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Violence in Indonesian Borneo Spurs the Relocation of Ethnic Madurese

In the throes of economic crisis and political uncertainty, Indonesia has seen nationwide outbreaks of violence between ethnic and religious groups. Added to the list of hotspots is the Indonesian part of Borneo, or West Kalimantan. Violence by indigenous Dayaks and local Malays against ethnic Madurese has claimed at least 200 lives since January.

Most Madurese in the region have fled their homes, often by military escort, and gone to refugee camps in the provincial capital of Pontianak to await relocation to one of two islands off the coast of Borneo. It is estimated that as many as 23,000 refugees are currently in the camps. Thousands more have remained in their homes waiting for military escort.

Mobs of Dayaks and Malays have taken to the streets wielding machetes, spears, and rifles. They have set up roadblocks to catch unescorted Madurese on their way to refugee camps. Although the official death toll is around 200, relief workers and community officials suspect that it may be as high as 2000. It is difficult to determine the actual number of dead. The most gruesome reason for this is that the bodies of many victims have been mutilated, severed, and cannibalized. There is a military presence in the region, but it is greatly outnumbered by Dayaks and Malays. The locals have attacked the soldiers, and troops have fired into crowds of locals. This has served to exacerbate the situation, although no real military action has been taken.

The ethnic Madurese come from the island of Madura, off the western coast of Borneo. Programs of transmigration, first implemented by Dutch colonists at the beginning of the century and reinstated by former Indonesia's President Suharto approximately 30 years ago, moved many Madurese to West Kalimantan to alleviate overpopulation on Madura. Comprising approximately six percent of the population of West Kalimantan, the Madurese are maligned by Dayaks and Malays as dishonest and unlawful, and are accused of stealing jobs and land. Although ethnic clashes were minimal under Suharto, the province has seen several drastic outbreaks in the past two years. In early 1997, violence erupted between Dayaks and Madurese. This episode has its origins with conflicts between Malays and Madurese.

The current spate of violence began in January when a Madurese thief was beaten by a group of Malays. In retaliation, a mob of Madurese burned down more than a dozen Malay homes. In February, an incident between a Malay bus driver and a Madurese passenger increased tensions. March saw the death of a Dayak man at the hands of a group of Madurese. This incident brought together the Malay and Dayak communities in mutual animosity toward the Madurese.

There have been several reasons proposed to explain the violence. Ethnic tensions have long been simmering. However, due to the 32 year authoritarian rule of President Suharto, they were kept in check for fear of military intervention. When Suharto was forced from his office in Indonesia, old animosities erupted in violence. Another reason may be the economic crisis affecting the country. Facing extreme financial hardships, Malays and Dayaks look to the Madurese as enemies who have stolen jobs from them, and who have achieved a greater level of security. A third explanation for the violence, and one popular among Indonesians, is that the outbreaks are being provoked by supporters of Suharto's regime who wish to undermine the democratic elections slated for June 7.

To deal with the problems of violence in Borneo, the government has devised a plan of relocation. The National Development Planning Agency of Indonesia has pledged to offer funds to build communities for the refugees on the nearby islands of Padang Tikar and Tembang Kacang, both still within West Kalimantan province. In total, the relocation could accommodate 10,500 families, 7000 on the former island, 3500 on the latter. Those refugees who would prefer to return to their native Madura would be aided in doing so. The government is interested in moving the Madurese refugees as soon as possible. They fear that the longer they stay in and around Pontianak, the greater the danger for further violence.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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