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Recent Report: Borneo: Ryan Vitkus

Potential For Massacre Still Present

Introduction to the Conflict

For several years, violent clashes between the Dayaks and the Madurese have been consuming the Indonesian island of Borneo. Under Suharto the conflict was not as conspicuous because the tensions that existed simmered under the lid of government control. Violence erupted near the end of 1996, but on the whole, the TNI (armed forces) and the POLRI (police) were relatively effective at keeping unrest at bay (Human Rights Watch [HRW], 1997 Report on Kalimantan). Since Suharto’s fall from power in May of 1998, ethnic clashes have occurred more regularly in Borneo. The Madurese, originally from the island of Madura, have found themselves under continual threat of persecution at the hands of the Dayaks. Although at times they have been implicated as instigators, their involvement has primarily been as victims.

Because there are many resources in Kalimantan and not many people, the Indonesian government instituted a transmigration policy, which has heightened ethnic tensions. The purpose of this policy was twofold: to distribute Indonesia’s population more evenly and to tap into the resources of sparsely populated areas. While the Madurese have reaped the benefits of this policy, many Dayaks have suffered displacement and ever-increasing marginalization. Land disputes, economic competition, and cultural differences have caused tensions between indigenous Dayaks and Madurese migrants (US State Department, March 2002). It is under these conditions that violence has erupted repeatedly in Kalimantan.

Parties Involved

Dayaks: There are at least fifty distinct indigenous Dayak tribes in Kalimantan, related to one another by language, and to a certain extent culture (Tapol, Online Bulletin March, April 2001). For example, religious beliefs vary among different Dayak groups. A significant portion of the Dayak population is Christian, although in Central Kalimantan 50-70% are Muslim. It is not uncommon for Dayaks to engage in indigenous practices (ICG). Some Dayak groups have a history of headhunting, and many sources report that this religious rite has recently been practiced on the Madurese to instill fear (Sydney Morning Herald, February 26 and SF Gate, March 13, 2001).

Madurese:The Madurese are originally from the Indonesian island of Madura. In Kalimantan, they are labeled as the ‘migrants’, which is somewhat of a misnomer considering the fact that many Madurese have lived on Borneo since the turn of the century (Global IDP Database).

The cultural differences between Dayaks and Madurese are drastic. For example, Dayaks are offended by the Madurese practice of carrying a caroak (a large knife) in public (National Geographic, June 18, 2001). Whereas different Dayak groups subscribe to different religions, the Madurese are invariably devout Muslims. However, the differences between the two groups reach far beyond religion and it is the divergence found in the secular realm that may be more significant. Madurese migrants tend to be drawn to logging and large plantations. Generally speaking, Madurese tend to be more prosperous than the Dayaks.

Nature of the Violence

Overview: Dayaks are responsible for most of the violent deaths in Borneo. While the Maduras are responsible for a number of violent acts, their activities are carried out on a smaller scale and for the most part, in self-defense. Undeniably, the Madurese have repeatedly found themselves under siege not only by acts of violence, but also because the Madurese community does not enjoy local economic or political support. Massacres are often sparked by a localized dispute, which sets of a domino effect that is difficult to curb. Momentum may be added by an aspect of Dayak culture, which dictates that in the event a Dayak is killed, the entire clan must go to war with the offending party and the group of which he is a member.


Place: West Kalimantan, various localities.
Date: December 1996-March 1997, a series of clashes.
Victims: Approximately 500

According to Human Rights Watch, this was one of the worst outbreaks of communal violence that Indonesia has ever seen. The precursors to violence were seen on December 6th when a Dayak assaulted 2 Madurese for harassing a Dayak girl. On December 29th, the young people ran into each other again at this time, one of the Madurese and several friends attacked the Dayak who had assaulted him. While the Dayak youth was in the hospital, a crowd of Dayaks set out to get revenge and the situation escalated into neighboring towns. A crowd in the town of Ledo shouted, “Out with the Madurese!” Many Madurese were evacuated and those who stayed remained in the jungle where fighting ensued. Meanwhile, in the towns, as Madurese property was being burned down, the Madurese struck back (HRW, 1997 Report).

The situation calmed by mid January, after approximately 20 people had died. However, a second wave of violence engulfed the region. When a group of Madurese attacked a school in Pancur Kasih. A day later, roadblocks were set up by Madurese who checked identity cards and attacked Dayaks. Five Dayaks were killed in this manner, causing Dayak mobs to attack Madurese settlements. In the subsequent attack on Salatiga, a mob of Dayaks armed with rifles carried out an offensive that left 113 Madurese dead. After the whole of Salatiga’s Madurese population had been killed or evacuated, Dayaks settled on their land (HRW, 1997 Report).

More violence followed despite a peace pledge that was signed between the Madurese and Dayaks on January 13th. In the town of Singkawang, the murder of a Dayak man set off more violence against the Madurese. And in Balai Karangan twelve Madurese were killed and decapitated by a crowd of armed Dayaks who had targeted the richest Madurese in the town. Later that day, several confrontations took place between Dayak and army troops when the former tried to attack Madurese settlements. Attacks continued in the districts of Sanggau, Sambas, and Pontianak, but the press was unable to gain access to these regions. Ultimately, West Kalimantan was cleansed of its Madurese population (ICG Asia Report, 19).

