Life on a Knife-edge
Economic and political marginalisation and long-standing cultural
differences are among the root causes of the continuing conflict in West
JAKARTA -- Insult a Madurese and you will be "answered with a knife", so
wrote Dutchman Tadema Wop in 1866. No Madurese, he said, would ever be
seen without a spear or kris or a tjaloq -- a kind of machete with a
"He uses such a tjaloq for almost everything. He cuts wood with it, cuts
brush to clear himself a path ... and equally he uses it to cut off
arms, legs and the head of his fellow man, if it so happens to come out
that way," the colonialist wrote in his memoirs, immortalising a
stereotype about the Madurese that persists to this day.
And so non-Madurese are not surprised that when a Malay bus driver in
the Sambas region of West Kalimantan stared angrily at a Madurese
passenger who refused to pay the fare, he returned soon after with a
long knife to try to kill the driver. That was two weeks ago, and,
following a January incident when a Madurese mob attacked a Malay
village over the beating of a Madurese thief, killing three people,
Malay patience finally snapped.
Aggravated once again by the "culturally-insensitive" Madurese custom
of carrying knives and penchant for revenge in someone else's homeland,
the indigenous Malays and Dayaks, who each account for about 35 to 40
per cent of the province's estimated four million people, have ganged up
to chase the interloper out.
Anti-Madurese clash No 9 in two decades has so far killed more than 100
people in one week. The last big one two years ago claimed between 500
and 1,000 lives. That one, like all previous clashes, claim the Dayaks,
was triggered by a Madurese stabbing a Dayak to death and then refusing
to accept the demands of Dayak adat or customary law concerning such a
sin -- usually a fine of about 11 million rupiah (S$2,300) to the family
of the victim and his community as well as turning himself in to the
When a transgressor refuses to accept the requisite adat demand, then
tradition also requires the Dayaks to perform a ritual that calls for
the shedding of blood. "The killing of the Madurese was not for reasons
of revenge, but rather the need to fulfil traditional obligations that
have bound the Dayaks since time immemorial," explained the Kalimantan
Review in an article about the bloody conflict in 1996-97.
Against the numerically superior Dayaks, the Madurese have never been a
match, ending up invariably as the bigger losers. But now, the 120,000
Madurese, migrants and descendants of settlers transported by official
edict from the arid island off the eastern tip of Java to the sparsely
populated island of Kalimantan since the beginning of the century, face
a united front of Dayaks, Malays, Chinese and even Bugis settlers.
"Everyone is fed up with the situation," Dayak anthropologist Stephanus
Djuweng tells The Straits Times. Citing an irreconcilable "cultural
gap", he says ethnic cleansing is not the appropriate term to use here
although "they want something like that".
"The indigenous people of West Kalimantan don't want the Madurese," he
says. And peace pacts arranged by officials imposed by Jakarta --long
seen as autocrats more interested in robbing Dayaks of their ancestral
land than in protecting their interests -- are futile because they do
not involve the actual combatants, only "the elites in the city".
Yet, as Jakarta officials are beginning to acknowledge, the Madurese
migrants are as much victims of 32 years of New Order policies as the
indigenous Dayaks and Malays. A confidential government report prepared
last year tracing the background of the 1996-97 ethnic clash concluded
that Jakarta had not only marginalised West Kalimantan's indigenous
peoples economically and politically -- only one of the province's six
districts, the most remote, is headed by a Dayak -- but also exacerbated
the problem by transplanting the Muslim Madurese there.
The Madurese as a community, concedes a senior government official, are
"sociologically unsuitable to harmonious living with the Dayaks", who
consider Muslim beliefs and practices totally incompatible with their
culture even though they can co-exist happily with the other main ethnic
group, the Muslim Malays.
"For a long, long time, the Dayaks have accumulated a lot of unhappiness
against the government," notes the official. "The Madurese are the
victims of that unhappiness."
It did not help that although most Madurese worked in urban areas as
pedicab drivers, coolies and stevedores, some were able to acquire land
in the coastal areas as small-time rice farmers under official schemes,
taking them a notch above the dispossessed Dayaks. And so, in yet
another replay of the classic case of political and economic tensions
manifesting themselves as ethnic tensions, the Dayaks and Malays of West
Kalimantan turn against the alien in their midst instead of the larger
politico-economic forces they cannot control.