Jim Della-Giacoma, Jakarta – A U.S. based human rights group called on Monday for an independent investigation into violence in Indonesia earlier this year during which it said 500 people were killed, some beheaded and some the victims of cannibalism.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its report "Communal Violence in West Kalimantan" that clashes between local Dayak people and immigrants from the island of Madura from December 1996 to March 1997 were some of the worst such outbreaks in Indonesia in decades.
"In the aftermath of a fight between Dayak and Madurese youths in a town called Sanggau Ledo, in which two Dayaks youths were stabbed, the Dayaks waged what appeared to be ritual war against Madurese communities, burning houses, killing inhabitants, and in some cases severing the heads and eating the livers of those killed," it said.
"The death toll was probably about 500 by the time the killing ceased, appallingly high but still much lower than some early estimates of 2,000 or more," the report concluded after two visits to the province in January and July this year.
"The Indonesian government has discouraged any effort to determine an accurate count," it said.
The report concludes that most of the those killed in West Kalimantan on the Indonesian side of Borneo island, about 700 km (430 miles) north of Jakarta across the Java sea, were Madurese.
But it said several dozen Dayaks died as well, some in revenge attacks by Madurese, most in clashes that took place when army units tried to stop Dayak war parties from reaching Madurese settlements. About 20,000 Madurese were displaced.
West Kalimantan Governor Aswin Aspar said in April at least 200 people had been killed in the clashes and 27,000 displaced at that time.
While an uneasy calm had returned to the area after government-supervised "peace treaties," the report concluded that tension remained high and another outbreak could be triggered at any time.
The report argues the veil of secrecy cast over the events by authorities in a country where the state ideology stresses religious and communal harmony has been counterproductive.
"Even though there is no hard evidence of manipulation in this outbreak, people of every background and belief seem to believe that there must have been," the 37-page report said.
"It is the lack of obvious answers to hard questions that have led different people to propose a provocateur as the only explanation," it said.
"A policy of greater transparency on the part of the government and a thorough investigation by the National Human Rights Commission, in collaboration with appropriate Indonesian or international non-government organisations, might provide some of those answers," it added.
"Not only has there been no such investigation, but at the time of the conflict, the government actively discouraged reporting, apparently out of a concern that accurate information would only make the situation worse," it concluded.
Many human rights violations took place during the course of the conflict which exacerbated ethnic tensions, the report said.
"These violations included reported extrajudicial executions of members of Dayak attack parties by soldiers and arbitrary arrests of both Dayaks and Madurese in what appeared to be a misguided attempt to prevent further conflict," it said.