SCMP Saturday, March 10, 2001

Culture of cruelty


Inspired by mythical she-birds, drugged into bloodthirsty trances and protected by mystical auras, descendants of Borneo's headhunting tribes have proved themselves effective agents of ethnic cleansing.
Their targets - migrants from nearby Madura Island, who had settled and made businesses in Central Kalimantan over generations - are now dead or scattered to refugee camps in East Java. Their homes and businesses have been destroyed, giving them little reason to want to return to Kalimantan.
Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid flew in on Thursday to see for himself the aftermath of last week's massacre - which witnesses say claimed about 1,000 lives, although the official death toll is 469.
But his mission to quell ethnic tensions went tragically wrong, with violence erupting in the provincial capital of Palangkaraya just minutes after he left to return to Jakarta. Local press reports said six people were killed after Dayak protesters threw rocks at riot police, who responded with gunfire. Security forces continued to patrol the streets of the provincial capital yesterday.
Official concern for the plight of the Madurese is muted by a desire to be culturally sensitive toward the indigenous Dayaks who wrecked their lives and by stereotypes of the Madurese as a rude and greedy lot who are not accepted by host ethnic groups wherever they travel across the archipelago.
Understanding these murderous rampages requires a recognition of the deep-seated anger that is felt by the Dayaks - a generic term for more than 50 tribes on Borneo - due to decades of neglect and dispossession, even though this hardly justifies the kind of slaughter they now practise on fellow humans.
"They believe their commander-in-chief is a female-bird spirit, who emerges to protect and guide them in times of need," said Father Willy Bald Pfeuffer, a German Catholic priest who has lived in Kalimantan for almost 20 years, referring to the Dayaks.
"They say she is instructing them to eliminate the Madurese. She cannot be seen. She may appear momentarily, but then she is gone," he added. He was not seeking to excuse the mass murder but was one of many able to enumerate reasons for it and for the fact that, righty or wrongly, the much-hated Madurese cannot return.
Individual killers on the streets of Central Kalimantan's capital, Palangkaraya, and the coastal town of Sampit, where the killing began, told journalists they felt empowered by the ritual decapitations, just as their forefathers, the Borneo headhunters, did.
But far from following the beliefs and practices of previous generations, these modern-day killers admitted they were skipping over ancient procedures. Before British, Dutch and missionary influence largely stamped it out, the men of the rainforests did indeed decapitate opponents or competitors in property disputes. They brought back the heads to their village as a sign of strength. After extracting the brains and drying the skulls over a fire, the heads were stored in special longhouses where offerings were then made in the belief that the heads carried the spirits of the dead.
This time the killing was more extensive and the treatment more indiscriminate. Heads were collected in sacks and stacked at a dilapidated hotel in Palangkaraya, where few observers could check rumours of random stacks of skulls and gore. Bodies were heaped outside a hospital where health workers were overwhelmed.
One killer told journalist Marianne Kearney that he "felt so strong, so powerful" during the massacres.
"For seven days, I didn't sleep or eat. I just stabbed and slashed and cut off their heads. I don't know how many I killed, but it was at least 10," he said.
But the ritual of converting the dead into spirit servants in the afterlife was too much effort. "Some acted like this, but for me, the heads are a bit heavy," he said.
Other reports spoke of young men fluent in English and sporting new motorcycles who, despite an upbringing in the embrace of satellite television, claimed cultural cover for their behaviour.
Gangs of men brandishing spears and the occasional severed head painted their faces and underwent exercises to get into a trance. Witnesses said the killers appeared drunk or drugged, with the glazed eyes and blithe unconcern of true believers. Preparations for new chopping sprees involved the weaving of spells for protection from gunshot or death.
Back in Jakarta, Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri had instructed her staff to learn about Dayak cultural practices in order to find a peaceful way out of the conflict. Such concern shows a newfound willingness to take the marginalised peoples of non-Javanese Indonesia seriously, even if the cultural argument risks obscuring the real causes of the racially based murder.
The causes of conflict here, as elsewhere across the country where race or religion is blamed, are age-old patterns of greed and injustice now dressed up in exotica.
Kalimantan was often seen by policymakers in Jakarta as an empty place full of natural resources which would be there for the plucking as long as Jakarta's generals and cronies of former president Suharto wanted them.
Forestry concessions were dished out by Suharto to buy off or appease people in his way. State firms and foreign investors arrived to take what logs, coal, gold and oil they could. That attracted vast communities of illegal pan-handlers, loggers and squatters.
Some were sent to Kalimantan as part of the Government's enforced "Transmigration Programme", which aimed to move populations from crowded places such as the island of Madura. But most Madurese, Javanese and Sulawesi people turned up voluntarily in Kalimantan over the years and - unlike the indigenous Dayak tribes - built hotels and shops, gaining a grip on local commerce and often bringing Islam with them.
For the Dayaks, old patterns of cultivation and sustainable forest management were wiped out. Land title, which was once a matter of communal agreement, was lost. Although many Dayaks adjusted with education and for some a place on Suharto's gravy train, the majority felt dispossessed.
Even though the culprits in this drama sit more in national government than in any particular racial group, it was the migrants who took the blame. It is no accident that it was the Madurese who were the victims of recent rampages, other migrants who happen to be Javanese or Buginese benefit from a general dislike of the Madurese and were spared the knife, some in the hope of taking over Madurese commerce.
Key political shifts in recent years have exacerbated the potential for violence. Foremost is the rise in Melayu and Dayak consciousness among the Malays and Dayaks of Kalimantan. Non-governmental organisations funded by well-meaning outsiders have seen the marginalisation of the indigenous people and sought to support a resurgence of native pride. Magazines, Web sites and research institutes provide a markedly pro-Dayak insight into this process.
One aid worker familiar with the Madurese diaspora suggested the fashion for seeing anything indigenous as automatically "good" runs the risk of encouraging ethnic arrogance.
"It's because of what happened to ethnic groups under [Suharto's] New Order," said political scientist Jamie Davidson from the University of Washington. "Dayaks were painted as backward and primitive; lots of their land was taken; they found they didn't own certificates; they were branded as anti-development, and some were 'disappeared' in one of the many ways of keeping them quiet.
"Actually, the Dayaks are united only when they're fighting the Madurese."
Mohammed Usop, a university lecturer and head of the Dayak Community Organisation in Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, defended the killings as "social reaction".
Police have contacted followers of native Kaharingan beliefs to co-ordinate traditional rituals in an attempt to halt the bloody rampages, but Father Pfeuffer said the efforts were futile.
John Bamba, director of the Dayakology Institute, joins those eager to stop notions of ritual interfering with political reality. "There are no real traditions involved. It's just an expression of anger and frustration," he said.
With official negligence and a mystical glaze over the viciousness, there seems little to stop further purges.
Vaudine England ( ) is the Post's Jakarta correspondent.