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Communal Violence in Indonesia: Lessons from Kalimantan

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Long-simmering tensions between indigenous Dayaks and immigrant Madurese suddenly exploded in the town of Sampit, Central Kalimantan, in the middle of February 2001. Within days, isolated killings perpetrated by both sides had developed into a one-sided massacre of Madurese by enraged Dayaks. In the following weeks the killings spread to other areas in the province and by early April almost the entire Madurese population had fled the province. The massacre of about 500 – and possibly many more - Madurese by Dayaks and the flight of virtually the entire Madurese community closely resembled two similar events in the Sambas district in the northern part of West Kalimantan in 1996-7 and in 1999 and highlighted the danger of violence spreading to West and East Kalimantan

The violence in Central Kalimantan followed several decades of dislocation of the Dayak community - which makes up more than half of the province's population. The demographic composition of the province has been transformed, especially during the last two decades, by the Soeharto government's transmigration program and the influx of so-called 'spontaneous' migrants from other provinces seeking economic opportunities. Dayak society was also disturbed by the Soeharto regime's handing out of vast parcels of Kalimantan's forests to logging companies, many of which were connected to members of the Soeharto family, his cronies or the military, with the result that many forest-dwelling Dayaks were driven from their traditional habitat. A 1979 law providing for uniform structures of local government throughout Indonesia had the effect of undermining the authority of traditional village leaders and the cohesion of Dayak communities. Overshadowing this dislocation was a widespread feeling among Dayaks that they were often looked down on by other communities as 'backward' and 'uncivilized'.

The dislocation experienced by Dayaks, however, does not fully explain the violence of February and March. If the massacres had been primarily a response to rapid demographic change or the destruction of the forests, it could have been expected that Dayak anger would have been directed against all the migrant communities. But the violence was focused entirely on the Madurese and was eventually turned into a campaign to drive them out of the province. The Madurese community was not only small compared to the Dayaks but was also outnumbered by other migrant groups, especially the Javanese and Banjarese. Why were the Madurese in Central Kalimantan - like the Madurese in West Kalimantan several years earlier - the sole target? How would the 'ethnic cleansing' of the Madurese benefit the Dayak community? Why were other migrant communities untouched?

There are no straightforward answers. The most popular explanations are expressed in terms of common stereotypes. Dayaks often view the Madurese as arrogant, exclusive, prone to violence and untrustworthy. Dayaks, on the other hand, have been portrayed - especially in the international press - as barbarian warriors bent on reviving their ancient headhunting traditions. As is usual in ethnic conflicts, there is no agreed explanation of how the violence began. According to the Dayak version, Dayak grievances against Madurese had been accumulating for years until Madurese attacks on Dayaks in Sampit on 18-19 February triggered the spontaneous massacre of hundreds of Madurese. On the other hand, the Madurese explanation claims that certain Dayak interests provoked small-scale clashes as a pretext for the massacre that followed. But, so far, there has been no complete explanation of the alleged motives of these Dayak interests.

On one point, however, there is substantial agreement. Almost all sides note the failure of the security forces to prevent the conflict. The police are widely blamed for the failure of their intelligence network to anticipate the violence and their inability to take firm early action to prevent its spread. By the time that the massacre had got underway the police were overwhelmed and often stood by watching Dayaks burn Madurese houses and parade around Sampit with human heads. Assigned to guarding refugees after failing to prevent the killing, many police seemed more interested in making the most of opportunities to extort money from desperate Madurese. Co-operation with the military was by no means smooth and in an extraordinary incident police and army troops actually exchanged fire at Sampit's port. Despite their poor performance in Sampit, the police and the military were nevertheless able to at least minimize - although not entirely prevent - the spread of violence to other major centres including Palangkaraya, Kualakapuas and Pangkalanbun. Their task, of course, was made easier by the fact that most Madurese had fled rather than put the police and military to the test. Nevertheless, the security forces succeeded in protecting the lives of as many as 100,000 fleeing refugees.