Place:West Kalimantan, Sambas
Date: March 1999
Victims: 186

The sequence of events that characterized this massacre was quite different from the one described above. On this occasion, Malays joined forces with the Dayaks and the Madurese did not fight back (Tapol, The Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, April 2001). Furthermore, the resultant deaths seem to be a product of an organized assault rather than escalation of a local dispute. The violence began when Dayaks and Malays set out for the coastal district of Sambas, armed with machetes, guns and spears. They targeted Madurese migrants for taking the local jobs. Local security forces were able to escort some Madurese into safety but many were killed in transit at roadblocks set up by Dayaks (Global IDP Database). In another incident, 118 Madurese refugees were executed within an hour’s time while being transported to safety. When a group of Dayaks found out that trucks carrying Madurese refugees would be passing through a certain area, they diverted the drivers, persuaded the police escorts to abandon the scene and killed the refugees in a field. (Tapol, Bulletin 161) Peace was restored only after all of the Madurese fled the area (ICG Asia Report, No 19).

Place:Central Kalimantan, Sampit
Date:February 17 – March, 2001
Victims:Approximately 600

Like the series of clashes in 1996-1997, this outbreak of violence may have been spontaneous. Reportedly, the spark that set off this inferno was the dismissal of two government officials who allegedly killed a Madurese, prompting the Madurese to react with more violence. Soon thereafter, a Dayak house was reportedly burned down by a group of Madurese. Dayaks then went out to seek revenge and two weeks of deadly violence ensued (CNN, February 28, 2001). Dayak tribesman approximately killed 600 Madurese migrant settlers and burned 1,000 houses and stores in Central Kalimantan. Over 105,000 Madurese evacuated back to east Java and Madura, in response (US Deaprtment of Sate, March 2002).

Sampit was the only town in Central Kalimantan with a majority Madurese population (60% in a town of 120,000); they were in a better position to defend themselves and their homes. Approximately 20 Dayaks were killed as a result of a Madurese offensive, but two days later enraged Dayaks returned to the city. CNN reported that in one instance, 50 Madurese were marched out of hiding and slain at a local hotel. Those Madurese that opted to remain in Sampit were slain and decapitated while Madurese property was looted and burned to the ground (CNN, February 28, 2001).

Place:Central Kalimantan, Parenggean
Date:June 3, 2001

In this outbreak of violence, Madurese refugees were again targeted in an assault reminiscent of the massacre carried out just two years earlier. As a group of 118 men, women and children were about to be taken to safety by the police, trucks filled with Dayaks. The Dayaks decapitated the people at a nearby soccer field.

Place:West Kalimantan, Pontianak
Date:June 24-July 2, 2001

An attempted robbery by four Madurese refugees that left one person dead sparked a violent response from the nearby Dayaks. Angry at the incident, neighbors burned down a Madurese refugee camp, destroying 350 structures (Agence France Presse: “Angry Residents” 24 June 2001).

Ensuing riots between Madurese and Dayak youths led to the deaths of five Madurese settlers (AP Worldstream: “Three more” 25 June 2001). One Malay youth group said “if the Madurese refugees still remain in their camps until Saturday, then they should be ready to face coercive measures by Malay people here” (Agence France Presse: “Malay youth” 27 June). Such threats led to the evacuation of over 1,000 Madurese refugees from the city (Agence France Presse: “Officials” 2 July 2002).

Complicating Factors: Inadequate Government Response

The government of Indonesia has shown itself to be unprepared for the crises that have occurred; the response of the security forces has left much to be desired. For example, during the February, 2001 slaughter, only two of 26 Hercules transport planes were available for intervention in the virtually inaccessible area of Sampit and the intervention operation was carried out with great delays. Indonesia’s defense minister blamed the US for the military’s inability to act efficiently, saying that the US embargo of 1999 prevented the 24 remaining planes from being fixed. Yet, according to witnesses, the troops and police stationed in Sampit did nothing to contain the situation (CNN, March 26, 2001). As described in the above section in March of 1999, local police displayed an unwillingness to perform their duty with particularly tragic consequences (Tapol, Online Bulletin March, April 2001). In this case, 118 Madurese died during the course of an evacuation operation being carried out by the police. When a group of Dayaks learned about this operation, they diverted the trucks carrying the Madurese and managed to convince the police to abandon their human cargo. The above examples illustrate the demoralization that plague the ranks of Indonesia’s security forces.

The following precursors to genocide have been cited:
  1. Frequent One Sided Casualties
  2. Frequent Brutality
  3. Ethnic Cleansing
  4. Property Destruction

What International Laws Are Being Broken?

According to the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 75 U.N.T.S. 287, entered into force Oct. 21, 1950, article three, the following war crimes have been committed:
  1. Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.
  2. Taking of hostages.
  3. Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.
  4. The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (U.N. Doc. A/CONF 183/9, 1998) the following crimes against humanity have been committed:
  1. Murder.
  2. Extermination.
  3. Deportation or forcible transfer of population.
  4. Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender groups.


