Behind the Central Kalimantan violence

Down to Earth No 49 May 2001

The appalling ethnic violence in Central Kalimantan is rooted in the decades-long violation of indigenous rights and the wholesale destruction of natural resources in the province.

Tension remains high in Central Kalimantan following several weeks of ethnic violence in which an estimated 500 people have been killed and up to 80,000 have been forced to leave their homes. This is the latest bout in a long history of violence in Central and West Kalimantan. It was sparked on February 17th in Sampit, the district capital of Kotawaringin Timur, when - for reasons that have not been clearly established - a house belonging to an indigenous Dayak was burnt down. According to local accounts, gangs of recently-arrived Madurese rode around Sampit in trucks shouting “Death to the Dayaks”. Hundreds of Dayaks fled the town or sought refuge in churches. As the news spread, Dayaks returned to Sampit in force to take revenge. Six people were killed. The violence spread rapidly into neighbouring towns and villages and as far as Palangkaraya, the provincial capital, 220km to the east. In the worst single incident during the violence, 118 Madurese refugees en route to Sampit were massacred by Dayaks in the village of Parenggean on February 25th, after their police escort fled.

By March 2nd, the violence had subsided sufficiently for Vice-President Megawati to make a 30 minute visit to a refugee camp in Sampit, followed on March 8th, by a brief visit to Sampit and Palangkaraya by President Wahid. However, the relative calm was only possible because most of the Madurese migrants had sought sanctuary in camps, fled to Banjarmasin, the provincial capital of neighbouring South Kalimantan, or had already been evacuated to Java. Further violence followed Wahid's visit and up to six Dayak protesters were shot dead by police.

On March 22nd there was more violence in and around the district capital of Kuala Kapuas. A further 17 people were reported dead and more homes and property burned. More Madurese sought police protection. Police received orders to shoot troublemakers on sight.

In April another round of house-burnings was reported in Pangkalan Bun, the district capital of Kotawaringin Barat. According to the local police, the violence was started by some 400 people arriving in trucks from the direction of Sampit who managed to evade police efforts to prevent them entering the town. They started burning Madurese houses, prompting a further outflux of refugees. Back in Sampit, Dayaks clashed with police on April 10th during an angry protest against police shooting and detention of Dayaks. The protesters demanded that all police withdraw from the town. Shots were fired and a passer-by was killed.

Human rights groups have criticised the slow and largely ineffectual response from the police to deal with the violence and have opposed calls, supported by some Kalimantan-based officials, for the mass evacuation of Madurese. Some refugees have refused to leave Kalimantan, saying they have no relatives in Madura or East Java. In a joint statement issued on March 1st, nine national NGOs criticised the government's focus on providing ships for evacuating the refugees warning that this would "spread the seeds of unrest throughout the archipelago".

Some official efforts have been made to bring conflicting parties to the negotiating table and defuse tension. These include a meeting in Jakarta of Dayak and Madurese leaders on March 22nd, which agreed that it was too soon to think about returning Madurese to their Kalimantan homes. In late March a Dayak, Lodewijk Penyang, was installed as Central Kalimantan police chief. He announced the payment of an adat (customary law) fine and three days of rituals for the police shooting of Dayaks, four of whom died.

NGOs and student groups have also met and issued statements urging an end to the violence and calling for conflict resolution through dialogue. Further plans include a Kalimantan Congress and Dayak Congress. In neighbouring East and West Kalimantan there have been initiatives to try to prevent outbreaks of ethnic violence there.


Roots of conflict

"The ongoing slaughter cannot be simplified as ethnic conflict between Dayak and Madurese, even less so as religious conflict. Rather, the roots of this problem were established a long time ago when the New Order government, supported by international creditor agencies, jointly invested in these giant projects; also planting the roots of the ongoing conflict that characterises the humanitarian situation in Indonesia in general."
(NGO statement, Jakarta March 1, 2001)

Nobody disputes that more conflict will break out if the underlying causes of the ethnic tensions in Kalimantan are not dealt with. Although cultural stereotyping, or the "culture clash" between Madurese and non-Madurese has been used to explain the violence, it is important to look for more fundamental causes.

