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Killings in West Kalimantan - Indonesia

Down to Earth Action alert - February 1997

Hundreds of people have been killed following recent ethnic unrest in West Kalimantan, according to reports from Indonesia. Bloody clashes between the indigenous Dayak people, migrants from Madura and the military have been going on since early January, but little news has reached the outside world as the whole area has been sealed off by the Indonesian military. The present violence is merely a symptom of discontent which has built up over many years. Land rights issues are at the heart of this issue. Dayak communities have become dispossessed as their traditional forest lands are appropriated by outsiders in government-supported resettlement, development and large-scale commercial enterprise schemes.

ACTION As the UK-based NGO which campaigns for ecological justice in Indonesia, Down to Earth asks for your support to put pressure on the Indonesian authorities to allow Indonesian journalists, the international press and international human rights monitors to carry out independent investigations and report openly on the recent events in West Kalimantan. Of equal importance is that the Indonesian government should address the underlying long-term causes of the tension between the indigenous people and settlers, rather than deploying a knee-jerk military response to what it portrays as an isolated conflict along religious or ethnic lines.


There has been long-standing hostility between the indigenous Dayak peoples and migrants. Many landless peasants from Java and the island of Madura (SE of Java) moved to West Kalimantan as part of a government resettlement programme which offers free land, housing and food aid. Open conflict between the indigenous people and settlers first broke out in early January. An incident in Sanggau Ledo some 100 kilometres northeast of Pontianak triggered four days of riots. Five thousand Dayaks rampaged through the town and attacked the villages of Merabu, Kampung Jawa and Jirak plus four transmigration sites. In Bengkayang, three men were shot when a crowd of Dayaks surrounded a local military post where transmigrants were sheltering. Around six thousand people fled to the provincial capitals of Singkawang and Pontianak several hundred kilometers away on the west coast. Many were airlifted to a temporary refugee camp by the airforce. Meanwhile the minority Dayak communities in the two cities sought protection as settlers sought revenge. Over a thousand troops were moved in and a curfew imposed. The military reported on January 6th that all was quiet and people were returning home. The clashes caused six deaths, an estimated 8.4 million US dollars damage and the destruction of nearly one thousand homes.

However, by the end of January the land border between Kalimantan and Malaysia remained closed and the province was on military alert. Security was tightened in early February as the end of the Muslim fasting month coincided with the Chinese New Year. The provincial capital of Pontianak remained cut off from the interior by roadblocks and under night curfew. The Sydey Morning Herald (6th Feb) reported that a Catholic school and several Christian foundations linked to the Dayaks were destroyed. This may be the same incident reported by the Indonesian news group Pijar (10th Feb) when masked men armed with knives attacked and burned a Catholic dormitory in the West Kalimantan capital housing Dayak regugees who had fled violence in their areas, and a nearby boarding house. Two Dayak women were injured while residents said that another person was killed but the death has not been confirmed. Military reinforcements landed overnight in West Kalimantan on 5th February. The Indonesian military and civil authorities were still saying the situation in West Kalimantan was calm and "under control", although the Pijar report mentioned that fighting had broken out again in other towns at that time.

Information from the area is confused since journalists have not been permitted to leave Pontianak and a news blackout has been imposed on the city. However, local sources said further violence broke out on Tuesday, with troops opening fire on two trucks carrying Dayak tribespeople, killing many of the occupants. There are unconfirmed reports that at least 17 Dayaks were shot dead at a military road block in Anjungan on February 4/5th, possibly trying to get into Pontianak. One report claimed 75 Dayaks had died (KdP 13th Feb). Another source reported a massacre of 30 Dayaks by soldiers in retaliation for an attack on a military camp in which several soldiers died. There are also reports of clashes between local tribesmen and migrants from a town in Sambas district where at least seven houses in Tebas, north of Pontianak, had been burned by angry Dayaks. Dayak elders in northern Pontianak have confirmed that two Dayak men have been killed in recent days, including the victim whose return to Tebas sparked the new clashes. BBC correspondent Jonathon Head reported (11th Feb) from an area "that looked like a war zone" where soldiers, including Indonesia's elite combat regiment, were everywhere and houses were daubed with the ethnic origin of their owners in an attempt to prevent attack from Dayaks or settlers.