Many violent outbreaks in Kalimantan were triggered by seemingly insignificant event that sparked the flame; if the immediate causes of violence – deep seated, root causes – are not addressed, violence will likely flare up again. After the three month long series of violent clashes in 1997, when no significant steps were taken to prevent further conflict, Human Rights Watch warned that tensions remained high and indeed, 2 years later violence flared up anew. In March of 2001 it seemed that the potential for more violence in Central Kalimanatan was nonexistent because the region’s Madurese population had been killed, but another massacre occurred again in June. As for West Kalimantan, most of its Madurese population was eliminated in 1999; currently, the potential for further violence exists.

In conclusion, it seems that the violence occurring in Kalimantan could be characterized as one of potential genocide. It seems clear that gross human rights violations with genocidal overtones have taken place in Kalimantan. Today there are over 100,000 displaced Madurese that face deprivation and uncertain futures. (Refugees International, April 15, 2002). While the Indonesian government currently has a plan to end the displacement crisis by the end of 2002, attempting to halt ethnic violence between the Dayaks and the Maduresewill likely prove problematic. Most Madurese IDPs want to return to what is left of their homes in Sampit, and Dayaks do not want them there. Considering the potential for further violence in Kalimantan, more domestic and international attention must be devoted.

Works Cited

Online Journals:
Global IDP Database. “Ethnic Groups in West Kalimantan (1997).”

Tapol, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign. “Deadly Conflict in Central Kalimantan.” Bulletin Online 161 – March /April 2001.

Online News Sources:
The Age. “Another Massacre Stains Indonesia.” March 1, 2001.

BBC News. “Terrified Borneo Refugees Seek Escape.” February 26, 2001.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/asia- pacific/newsid_1191000/1191054.stm

BBC News. “Horrors of Borneo Massacres Emerge.” February 27, 2001.

BBC News. “Indonesia Press Anger Over Borneo.” February 27, 2001.

CNN. “Kalimantan´s Agony: the Failure of Transmigration.”

CNN. “Indonesia Minister Blames U.S. for Borneo Carnage.” March 26, 2001.
http://asia.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/southeast/03/25/indonesia.blames .usa/

CNN. “Toll Mounts as Kalimantan Killing Continues.” March 9, 2001.

Financial Times. “Death Toll Rises in Borneo.” February 26, 2001.
The Guardian International. “Indonesian Forces Crack Down on Borneo Rioters.” February 28, 2001.

Radio Netherlands. “Indonesia Sends Crack troops to Borneo.” February 26, 2001.

TIMEasia. “The Killing Field.” June 7, 2001.

Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. “Borneo Violence `Out of Control.´” February 26, 2001. Washington Post..
http://www.washingtonpost.com7wp-dyn7articles7A54574- 2001Feb25.html6/11/01

Dahlby, Tracy. “Zealot-Warriors and Regional Separatists Force the Question: Can this Far-Flung Nation Hold Together?” National Georgaphic.com.

Head, Jonathan. “Analysis: Behind the Borneo Violence.” February 28, 2001. BBC News.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/asia- pacific/newsid_1185000/1185736.stm

McCawley, Tom. “Death Toll Rises in Borneo.” February 26, 2001. Financial Times.com.
http://globalarchive.ft.com/globalarchive/articles.html?id=010226007823&quer; y=borneo>

Peluso, Nancy, Hoban, Rosemary. “Myths of the Headhunters Tragedy in Kalimantan is a Complex, Modern Story of Failed Development and Military Politics.” March13, 2001. SFGate.

Refugees International. “Indonesia: Internally displaced face deprivation and uncertainty on Madura Island.” April 15, 2002. Relief Web.
http://wwww.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/6686f45896f15dbc852567ae00530132/8a 0aadbe4a53e56749256b9c001833f3?OpenDocument

Ressa, Maria. “Kalimantan, Indonesia´s Savage Nightmare.” March 2, 2001. CNN.com.

Shubert, Atika. “Kalimantan: Indonesia´s Recurring Nightmare.” February 28, 2001.CNN.com.
http://asia.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/southeast/02/28/indonesia.kalima ntan.analysis>

Shubert, Atika. “Q & A: Why Ethnic Slaughter Has Struck Indonesia.” February 28, 2001.CNN.com.

Shubert, Atika. “Q & A: Wahid May Face Frosty Welcome Home.” March 2, 2001.CNN.com.

Williams, Louise. “Head-Hunding Revival a Gruesome legacy of Soeharto´s Failed Regime.” February 26, 2001. The Sydney Morning Herald.

US Government Sources:
United States Department of State. “Indonesia: Country Reports on Human rights Practices – 2001.” March 4, 2002. Online:

Human Rights Watch 1997 Report: Communal Violence in West Kalimantan. 1997.

International Crisis Group: Asia Report Number 19. Communal Violence in Indonesia:Lessons from Kalimantan. June 27, 2001.

Conflict Prevention Initiative: Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research. 2001.


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