Why the bloodletting in Dayak land

As Indonesians and others look on with growing consternation, Central Kalimantan shudders under a wave of murderous violence.

Over the past week, the gruesome attacks by Dayaks against the minority Madurese ethnic group spread blood in the province and fear across the country, as another latent conflict erupts in the turmoil of post-Suharto Indonesia.

Large gangs brandishing swords and spears moved through Madurese villages burning houses, destroying crop and killing livestock. Severed heads were displayed openly on the roadside; some even paraded through the streets on bamboo sticks, dripping with human blood, which the Dayak fighters had drunk and smeared on their bodies as a mark of victory. The blackened patches of Madurese settlements, especially in the sleepy town of Sampit, are an eerie reminder of images from past episodes of ethnic cleansing in far-off Bosnia and Rwanda.

Why did violence spiral out of control, killing more than 400 people with the prospect of more ghastly deaths in the weeks ahead?

The massacre was triggered principally by the deep-rooted resentment of the Madurese. Sampit is but the most recent in a string of battles between the Madurese and indigenous Dayaks.

Thousands were killed in similar sadistic fashion in 1997 and 1999 in West Kalimantan.

The Madurese – a mere 8 per cent of the province’s four-million population – have inspired animosity, ever since they began emigrating to Kalimantan in large numbers in the 1960s as part of government policy to ease the pressure on islands such as Java and Madura.

The Madurese needed little encouragement. Known to be hard-headed survivors who fought for a living, they carved a niche out for themselves in the local economy as traders and labourers, and establishing farms on what had once been Dayak traditional land.

The Dayaks, who once lived a nomadic existence in the island’s vast forests, became even more marginalised when state-backed logging companies took over and exploited their land.

But Dayak anger did not fall upon the ethnic-Chinese tycoons who owned these firms.

As they began to settle in towns along the edges of the forest, the slights they felt were more local – from land disputes, petty crime, a failure to appreciate Dayak culture and a certain pushiness that was ascribed to those Madurese who were perceived increasingly as outsiders.

All that was needed was a spark to light the flame of hatred.

That opportunity arose when a group of Madurese torched a Dayak house in Sampit last week for sheltering people whom they believed had murdered a family of the ethnic minority.

The reprisals swung wildly out of control as tribesmen took their revenge on isolated pockets of Madurese in the area and nearby towns.

Local factors undoubtedly fuelled the visceral resentment that led to the bloody rioting. But it does not explain the rapid speed and scale of the carnage.

Within days, it had spread from Sampit to the capital of Palangkaraya.

There are two possible reasons for this – the slow response of the armed forces (TNI) and the involvement of the political elite in Jakarta to embarrass President Abdurrahman Wahid.

The security forces largely stood aside as the violence spread in the province. The initial outbreak on Feb 18 caught the TNI by surprise.

But the regional military command there did nothing to quell the violence, given that the region was of low priority in the army’s strategic calculus. The 500,000-strong TNI was stretched by conflicts around the country.

Senior military sources said that as in several other hot spots in Indonesia, the army’s inaction reflected uncertainty over how to handle growing unrest, given the international focus on possible human rights abuses and questions over the ethnic and religious orientation of soldiers in the field.

The trend now was to pursue the path of least resistance.

Political observers believe that the army top brass did not hatch a grand scheme.

But when it became evident that Central Kalimantan could be used as another pressure point to weaken the President who has been at loggerheads with them, they gave tacit support to ground commanders to stand back and let the province burn.

Indeed, the TNI took a full seven days to decide on sending a battalion of 400 soldiers to Sampit after a visit there by security chief Bambang Yudhoyono and TNI commander A. S. Widodo.

Compare this to what happened three months ago in Wamena in Irian Jaya, when the military deployed 800 soldiers there in 24 hours in response to ethnic clashes in an area much further away than Central Kalimantan.

The Straits Times understands that the Indonesian police and military had already drawn up a list of those they suspected of instigating the violence, but allowed them to roam freely to do more damage.

Said a senior diplomat: “It seems evident that the army leadership was intent on letting the problem drift. They took advantage of the situation to exploit the weakness of the central government, with the clear aim of showing how important they are in restoring stability.”

The TNI aggravated the problem by doing nothing. That allowed not just the Dayaks to go on rampage, but also gave room to groups with vested interests in destabilising the current regime.

For the police, the “masterminds” were two local officials, whose motives for inciting the riots were to bere-appointed to jobs from which they had been dismissed.

They had apparently paid 20 million rupiah (S$3,400) to provocateurs to stir up problems in the province. Conspiracy theorists argue that this is nothing but a “smoke screen”.

They believe that the prime suspect is the old dark forces of former president Suharto’s family and rogue military elements that support them.

Noted the English-language daily, The Jakarta Post: “It is difficult to avoid the speculation that these latest troubles in Kalimantan are somehow related to those of the Suharto clan.

“It must be said that there are some grounds for such speculation. After all, why is it that every time a member of the Suharto family gets into difficulties with the authorities, trouble breaks out in some region in Indonesia?”

Palace sources said that Sampit is a warning to the President to back off from cracking down further on Mr Suharto and his children. Even more so after the eldest daughter, Mrs Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, joined the growing list of family members facing corruption charges.

Said a presidential aide: “We believe that they took advantage of a volatile situation to make things worse. They want to embarrass Gus Dur internationally and scare away foreign investors. They want to deflect attention away from Suharto and his cronies.”

It seems to have achieved its aims somewhat. Mr Abdurrahman, who is on a two-week trip to the Middle East, has now come under fire from legislators for not dealing with the crisis.

It gave them fresh ammunition to attack him and kept alive hopes of ousting him this year.

An unintended consequence was to put Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri in the spotlight for failing to solve the problem quickly in the President’s absence. This was a test case for her.

Sources said that in a telephone conversation with Mr Abdurrahman over the weekend, she reportedly told him there was no need for him to return because “everything is under control”.

But a day later, she showed her frustration by saying that the government was already stretched by a number of conflicts around the sprawling archipelago.

She said: “Certainly, we cannot ready ourselves in only one hour to prepare everything in a short time. This is a burden for the government, making it difficult to settle this.”

Lack of leadership in Jakarta only dents the government’s credibility. If marauding gangs can go around chopping heads with impunity, this suggests that confidence in the administration to resolve disputes has collapsed.

Whatever the motives for the Central Kalimantan unrest, they are symptomatic of a larger national problem – a state bereft of power and authority, as social cohesion and order crumbles.

With the lid off after Mr Suharto fell from power in May 1998, the genie of violence was out of the bottle and on the loose with greater vengeance.

The fact that inherent tensions could implode so easily this time – with the disintegration of whatever bonds that held those animosities in check – only increases the possibility that it will happen again.

Select the fields to be shown. Others will be hidden. Drag and drop to rearrange the order.
  • Image
  • SKU
  • Rating
  • Price
  • Stock
  • Availability
  • Add to cart
  • Description
  • Content
  • Weight
  • Dimensions
  • Additional information
  • Attributes
  • Custom attributes
  • Custom fields
Click outside to hide the comparison bar