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Murder and mayhem: Ethnic animosity explodes in bloodshed

Far Eastern Economic Review - February 20, 1997

John McBeth and Margot Cohen in Jakarta – Days of savage blood-letting in West Kalimantan, which led to Malaysia closing part of its border with Indonesia, have served as a disquieting reminder of what can happen in an ethnically diverse country when extremists among two groups one indigenous, the other migrant harbour a Balkans like animosity that seems to defy solution.

The violence, which broke out in late December and erupted again in greater fury a month later, is the worst in a history of clashes going back to the 1950s between Dayak tribesmen and settlers from the island of Madura, east of Java.

The official death toll in the latest round of violence unreported by local media appears to be five killed and 21 missing. Community leaders claim as many as 200 people could have died.

Malaysia sealed off the frontier between Sarawak and West Kalimantan on February 2, possibly because of fears that Dayaks from the more war-like Bidayuh and Iban groups in the east Malaysian state would join the battle in West Kalimantan. Dayak sources say that the mangkok merah, a "red bowl" smeared with chicken blood, was passing from village to village, signifying war.

Indonesian troops were flown in from East Kalimantan to reinforce two infantry and artillery battalions which were unable to contain the killings. Witnesses reported seeing heads and other body parts being displayed along the 150-kilometre route between the provincial capital of Pontianak and the district town of Sanggau, where mostly Dayak gangs were dragging Madurese from passing vehicles and slaughtering them.

Some of the worst bloodshed appears to have taken place at Penyiraman, a Madurese housing complex 40 kilometres north of Pontianak. There, troops intervened on February 2 to save Dayaks from being killed and then were forced to open fire when they were attacked in turn. Regional commander Maj. Gen. Nomoeri Anoem is later known to have acknowledged that there was a heavy death toll of Madurese.

In three separate incidents, confirmed by a variety of sources, dozens of Dayaks died as troops defended Madurese against mobs armed with muskets, blowpipes, spears and knives. At Sanggau, five rioters were shot dead on January 31 after failing to heed warning shots from soldiers guarding a small army post where about 300 Madurese had taken shelter.

Several days later, the army stopped eight truck-loads of Dayaks near the small town of Ngarak as they headed for Pontianak to avenge the rumoured death of one of their leaders. When the tribal chief in question was flown in by helicopter to prove he was still alive, the situation cooled. But then two more truck-loads of Dayaks arrived and emotions flared anew, leading to an exchange of fire in which an unknown number of people died.

Then on February 5, hundreds of Dayaks attacked the 643rd battalion headquarters at Anjungan, 20 30 kilometres to the west of Ngarak, which had become the refuge for more than 500 terrified Madurese. Soldiers fired over the heads of the attackers and then lowered their aim when that didn't deter them. Most reports put the death toll at 17 with another 30 hurt.

Prior to the Anjungan attack, at least eight Madurese were murdered and sources familiar with the incident say in some cases their livers were taken a Dayak custom to ward off the spirits of their victims. Further to the east, in Pahauman, one witness reported seeing Madurese corpses hung up in front of the local police station. Elsewhere along the road, where his car was stopped 38 times by sword wielding Dayaks, the same witness saw many other bodies. "Some didn't have heads," he says. "Some didn't have stomachs."

It appears that none of the soldiers trying to quell the violence were equipped with rubber bullets or tear gas. Priority for riot-control equipment has so far gone to security forces in Indonesia's more populated areas, particularly on Java, where four serious riots in past months have underscored deep economic and religious differences.

West Kalimantan, however, is different. Dayaks and Malays each comprise 40% of the province's 3.5 million people, with ethnic Chinese making up 12% and the Madurese forming only part of the remaining 8%. Despite the difference in numbers, it is the Dayaks and the Madurese who are the most hostile of neighbours, the bad chemistry due largely to their different temperaments, say local observers and anthropologists.

The Madurese outnumber the Dayaks only in Pontianak, but they are aggressive settlers who often refuse to give back land "lent" to them by local tribesmen. The Dayaks, for their part, are badly divided and the few leaders in a position of power are removed from what one anthropologist calls "the feelings of their people."

Other local leaders were critical of how West Kalimantan authorities dealt with the crisis, complaining that the army spent more time trying to control the Dayaks than the Madurese, whose pre dawn attack on a Catholic foundation in Pontianak on January 29 triggered the latest violence. After that, Madurese living in rural areas became easy targets for the slaughter that followed.

Given the fact that both groups are relatively poor and marginalized, there is no ready explanation for the violence. "This is not a question of social jealousy, there's nothing to fight about except pride and dignity," says a community activist. Adds a Dayak schoolteacher: "From what I can see, we're all scared both the Dayaks and the Madurese."