for centuries by shifting Dayak cultivators, were parceled out by the government to become farms for Madurese. Little was done to mitigate the shock of ethnically and religiously distinct groups suddenly being brought into competition for limited economic opportunities. "Transmigration built conflict into the genetic code of the provinces," says a Jakarta-based diplomat.

In Central and West Kalimantan, many migrants came from Madura, a poor, arid island of staunch Muslims. They make up about 10 percent of Central Kalimantan's 4 million people today.

Prodding resentment by native Dayaks - a loose term for dozens of related tribes who were feared headhunters in the 19th century - has been the Madurese domination of petty trading in the towns and their role working in the vanishing timber stands, which are controlled by military and other business interests in Jakarta. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of hardwoods flow through Sampit every year. Logging also deprived some Dayaks of hunting grounds.

"The Dayaks have converted the Madurese into a symbol of government power and the process of economic marginalization," says Munir, head of a nongovernmental group that works on justice issues. "Unless the government develops the political will to provide systematic answers, this will keep happening."

That will has not been much in evidence. President Abdurrahman Wahid, on a tour of Africa and the Middle East until next week, says the matter doesn't require his personal attention.

Fighting between the two groups has been going on for decades. For most of the Suharto years, the numbers killed were small, since brutal military crackdowns quickly followed. But in 1997, and again in 1999, Dayak rampages broke out in and around the West Kalimantan district of Sambas. Thousands were killed, and 60,000 Madurese remain homeless, with the land they were living in reclaimed by Dayaks, and the island they came from decades ago no longer their home. There was also no real government effort to prosecute anyone for the killings. Today, Dayak fighters are using violence and their reputation as an effective form of psychological warfare to drive the Madurese from their region.

"The Dayaks feel exploited, but don't believe that justice can be delivered by the system, so they take matters into their own hands," says Mr. Nababan. "Since they've been witnessing impunity in Indonesia for so many years, they have no fear of consequences."


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C ß 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.