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Fight to the death for tribal rights

Asia Times - February 20, 1997

Dini Djalal, Bangkok – Some of them are no older than 12 and not much bigger than the guns and spears they carry. But in their war paint and tribal headdresses, these junior warriors stand tall next to their equally imposing elders at the Dayak checkpoints now scattered throughout the northwest of Indonesia's West Kalimantan, near the border with the Malaysian province of Sarawak.

"This is war," declared a Dayak youth as he prepared to go on a hunt for Madurese believed to be hiding in the jungle. Hours later, the youths returned and announced the death of their latest victim.

Graffiti declaring "Madurese go home" all over the towns do not indicate fully the extent of the Dayaks' rage. At a roadblock the next day - a during 300km journey my companion and I encountered 32 roadblocks - an old Dayak man with a rifle asked: "Are you Madurese? I want to drink some Madurese blood." It's been two generations since the last reports of headhunting by the Dayak, once the most feared tribe in Southeast Asia. Now one of Indonesia's oldest societies is running amok and returning to its brutal traditions.

The Madurese, a migrant ethnic group from the island of Madura, east of Java, are bearing the brunt of the Dayaks' anger, fueled not only by cultural conflicts but by political and economic discontent. Following several clashes between the two groups, Madurese have watched dozens of their settlements northeast of Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan, burn to the ground.

The burnings and killings continue. Despite repeated government announcements that the area is safe, the Dayak and Indonesian army roadblocks still stand. There is widespread fear that violence, even in Pontianak, can break out anytime.

"This is a time bomb. It can explode at any minute," said one Dayak.

The tension has slowed economic activity in the restricted areas. "All the ethnic groups are suffering. The economy is at a halt, and all our development efforts hang in the balance. We have regressed 30 years," said M H Hambali, a Madurese member of parliament in Pontianak.

The government claims that the clashes, which began in late December and broke out again in late January, have taken 300 lives. But local Christian church leaders calculate, by counting the number of Madurese missing from their villages and witnessing the actual massacres, that the total of Madurese dead is in the thousands. They say Dayak casualties, most of them shot by troops, are less than 200.

Both parties agree, however, that this is the worst ethnic violence in living memory. "Of course we're scared and we are on patrol all the time [against Dayak attacks]," said Haji Abdul Syukur, a Madurese religious teacher in Pontianak. "But we are not leaving."

In Menjalin parish, Pastor Yeremis estimated that 1,000 Madurese were killed around the area of Pontianak, one of the three regions where the killings occurred. During the peak of the violence on February 6 and 7, Pastor Yeremis' Catholic dormitory received 5,000 Dayak refugees from adjoining villages.

The refugees were mostly women and children scared of Madurese attacks, but also scared of running foul of Dayak warriors, many of whom are not from the immediate area but from the vast forest hinterland. These interior Dayak have come downstream by the thousands to help their ethnic kin take revenge against the Madurese, whom they claim have taken their land and whose culture of carrying knives the Dayak disdain. To the Dayaks, carrying a knife inside a person's home is a grave insult.

But cultural conflict is only the surface cause of the unrest. More important are Dayak demands for greater land rights and representation in government. Analysts see the burning of three plantations in recent years as evidence of the Dayaks' growing resentment of the government's appropriation of traditional land, and the forced selling of Dayak land at below market price.

"This is the accumulation of many conflicts. Yes, there's the cultural gap with the Madurese but there's also a dissatisfaction with how Dayak land has been taken away illegally," said Laurentius Kadir, a Dayak and head of the province's Directorate for Village Development.

"There should be policy reform. Even if there's peace with the Madurese, but the government does not respect traditional land rights, the conflicts will continue," said Stefanus Jueng of the Institute of Dayakology.

Above all, the Dayaks want their voices heard. "We are tired of being marginalized. The government only wants to work with us for tourism purposes but not in government," said Yosep, a Dayak who said he was afraid of retaliation from the government for his outspoken views.

Yosep, like many of the people in his community, wants peace for the sake of his family. But sharing the frustration of other marginalized Dayaks, he doesn't know how to get it or if he wants it just yet. "We want to prove, after so many years of being under other people's thumbs, that we are the indigenous people of this land. We want to show that we were once great warriors," Yosep said.

Yosep's father Ve Kader is one such warrior. Reading out a "declaration of war", the 67-year-old traditional leader angrily declared: "The government did not deal with the Madurese problem as we asked. So now we are seeking justice by ourselves." Three hundred Madurese have been killed in his village of Pahauman. When asked where the bodies were, Ve Kader said coldly: "They are there where they died. But some have been thrown away and some have been burned."

Ve Kader's openness shows that despite the strong military presence now in the region, the Dayaks clearly control the interior. Beyond the military checkpoint at Tobo, 40km north of Pontianak, all the way to Bengkayang, 160km north of Pontianak, armed Dayaks patrol the roads and jungles hunting for Madurese survivors. The army does not intervene or try to disarm them.

On Monday in Karangan, we saw six trucks and buses carrying hundreds of Dayaks, some of them sitting on its roof brandishing spears and guns. They were headed south toward Toho, with the intent of killing Madurese at a remote village called Suap. When asked why they were continuing with the carnage, the warriors answered: "The Madurese will attack us if we don't attack them. We have to protect ourselves."

At a military checkpoint, one bus-load was stopped but after brief questioning was allowed to proceed. On Monday evening, the military reported that 3,000 armed Dayaks had congregated in Toho and were about to make their way to Suap through the jungle. On Tuesday morning the Dayaks attacked. The death toll is now reportedly at 15, with five severely injured and 98 houses set ablaze. Later that day the military sent four truckloads of soldiers from Pontianak to secure the situation in Suap.

That same Tuesday morning a peace ceremony was held in Pontianak, gathering members of all the ethnic communities, including Madurese, Chinese, Malay and Javanese. A few Dayaks were found in the crowd, although there was only one Dayak representative, a government official. In front of the national media, the crowd agreed to end fighting. Yet only the night before Chinese houses across the river in Siantan were burned and looted by angry Madurese.

Some community leaders said that without grass-roots support and recognition of the economic and political disparity behind the ethnic enmity, the peace proposals were futile.

"The peace agreements won't be effective if only the elite sign them and in a formal fashion without adat [peace ritual] ceremonies in the villages and involvement of the masses on the ground. They may say peace in the city but the people fighting in the villages don't know," said Laurentius Kadir. Some Dayaks acknowledge the danger of a backlash from the government but they are not laying down arms. "How can the government find a scapegoat? How will they find a mastermind? This is a mass movement," Yosep said.