The Dayak-Madurese conflicts in Kalimantan, and what led up to them

Even as a kid growing up in Malaysia, particularly Sarawak, there’s a big chance you might have heard about the bloody interracial conflicts going on in Kalimantan between their native Dayak groups and the Madurese people.

The Dayak-Madurese conflicts caught the attention of international media during the late 90s and early 2000s, with coverage on the massacres featured in The Washington Post and The Guardian, among others.

To begin looking back at these events, we have to start with the transmigration programme.

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A Dayak Iban longhouse in West Kalimantan.
What was the transmigration programme?

Started by the Dutch colonial government, the transmigration programme was an initiative to move landless people from densely populated areas of Indonesia to less populous areas of the country.

This included moving people permanently from Java, Bali and Madura to less densely populated areas like Papua, Kalimantan, Sumatra and Sulawesi.

It was first started in the early 19th century to reduce overcrowding as well as to provide labour for plantations in Sumatra.

Then the Dutch colonial government demolished the programme during the end of its rule. However, the Indonesian government brought back the programme following Indonesian independence.

The rise of the Dayak-Madurese conflicts

The Madurese started to migrate into Borneo in the 1930s, so there had been Madurese people living in Borneo for about 70 years until these conflicts started.

Several reasons have been put forward to explain the violence between these two communities.

Most scholars and observers had perceived that ethnic tensions had long been simmering.

In an article published by non-profit organisation Cultural Survival, Rachel Leff explained that due to the 32-year authoritarian rule of President Suharto, the conflicts were kept in check for fear of military intervention.

Leff added, “When Suharto was forced from his office in Indonesia, old animosities erupted in violence.”

Besides this, there is another reason which triggered the interracial riots. This is an explanation popular among Indonesians. The outbreaks were reportedly provoked by supporters of Suharto who planned to undermine the democratic elections slated for June 7, 1999.

The third explanation behind the conflicts is the economic crisis affecting the country. In the second half of 1997, Indonesia was the country hardest hit by the Asian economic crisis.

Facing financial difficulties, both Dayaks and Malays blamed the Madurese for stealing jobs from them.

According to Huub de Jonge and Gerben Nooteboom who made a study of the ethnic clashes in Kalimantan, the Madurese had become better off economically because of their attitude to work.

The scholars wrote, “The Madurese tended to accept any available work; for example, they were willing to collect garbage in the cities and break up rocks for the construction of roads. They would do anything to work their way up. Used as they were to hard work and saving, they were often more successful than others in similar work. And this frequently led to amazement and jealousy among other ethnic groups.”

The Sambas Riots

One of the major Dayak-Madurese conflicts happened in Sambas district of West Kalimantan province in 1999.

Before this, the last major conflicts had occurred between December 1996 and January 1997.

During these riots, Madurese were mutilated, raped and killed by aggressors from the Malay and Dayak communities while the government did little to stop the violence.

The Sampit Conflict

Just like the Sambas Riots, the Sampit conflict in 2001 was not an isolated incident. The last major conflict occurred between December 1996 and January 1997.

The conflict in Sampit broke out on Feb 18, 2001 when two Madurese were attacked by the Dayaks. It resulted in more than 500 deaths with over 100,000 Madurese displaced from their homes.

There is no one version why this conflict broke out. One version claims the riot was caused by an arson attack on a Dayak house. Then rumours spread that the Madurese caused the fire leading a group of Dayaks to burn houses in a Madurese neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, a professor from Dayak People’s Association claimed that the massacres by the Dayaks were in self defence.

He specifically cited an incident in which a Dayak was tortured and killed by a gang of Madurese following a gambling dispute in Kerengpangi on Dec 17, 2000.

Meanwhile, another version claims that the conflict started in a brawl between students of different races at the same school.

The Dayak also decapitated at least 300 Madurese during the Sampit conflict.

In the end, the conflict resulted in more than 500 deaths with over 100,000 Madurese displaced from their homes.

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A Dayak longhouse in Kalimantan. Credits: Pixabay.
Violence fueled by spirit possession?

Besides the long history of headhunting among the Dayak community, another theory behind the level of violence in these conflicts is that it is influenced by local cultural patterns. Researcher Anika Konig from University of Lubeck in Germany pointed out one element of these local cultural patterns is spirit possession.

Based on research in a Kanayatn Dayak village in the conflict region, many of them there claimed spirit possession had played a central role in the riots.

Konig stated, “While possession by spirits in ordinary life is highly undesirable and dangerous situation which causes illness, possession was actively sought by the Dayaks who participated in the violence against the Madurese.”

According to the Dayaks, spirit possession awarded them with supernatural abilities and extraordinary strength.

Konig also noted, “Since the spirits’ favourite food is human flesh and blood, it was this that the spirits demanded from the warriors in return for their help. And it was, accordingly, the spirits who made the men perform these forms of violence.”

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A Dayak man from Kalimantan in warrior attire. Credits: Pixabay.
Why the Madurese?

The transmigration program had led the migration into Borneo from other ethnic groups such as the Javanese. But why were the Madurese targeted?

de Jonge and Nooteboom who interviewed many Dayak, Malay, Buginese and Banjarese informants, said that these people believed that the Madurese immigrants had not adapted to their new social environment and had a tendency to look down on others.

“Their behaviour is said to be arrogant, short-tempered, macho-like, rude, uncivilised, unfair, avaricious and revengeful.”

In the meantime, many of the Madurese born in Kalimantan blamed this negative image on newcomers.

They claimed that the newcomers from Madura did not know how to behave. Furthermore, some of the newcomers were reportedly members of criminal gangs involved in illegal logging, operating brothels and gambling dens. Some of them even smuggled consumer goods from Sarawak into the country.

Were the Madurese used as a scapegoat?

Again, why the Madurese? Firstly, de Jonge and Nooteboom pointed out that there was evidence that there were economical competitions among the Malays, Dayak and Madurese, particularly in terms of agricultural resources.

However, the competition, especially in West Kalimantan where most of the violence occurred, was not restricted to the economic field.

During the Suharto years, the Dayak and to a lesser degree, Malays had to hand over powerful positions in the provincial bureaucracy to civil servants (often Javanese) from outside Kalimantan.

Furthermore, huge tracts of land in Kalimantan were sold for oil palm, mining and other activities, as industrial-scale efforts to cultivate and develop the land for commercial purposes were implemented, leading to the 1997 Indonesian forest fires (reputed to be the worst in known history) and the Southeast Asian Haze.

On top of having their traditional territory appropriated by outsiders for large scale projects, the Dayaks were reportedly not compensated adequately for their land which was the source of their livelihood and survival.

With all these factors against them, de Jonge and Nooteboom believed that the Madurese were picked as a scapegoat.

“They were a small, controversial and vulnerable group, whose comings and goings incited resentment, who were involved in a series of both small and larger violent incidents, and about whom negative stereotypes abounded.”

Although the Madurese differences to other ethnic groups were largely imagined, they formed a fertile basis on which to continue the violence.

Like any riots in everywhere in the world, once the violence begins, nobody can really pinpoint a single cause for the conflict.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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