Sunday, May 24, 2009

Borneo's headhunters enraged by centuries of loss

Dayak youths carrying a spear ride past a burning ethnic Madurese house near Palangkaraya on the island of Borneo Sunday. Indonesian security officials flew into a ravaged district of Borneo on Sunday where up to 400 people have died in a week of ethnic bloodshed and where gangs armed with spears still roam the streets.

For centuries, Indonesia's Dayak headhunters have been cheated and robbed by outsiders, but now they are fighting back.

But their target — mainly dirt-poor settlers from Madura — appear to be more scapegoats than villains.Dayaks — actually an umbrella term covering more than 200 indigenous groups — have killed up to 400 Madurese over the past week after long-simmering tensions erupted into brutal slaughter in the rugged Borneo province of Central Kalimantan.However, the roots of the slaughter lie more in poverty and dispossession than outright ethnic hatred.

"(Dayaks)...are simple and honest and become the prey of the Chinese traders, who cheat and plunder them continually," wrote naturalist Alfred Wallace in the mid-1800s.

Their plight has only worsened since.

In modern Indonesia, the central government joined the plunder, stripping the Dayaks of their lands and shipping in hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

Most of the new settlers came from the tiny, arid island of Madura, off distant East Java. The warrior-like Madurese are renowned for their hot-tempered aggression, which sits at odds with the normally reserved, accepting Dayaks.

"The ethnic Dayaks are very gentle, tolerant and they like to give in," said Sarosa Hamongpranoto, a sociologist at East Kalimantan's University of Mulawarman. "But they can explode in rage to the extreme if their self-worth is constantly offended."

Once stirred, the Dayaks are fearsome — often reverting to the ritual headhunting that was formally abandoned around the turn of the century, and ripping out the hearts of their victims."In a way, they are now going back to basics," said Hamongpranoto. "The fact they are doing it again now indicates the magnitude and the greatness of the problem. This is a culmination of a long, deep-seated conflict."

Their reputation strikes fear into the hearts of even the Madurese, who themselves terrify Indonesia's majority Javanese.

Refugees fleeing the latest violence tell of Dayak hunters saying they can "smell" who are Madurese.

The Dayak lifestyle of hunting and shifting agriculture, centred on longhouses housing whole villages, does not sit well with Indonesia's rush to modernise.

As their lands across Indonesia's three-quarter share of Borneo were snatched for plantations, logging and mining — and bureaucrats from the main island of Java ran the province --they found themselves increasingly at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, usually along with the Madurese.

The Madurese are easy targets for Dayak resentment because they too are largely powerless and because what little economic success they enjoy is usually conspicuous as market stallholders.

Religious differences fan the flames. Madurese are Muslim and most Dayaks still follow their ancient kaharingan traditions — a mixture of animism and ancestor worship.

Dayak-Madurese tensions have long smouldered — hundreds died in West Kalimantan two years ago — but Central Kalimantan is the only province still with a Dayak majority, although no ethnic breakdown of its 1.4 million people is available.

The province itself was born in violence — formed by the fledgling Indonesian government in 1957 after a Dayak revolt demanding more autonomy.

But the immediate cause of the latest savagery is unclear. The police blame two local officials for inciting the bloodletting because they were angry at missing top jobs in a reshuffle under new regional autonomy laws.

"There could also be a third party who fanned the situation and tried to blow out this problem for a political reason," said Hamongpranoto.

Copyright 2001, Reuters
February 26, 2001
By Terry Friel

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