The Indonesian government and courts now face the classic dilemma that often arises after ethnic conflict: how can accountability be pursued without further exacerbating tensions? In principle, the rule of law should be upheld and those responsible for murder, assault and arson should be tried in the courts. The failure to convict those responsible for ethnic violence creates a sense of impunity that could encourage renewed violence at later times and in other places. It can also stand in the way of long-term reconciliation. But, aside from the inherent difficulties in finding sufficient evidence, the judicial settlement of cases of communal violence not only ignores the fundamental causes of the conflict but can in itself create new problems. The perpetrators of communal massacres are usually convinced that their actions were justified and they are often regarded as heroes in their own community. Their incarceration can then become not only an obstacle to eventual reconciliation but more immediately can trigger renewed violence. The goal should still be to uphold the law but not regardless of circumstances. In some cases, a stark question cannot be avoided: how many lives are the upholders of the law prepared to sacrifice in order to uphold the law? The law should be upheld but not at any cost. Ultimately the authorities have to make fine judgements based on local conditions. Legal measures should therefore move forward in concert with efforts to address the legitimate grievances of the Dayaks – all toward the broader goal of improving security, promoting reconciliation between the Dayak and Madurese communities and creating conditions conducive to the return of refugees.

Many of the following recommendations are concerned specifically with the ethnic violence in Central Kalimantan. Nevertheless, despite the unique circumstances of Central Kalimantan, some aspects of the province’s experience suggests lessons that are relevant for other regions in Indonesia.


Recommendations for Central Kalimantan and Madura

1. All refugees have the right to return to their homes under broadly accepted standards of international law. However, the return of Madurese to Central Kalimantan will need to be delayed until the authorities can guarantee their safety and can then only take place gradually. It is unrealistic to expect that all Madurese will be able to return.

2. Encouragement should be given to the Dayak community to accept the early return of Kalimantan-born Madurese, those with family ties in Central Kalimanatan and those who had lived for many years in the province.

3. The immediate need of Madurese refugees is for assistance in adjusting to a new life outside Central Kalimantan. Foreign governments and NGOs can provide humanitarian assistance.

4. Government-sponsored 'peace meetings' between community leaders can create an atmosphere that reduces ethnic tensions but cannot in themselves bring about reconciliation.

5. The principle of upholding the law should not be abandoned but, in doing so, the authorities should adopt a flexible approach in order to avoid measures that could further inflame ethnic passions and make ultimate harmony more difficult to achieve. The authorities should be sensitive to possible negative consequences of the strict application of the law.

6. Both Dayaks and Madurese involved in the initial murders on the night of 17-18 February should be investigated and charged if evidence is sufficient.

7. If there is evidence to show that the killings were planned and organized by certain Dayak leaders, those leaders should be arrested and tried.

8. The police needs to be able to take early action to nip ethnic eruptions in the bud. This requires a greatly improved intelligence capacity and a willingness to take firm action against rioters. ICG supports the National Human Rights Commission's call to 'immediately create security forces that are adequate both qualitatively and quantitatively to carry out their duties'.

9. The police force should recruit more local personnel, especially Dayaks.

10. Minority communities, as victims, do not bear the blame for massacres. However, the leaders of such communities should be aware of cultural and other traits that create tension with indigenous communities and should help members of their community to become more sensitive to local norms and concerns.

11. In the new democratic atmosphere, Dayak leaders should use democratic channels to express community complaints and resolve grievances rather than allow festering resentments to build up and explode in violence. Dayak leaders should emphasize the need to resolve conflict by non-violent means.

12. Major measures have to be taken to improve the socio-economic position of the Dayak community. These measures should include steps to ensure that the logging industry is more sensitive to the needs of local communities and efforts to ensure wider participation of Dayaks in education and employment in the modern sector of the economy.

13. The decision of the National Commission on Human Rights to establish a commission to investigate human rights violations in Central Kalimantan should be welcomed. In presenting the results of its investigations it should take care that its findings do not further aggravate antagonisms between the two communities.

Recommendations for the Government of Indonesia

14. More attention should be given in all parts of Indonesia to the grievances of 'indigenous' communities which have been dislocated, deprived and marginalised in the process of development. Special measures should be taken to compensate them for the loss of land, forests and other resources caused by development projects that have primarily benefited others.

15. The Central Kalimantan experience shows once again that it is necessary to create professional security forces capable of dealing with outbreaks of ethnic and religious conflict. This requires adequate funding of both the police and the military. In regions with substantial ‘indigenous’ populations, such communities should be adequately represented in the security forces.

16. In ethnically divided regions, an acceptable balance between ethnic groups in the regional bureaucracy needs to be preserved. Careful attention should be given to the possible impact on inter-communal relations of the reorganisation of local government as part of the regional autonomy program introduced in January 2001.

Jakarta/Brussels, 27 June 2001


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