Armed forces ‘misread’ Kalimantan clashes

They misjudged severity of the ethnic violence, alerting Jakarta only after it went out of control, says govt source.

Security forces were slow to react to the crisis in Central Kalimantan because ground commanders “misread” the intensity of the conflict, a high-ranking government official said yesterday.

In acknowledging what was clearly another serious bungle by the police and Indonesian armed forces (TNI), he said they failed to ask for reinforcements early, and alerted Jakarta only after the violence had spiralled out of control and begun to

“They miscalculated,” he said. “They wanted to handle the problems without any interference from outside. It was only after they realised they had failed to read the ground correctly that they alerted us.”

The TNI sent two battalions of 800 soldiers to the trouble spots of Sampit and Palangkaraya only after more than a week of ethnic clashes between Dayaks and Madurese that left over 400 dead and saw the exodus of tens of thousands of refugees.

Analysts said it was no surprise that local military officials were slow to respond in Kalimantan – where there have been 13 documented cases of violence in the last five years – given that their focus there was on business activities, not internal security.

Said a Western diplomat: “Kalimantan ranks as one of the lowest in terms of priorities … The best men are not sent there because it is viewed as a semi-retirement post. It is where they can make money from illegal logging, gambling and prostitution rackets. Internal security is the last thing on their mind.”

But the government source refuted this and maintained that Kalimantan was “as important as any other province in Indonesia”.

He said there were more plausible reasons to explain the reluctance of officers to intervene – their concern about being accused of rights violation if soldiers moved in and acted to quell the unrest.

There was also fear of antagonising the locals.

Lower-ranking commanders who see no hope of moving up the ranks often turn to alternative career paths as village chiefsor provincial officials – which require broad-based local support in the region.

Observers said such factors have resulted in an erosion and malfunctioning of the TNI chain of command.

Increasingly, coordination between the central and local commands has gone awry – in part because of factional rivalry and some military elements out to destabilise the civilian regime.

But the government official, in defending the military, said that it “had every right to turn a blind eye” to the Kalimantan debacle because internal security was no longer under its purview.

“People fail to realise that the police are now in charge of law and order in the country,” he said.

Given the growing fears that Indonesia could implode with ethnic and religious conflicts, he said the TNI “is unlikely to sit back and watch the whole country break down”.

“That is why the army wants to regain its old domestic security function. The police is just not up to the task now,” he said.

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