Hundreds Dead in Borneo's Ethnic Conflict

In one area of Indonesia, groups of men armed with machetes are parading through the streets with the severed heads of their victims.

The bodies of men, women, and children lie in bloody heaps. Some have even had their hearts cut out.

They are casualties of Indonesia's latest spate of ethnic violence — this time on the island of Borneo, between the island's indigenous population of Dayaks and immigrants from the island of Madura.

Hundreds of people, nearly all Madurese, have been killed, reports say, as groups of Dayak men armed with homemade weapons set up roadblocks and stalk those who have not fled.

Tens of thousands are on the move. Thousands of others have already fled by ship to neighboring islands.

A parliament speaker has urged the government to declare a civil emergency, one step away from martial law, which would allow security forces to search houses, detain suspects and impose a curfew.

Jakarta says it has sent in three battalions of infantry and one of paramilitary police. Reports say a unit of the army's feared special forces, the Kopassus, may also be on its way.

Modernity's Advance

The conflict between the Madurese and the Dayaks began in the 1960s, when the government initiated a transmigration program that brought as many as 100,000 Madurese to the island of Borneo, shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

Most of the Madurese settled in Kalimantan, the area of Borneo that belongs to Indonesia, and an area that is dominated by the Dayaks, a nomadic people living in the hinterlands and often characterized as "primitive."

The Madurese, on the other hand, brought with them all the trappings of modernity.

"The Madurese have a reputation of being very hard traders, being very tough," said Andrew MacIntyre, a specialist in Indonesia and a professor at the University of California-San Diego.

The Dayaks say the Madurese stole their traditional lands and their jobs in the local mines. They were angry that "people were coming in and taking over their area," MacIntyre said.

Even worse, the two communities do not even share a language or a religion.

The Madurese, like the majority of Indonesians, are Muslim. The Dayaks are mostly Christian, but many also practice animist beliefs. The Madurese call them lazy, and are offended by their practices of eating pork and keeping dogs.

Before Indonesia's former Dutch colonial rulers outlawed headhunting in the late 19th century, the Dayaks were even reported to be cannibals and headhunters — which is where the current spate of bloodletting comes from.

"They don't [regularly] go out and hunt head people's heads like they do today," MacIntyre said. "However, this is a good way of frightening the other side."

An Eternal Struggle

"At some level, it's a familiar story," said MacIntyre. The Madurese brought modernity, but also all its pitfalls — the exploitation and destruction of the local environment, the corruption of local officials — and the natives resent them for that.

In situations like this, he said, "small incidents that have relatively innocuous origins can flare up into bigger things."

That's exactly what has happened in the latest violence, says Rodger Baker, a senior analyst for Stratfor. "This latest round, it's been suggested, has been caused by former Dayak officials who had been downsized," he said.

"Basically [they're] out to get rid of the Madurese, they're controlling the economy."

But, Baker warns, the picture has not always been so simple. "In the past, there has been violence on both sides," he said.

Ethnic conflict has become an event that has become all too familiar in Indonesia, almost three years after the country's longtime dictator, President Suharto, stepped down from power — and took with him the security forces he used to crush any unrest.

Religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims have rocked the streets in the Spice Islands, and there has been violence against other transmigrated peoples in Irian Jaya.

In Aceh, a guerilla war has raged for decades, with independence acticvists pointing to religious differences with the rest of Indonesia.

East Timor, a territory that Indonesia invaded, even won its independence in 1999 after a long campaign of violence on both sides.

The new democratic government that followed Suharto has not been very successful in resolving the peace.

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