The Guardian (13th Feb) reports that hundreds have been killed in West Kalimantan in the past two weeks. Local people say the death toll is much higher than official figures admit and that local hospitals are full of casualities, although access to these is denied. Some Dayaks say this is to cover up killings by the military. The atmosphere in the province is now very tense as curfews are still in place in Potianak and other urban centres and there are military patrols on the streets. Army Chief of Staff General Hartono said on February 14th that the situation was secure and that hundreds of weapons had been confiscated from the public. Members of the National Human Rights Commission, Komnas HAM, are making their second visit to Pontianak in the past fortnight. Komnas HAM General Secretary Baharuddin Lopa refused to comment on reports that there had been 2000 deaths in the fighting since the New Year. Komnas HAM are also under pressure from the local governor and military to act as a mediator between the two communities. While community leaders are apparently prepared to discuss peace, the disturbances were apparently spreading eastwards (13th Feb) and there were rumours that tens of thousands of Dayaks throughout Kalimantan and across the border in Sarawak were preparing for confrontation (KdP 14th Feb).

Doubtless the Indonesian authorities will try to represent the violence in West Kalimantan as a conflict between two hot-headed ethnic groups in frontier country. It is normal for Madurese men (popularly believed to be quick to take offence) to carry knives, while anthropological accounts of Dayaks make much of their former reputation as headhunters. They will also play on religious differences between these communities: the settlers from Java and Madura are largely Muslim in contrast to the predominantly Christian Dayaks. The Indonesian press (which closely reflects government views for fear of closure) has reported the troubles as yet another example of the social unrest which has caused deaths, destruction of property and the burning of churches in several urban centres on Java. These are attributed to tensions between Muslims and the largely Christian ethnic Chinese business community. Local Muslim leaders in West Kalimantan issued a statement (13th Feb) denying religious factors were the driving force behind recent events.

These simplistic explanations ignore the history of ethnic conflict in this area and deliberately play down the transmigration angle. Waves of immigration over the centuries, have brought Chinese, Indians, and Malay peoples to the region attracted by the mineral wealth and trading opportunities. This and the government's programme to resettle people from densely populated Java and Bali to the outer islands has resulted in the Dayak community making up only 40% of the population in Kalimantan. Figures given by the World Bank in a 1988 report showed that Sambas district has by far the largest influx of transmigrants of the West Kalimantan districts. As long ago as 1980 over 90,000 people, or over 15% of the total population of around 600,000, were government sponsored transmigrants. This compared to a national average in receiving areas of 3.4%.

The underlying problems are those of the land rights of indigenous people and the destruction of tropical rainforests. The Dayaks' traditional lifestyle depends on the sustainable use of forests for food, medicines and other basic needs. The rainforest is the basis of their culture and, though nominally Christian, animist beliefs and practices are still important to many Dayaks. The Indonesian government includes the Dayaks, with all other indigenous tribal people in the archipelago, as 'backward' and in need of 'development'. As all Indonesian forests are regarded as state land, forest dwellers' customary rights to the land and forest resources are ignored because there is no documentation of legal ownership. With the loss of the forest, many Dayaks now make a living as subsistance farmers. At best, when new projects move in, token compensation is paid for crops destroyed in land clearance and indigenous families are expected to live with transmigrants on the sites.

All over Indonesia, indigenous people have been marginalised as the regime parcels out Indonesia's natural resources for exploitation. Transmigration, logging, mining and agribusiness projects serve powerful business and military interests close to Suharto's family rather than the needs of local communities. In West Kalimantan 75 forest concessions have been granted covering nearly three-quarters of the province. The cleared land is turned over to plantations for the paper pulp and palm-oil industries. At least three state-owned companies have set up huge plantations and 14 private companies have agri-business ventures in West Kalimantan. One of these is the massive Finnanatara Intiga paper pulp factory and timber plantation in Sanggau - a joint venture between the state-owned forestry company Inhutani III, leading tobacco manufacturer PT Gadang Garam and Finnish forestry giant the Enso Group.

The role of the military in recent events in West Kalimantan deserves further examination. It would appear that they did little to stop the initial unrest in January from getting out of hand. Similarly in the past two weeks attacks and reprisals by Dayaks and settlers on whichever community is in the minority in a particular locality have continued. It is unlikely that the authorities were genuinely unprepared. It is also unlikely that fear of public and international outcry over another case of military repression and brutality - particularly so close to the forthcoming elections in late May would have restrained their actions since West Kalimantan is such a long way from Jakarta and a virtual newsblackout had been imposed. It seems more likely that the military are seeking to exploit the unrest in order to strengthen their position within the Indonesian regime when they eventually 'restore order to this lawless area'. If members of the ethnic Chinese community are intimidated and their businesses ruined in the conflict, as in the recent violence in other parts of Indonesia, this will pander to the anti-Chinese sentiment prevalent in many factions of the government.

Additional information: Tapol Bulletin No.139 February 1997 Down to Earth No. 32 February 1997 'Ethnic Clashes kill hundreds in Borneo', The Guardian, p15, 13th February 1997 The Economist this week should have an article Far East Economic Review 20th February ditto

[The "recomended action" section of this action alert have been edited out - JB]