Violent confrontations between the Dayaks and Madurese settlers in Kalimantan occurred under President Sukarno, through the Suharto era as well as under Wahid's government. In Central Kalimantan last year, four people died in incidents in Kumai in August and in Ampalit in December; much property including homes and vehicles was also burned. Clashes go back to the 1950s in neighbouring West Kalimantan. Here, in late 1996 and early 1997 violence between these two groups caused at least 600 deaths (see DTE 32). A further 260 people were killed in early 1999 (see DTE 41:4). Four years after the earlier outbreak, there are still an estimated 40,000 Madurese refugees living in wretched conditions in 'temporary' camps in West Kalimantan's provincial capital Pontianak. A major cause of the conflict between indigenous Dayaks and Madurese settlers - and other ethnic conflicts in Indonesia - has been the 'development' that the Suharto regime promoted for over thirty years. Natural resources, including Kalimantan's forests and minerals were handed out as concessions for a powerful business elite. The customary landowners - the indigenous Dayaks - were systematically denied their land and resource rights. They have had no recourse to legal action to defend their rights since, under Indonesian law, forests belong to the state.

Tropical rainforest was turned into plywood, veneers and sawn timber for export in the name of development. Large timber companies made substantial profits and moved on to invest in plantations, banking and real estate, becoming giant conglomerates. The natural wealth of Kalimantan flowed through the hands of Suharto's family and their business associates and helped to fuel Indonesia's economic boom which lasted until the mid 1990s. Much has changed in Indonesia since the Asian economic collapse, the fall of Suharto and a new democratically elected government, but the model of economic wealth driven by the ruthless exploitation of natural resources remains intact. Under new regional autonomy legislation, districts must raise sufficient income from natural resources under their control to pay for public services, support the bureaucracy, make a profit for local elites and still send a portion of the revenues to Jakarta.

The international community has supported this process. The IMF's 'economic rescue package' promotes exports of timber, minerals and plantation crops such as palm oil to balance Indonesia's financial books. This includes paying off international creditors who were so keen to lend during the Suharto years. The World Bank funded the Indonesian government's transmigration programme for a number of years and, with the Asian Development Bank, supported an estate crop system which depends on transmigrant labour. According to Bank figures, between 1980-85 (when Bank support for transmigration was high) 109,800 government-sponsored transmigrants were settled in Central Kalimantan, where they represented 65% of the increase in population. Government figures put transmigration to Central Kalimantan from 1969 - 1998 at 117,380 families or around 5.9 million people. The Kalimantan total was 426,446 families and the national total 1.9 million families. In recent years transmigration to Central Kalimantan has focussed on the disastrous Central Kalimantan mega-project aimed at converting a million hectares of swamp forests into rice fields (see DTE 38).

In their March statement, the Indonesian NGOs demanded that agencies like the World Bank "admit their failures and mistakes to the people affected by this outburst of unrest”, and “introduce the rehabilitation and improvements that have never been implemented”. They also want the World Bank, IMF and ADB, as well as large corporations, to be more accountable "in order to avoid a repeat of unnecessary humanitarian tragedy of this kind."


Rapid change

The various Dayak tribes have been subjected to enormous, rapid change over the past decades. Traditional lifestyles have been almost wiped out within one or two generations in many areas. The Dayaks cannot make a living from agro-forestry and small-scale logging once the logging companies have stripped the most valuable timber, especially once plantation companies move in to clear what remains. The commercial loggers and the oil palm estates which replace them prefer to use migrant labour rather than employ Dayaks. Many are 'spontaneous' migrants - people from other islands seeking new opportunities to get land, set up a small business or trade.

