Fri, 23 Feb 2001

The Sampit violence

As the latest wave of violence and killings was spreading across parts of Kalimantan on Thursday, reports of scenes grizzlier than can be imagined by any civilized person have begun to come trickling into Jakarta through the news media.

On Thursday alone, rescue workers in Sampit, a township about 241 kilometers west of Central Kalimantan's provincial capital of Palangka Raya, were reported to have collected the headless bodies of at least 20 victims who had been killed the night before when bands of people roamed the streets, parading the severed heads of their victims, still dripping with blood.

Agency reports estimate the number of people killed in these latest clashes to be at least 100. The Indonesian news agency Antara, however, estimates the number of dead victims to run into the hundreds. Local residents reported that by daybreak bodies were still lying in the streets.

As thousands of terrified people, mostly older people, women and children, continue to flee to nearby towns and cities to seek refuge, aid workers report that the specter of hunger and disease is beginning to materialize.

This flare-up of communal violence that began on Sunday is but the latest to hit Kalimantan pitting groups of the local Dayak population against settlers from Madura island off the East Java coast.

In 1999, widespread riots hit Sambas regency in West Kalimantan, leaving hundreds of people dead, while dozens of others were gruesomely murdered in clashes between the two ethnic groups in 1997.

The big question is, what are the reasons behind these recurring clashes between the two ethnic groups, between locals and settlers, who for decades, at least on the surface, appeared to have been able to live together in peace?

One possible answer is given by M. Usop, presidium head of the Central Kalimantan Region and Dayak Community Consultation League, who said, "Generally speaking the Dayak community in Central Kalimantan is open to anyone, from whichever ethnic group. However, if the migrants (settlers) cannot adjust to local values, then it is better that they voluntarily leave."

Certainly, different cultural backgrounds do account for at least some of the friction that from time to time occurs between Indonesia's diverse population groups. Certainly, too, cultural differences seem to better explain the violence that erupted this week in Central Kalimantan than the reason given by the police.

Police officials in Jakarta said on Wednesday that they had captured one of two suspected "masterminds" behind Sunday's Sampit riots. The two were identified as "local officials" whose motives for inciting the riots were to be reappointed to jobs from which they had been dismissed.

It remains to be seen whether the police are able to back up their case with tangible proof this time. In Jakarta, meanwhile, it is difficult to avoid the speculation that these latest troubles in Kalimantan are somehow related to those of the Soeharto clan.

It must be said that there are some grounds for such speculation. After all, why is it that every time a member of the Soeharto family gets into difficulties with the authorities, trouble breaks out in some region in Indonesia.

Whether such reasoning is, in reality, well-grounded remains to be seen. Whatever the case, the important thing for the authorities to do under the circumstances is to seriously look into every possibility in order to prevent any recurrence.

In the final analysis, and as far as the public is concerned, it makes little difference what the actual reason is. It could well be a combination of several of the reasons suggested. The important thing is for the authorities to find out where the problem lies and to act on it, with wisdom and in a professional manner. For the people in the affected areas it is much more than a matter of making the right assumptions. It is a matter of life and death.