TIME - Asian Edition
Vol 153 No 13 - April 5, 1999
Days of the Long Knives
In the jungles of West Kalimantan, Malays and Dayaks turn against a local minority, spreading blood in the province and fear across Indonesia
By NISID HAJARI
The horror makes sense to Elias Ubek. Two years ago he joined a mob of fellow Dayaks in torching a Madurese village in Kalimantan -- the Indonesian half of the mammoth, swampy island of Borneo. During the orgy of violence Ubek entered into a trance; a strange buzzing filled his ears. He says he did not emerge from that state for hours, well after he had murdered a childhood friend of his -- a Madurese man accused of stabbing a Dayak -- and eaten, uncooked, parts of his leg, arm, heart, innards and penis. Even today Ubek insists he had to perform that act -- "to make sure that his sin did not spread to me, my family and my kin." In Borneo, says Ubek, "you have to eat the hatred."
Many more Indonesians may soon discover just what that tastes like. Across the province of West Kalimantan last week, Dayaks again sought vengeance against Madurese. News reports told breathlessly of their primitive weapons, of beheadings and rumors of cannibalism. (Never mind that much of the violence this time was perpetrated by local Malays.) But far more frightening is what the killing says about Indonesia's social balancing act. Dozens of the archipelago's islands are home to minorities as resented as the Madurese. Religious divides -- like those that fueled pitched battles between Christians and Muslims on the island of Ambon a month ago -- scar many regions. A national election campaign that kicks off in less than two months promises to unleash a new round of unpredictable passions. And few can either make sense of the violence or promise that it will wane. On the chalkboard behind his desk in Jakarta, psychiatrist Suharko Kasran has sketched a "national aggressiveness curve"; over the past half-century, the line has risen inexorably. "It may be that my nation is a little bit sick, neurotic even," Kasran says.
By week's end an influx of troops seemed to have stopped the madness in Kalimantan at least. But the calm owed much to the fact that mobs of Malays and Dayaks had chased out thousands of Madurese -- who originate from an island off Java -- from the contested regency of Sambas, about 800 km north of Jakarta on the western coast of Borneo. Sketchy reports put the death toll in a single week of bloodletting at 180. Some 21,000 Madurese refugees crammed into shelters and an indoor sports stadium in the provincial capital of Pontianak, while 9,000 are waiting in safe areas around Sambas.
Their future is uncertain in more ways than one. The Madurese -- a mere 8% of the province's population -- have inspired resentment ever since they began emigrating to Kalimantan in large numbers in the 1960s. A series of riots in 1997, in which as many as 3,000 people may have died, were only the most recent in a string of battles between Madurese and indigenous Dayaks. Over the years, thousands of Dayaks have been displaced from their rainforest lands by giant logging companies; by the 1990s, 12 million hectares of forest were held by just 100 licenses. Yet Dayak anger did not fall upon the ethnic-Chinese tycoons who owned those firms. As Dayaks began to settle in towns along the edges of the forest, the slights they felt were more local -- from petty crime, land disputes and a certain pushiness that was ascribed to those Madurese who became their neighbors.
By now the Madurese have become the focus of an inchoate -- and thus
frighteningly resilient -- hatred. They are the region's perennial
outsiders, a target for others as well as Dayaks. Last week's violence,
in fact, was initiated by Malays: in January, after a Madurese thief was
publicly beaten by Malays, a posse of Madurese took revenge by attacking
a Malay village.
In February a Madurese passenger stabbed a Malay bus conductor. In March
another brawl led to the death of a young Dayak at the hands of about 30
Madurese. That united the two majority communities, who took to wearing
red (for Dayaks) and yellow (for Malays and Bugis) headbands to identify
themselves. Both groups insist that the Madurese -- known for short
tempers and long crescent-shaped knives -- are aggressive, violent, prone
to petty crime and wholly unredeemable. "The Madurese are an ignorant
people and very hard to live with," says Ismet Hifni, a local Malay
At a meeting with armed forces chief General Wiranto last Thursday,
community leaders said the only way to stop the violence was to evict
all Madurese from Sambas. That, as Wiranto noted, was no solution at
all--even if another district were willing to absorb the refugees. "If
we are moved, that means we are no longer part of Indonesia," says
Muslimin, a local Muslim leader of Madurese descent. In Pontianak's
Pangsuma stadium, 45-year-old Mohammad shares 6 sq m of a badminton
court with his wife and six children, all of whom were born in Sambas.
Mohammad himself has visited Madura only once, when he was 10 years old;
his wife never has. When he says wistfully, "I really hope
that the soldiers will be able to take care of matters, so I can return
home," he means to Sambas. Pangsuma stadium is filled to bursting with
Madurese who share that sentiment. Time is also a factor. As University
of Indonesia psychology professor Sarlito Wirawan notes, those
frightened citizens "are very vulnerable to provocateurs." The longer
they linger in their temporary shelters, the more uncertain the
stability of the province.
The same might well be said of Indonesia itself. While the inspirations
for last week's bloodshed may have been eminently local, they point
toward a larger national problem. The very fact that such tensions could
explode so easily into violence this time -- that whatever bonds held
those animosities in check have disintegrated -- only increases the
possibility that it will happen again. As many analysts have noted, the
riots in Ambon erupted only after mosques and churches were razed elsewhere in Indonesia in an
escalating series of revenge attacks. At the same time, many worry that
Indonesia's 500,000-man army is spread too thinly across the country's
13,000 islands to quell ethnic flare-ups in several places at once. The
situation has emboldened rioters: even after troops arrived in Sambas,
they faced open resistance and even gunfire from Malay and Dayak mobs.
In both Borneo and Ambon, panicked troops have fired upon large crowds,
killing several demonstrators.
Such tactics can only fuel the visceral resentment that led to last
week's riots. What Indonesia lacks, say many analysts, is an established
tradition of resolving conflicts peacefully. "What has been done [in
Kalimantan] is the best that can be expected," says Siswono Yudohusodo,
a former cabinet minister. "But it doesn't solve the main problem, which
in this nation is to give a sense of justice to everybody." Until that
happens, the most local of disputes will have the potential to flare
into a much wider conflict. In novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer's
acclaimed Buru Quartet, a character asks the fierce Madurese bodyguard,
Darsam: "What's the meaning of one person with one machete?" In
Indonesia right now, it means trouble.
Reported by Zamira Loebis/Pontianak, Jason Tedjasukmana/Singkawang and
Lisa Rose Weaver/Jakarta