Borneo, 2001


After East Timor gained its independence, Indonesia’s descent into chaos continued; a shocking nadir was reached in 2001, when the Dayaks of the Borneo Island began butchering the Madurese migrants. The tribal war between Madurese and the Dayak began in late 1996, when over 300 people died in ethnic violence in West Kalimantan which lasted for six weeks. Madurese women were beheaded by the Dayaks and their heads were paraded around town. (The ancient Dayak custom claims that bringing home a victim’s head and burying it with their ancestors’ bones will ensure that the victim will be their servant in the afterlife.)

While the re-flaring of tensions only followed after General Soeharto stepped down, his coercive policies were the cause. Madura island, in east Java, is famous in Indonesia for its barren soil and as a place to leave. Soeharto continued — and escalated — the Dutch policies of transmigrating people from more populated Javanese islands to the less populated tribal lands in Irian Jaya and Kalimantan. In latter case, the government granted the Madurese logging rights and allowed them to clear forests for palm oil cultivation, even in the forests that were sacred to the animist Dayaks.

In December 2000, there was a murder in Kereng Pangi, a small village near Sampit. A group of Madurese allegedly tortured and then killed a young Dayak after a gambling brawl. The murderers, the Dayak elders claimed, bribed the police to escape justice. Decades of bitterness at the Madurese control of businesses and markets turned violent as a tribal reprisal by the Dayak followed; atavistic feelings are invoked in this ‘land of head-hunters in a perpetual state of war with one another’, as the Economist wrote. The police, as it had in East Timor, was unwilling to save the persecuted.


A remarkable photo of the conflict was taken by Charles Dharapak, an AP journalist. Dharapak recalled:

I happened upon a group of Dayak men with machetes and spears standing on the roadside. At their feet were the naked bodies of two Madurese men. Both heads were missing. I gestured with my camera to sense if I wasn’t welcome. The Dayak men nodded. I stepped out of the car.

My writer took notes. I positioned myself in front of a Dayak holding his spear, framing the bodies on the ground behind him. The blood on the ground was still wet. He said he killed them 15 minutes earlier. I went straight to the hotel to file my photographs. In the following days we chased rumors of alleged mass graves.

A week later I was back in Jakarta at the Mandarin Oriental hotel lobby near my office. At the newsstand was the new issue of Time Magazine. To my surprise, my photo of the Dayak man was on the cover. The two headless bodies in the image had been crossed out with black marker, by hand. All copies were censored in the same manner. We contacted PT Indoprom, which distributes Time in Indonesia, to ask. They said there was no pressure from the Indonesian government to censor the pictures. “We blacked out the pictures ourselves,″ said spokesman Wahyu, who like many Indonesians uses one name. “We didn’t want the situation to deteriorate when people read the magazine.″

(For more on the collapse of plural society in Southeast Asia, read this).

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