Central Kalimantan exemplifies these problems. The local economy depends on timber and plantations. The district of Kotawaringin Timur, of which Sampit is the capital, covers about 5 million hectares, nearly all of which was forest thirty years ago. Now only 2.7 million ha is designated 'forest land'. The rest has become agricultural land, plantations, settlements or unproductive scrub and grassland. Only 0.5 million ha is classified as 'protected forest' and local people are prohibited by law from using this to make a living. Over 1 million hectares of the remaining forest is to be 'converted' to estate crops. Illegal logging is rife and the forests are expected to be commercially logged out within ten years. Local people have little to show in return for the forests they have lost. Most live below the official poverty line.

The Dayak youths - who capture the headlines as bloodthirsty "savages", hunting down Madurese migrants - are themselves the victims of a much longer, drawn out process which is the destruction of their ethnic identity. 'Development' has eroded traditional lifestyles and undermined the authority of community leaders and has offered young indigenous people little in return. The majority have only had a few years of primary education, due to lack of schools and the money to pay fees. They are ill-equipped to compete with migrants. Most rely on poorly-paid manual work and casual employment. A whole generation has been promised a brighter future firstly through Suharto's promises of development, then through reformasi and now demokrasi. Yet most people have remained poor and powerless. As in other areas where 'horizontal conflicts' have broken out, people in Central Kalimantan without power are turning on other groups because they are frustrated and do not know who else to blame for their day-to-day misery. The targeting of the Madurese is related to the common perception among Dayaks and other ethnic groups in Kalimantan that the Madurese are culturally arrogant, that they are favoured over other groups for employment, and are not punished by the police for crimes. Some Dayak leaders - and Madurese themselves - distinguish between longer-established Madurese communities who have adapted to Kalimantan and know how to get a long with the ethnic groups, and the newcomers who are more likely to antagonise local feeling. Settlers from other ethnic groups have hardly featured in the media reporting from Central Kalimantan, although there are many cases where non-Madurese families have joined the refugees leaving Kalimantan for fear that they will be targeted by Dayak groups.

There is little doubt that certain individuals and factions have manipulated the potential for conflict that arises from this cultural stereotyping and/or have helped to perpetuate it. There are suggestions that different factions among the Dayak elite in Palangkaraya have used the 'anti-Madurese card' to compete for positions of political authority - under regional autonomy more is now at stake. The reluctance of these Dayak political leaders to condemn the mass eviction of Madurese may well have contributed to the violence.

Another major beneficiary of the conflict is the Indonesian military. Here, as in other parts of the country where there is scope for conflict, the military uses the violence to justify its continued prominent role. Members of the security forces have also seized opportunities presented by the tragedy to make money, by forcing terrified refugees to pay for their services.

(Source: Violence in Central Kalimantan, statement by Tapol and DTE, 2/Mar/01; The Indonesian Government must resolutely and properly protect its citizens! Joint NGO Statement on the Sampit Tragedy, Jakarta, 1/Mar/01; AP 6/Mar/01; BBC Worldwide Monitoring 23/Mar/01; Jakarta Post 10/Apr/01;Suara Pembaruan 12/Apr/01; Banjarmasin Post; Kompas 12/Apr/01; Indonesia, the Transmigration Programme in Perspective, World Bank 1988;Transmigration in Indonesia, Ministry of Transmigration and Forest Squatter Resettlement, Jakarta 1998; Gerry van Klinken (, "Two Kalimantans", draft article dated April 2001 on the origins of the violence in C.Kalimantan in February and March 2001; and others)


DTE presses UK Government

DTE wrote to Clare Short, the British government's Secretary of State for International Development in February, urging her to raise the Central Kalimantan violence at April's meeting of the CGI creditor group and "press the Indonesian government to act to address the underlying causes, including denial of indigenous land and resource rights".

The letter also pointed out that it was particularly appropriate for her department to take action, because CDC, the private investment agency whose shares are all held by DFID, has invested in oil palm plantations in both West and Central Kalimantan - see Oil Palm Page. For a copy of the letter email