Nov 30, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Tragedy in Sumba

Published: Sep 22, 2007
Why neighbours hacked each other to death in a remote part of Indonesia

David Mitchell

The breakdown of government authority in Indonesia has led to so many outbreaks of violence that it seems to defy our attempts to understand it all. One of the more dramatic incidents was the outbreak of traditional warfare which engulfed the town of Waikabubak on the normally quiet and out of the way island of Sumba, on 5th November 1998.

The events in Waikabubak are notable for the absence of several of the usual suspects. There is no hint of racial or religious divisions here, and no sign of intelligence officers sponsoring one side or other. This was a case of violence between two neighbouring ethnic groups which usually get on well together. The people of Loli and Wewewa (also known as Waijewa) are connected by many links of marriage and amicably share involvement in the same churches and schools, and in trade. They do have a history of conflict over land in the border area, but the most recent outbreak of violence in 1992 was quickly settled after some house-burning without any deaths, and there had been peace between them since then.

Yet early in the morning of 5th November a raiding party of some 2000 or more men from the Wewewa district were dropped by trucks at the border of the adjacent district of Loli. These were all men who owned shoes and trousers and white shirts for going to church on Sundays. Now they had bare feet and wore traditional waist cloths and white headbands, with machetes tucked in their belts and spears in their hands. Many carried rocks for throwing, tucked into the fold of their waist cloths. Some carried bundles of dried grass, ready to be converted into firebrands with a click of the cigarette lighter. With these traditional weapons of war they crossed the border into Loli and marched along the road towards Waikabubak, the main town and centre of government of West Sumba.

The bustling town of Waikabubak lies at the foot of the hill where an ancient traditional centre is located. The traditional houses of Tarung, the Mother Village of the Loli district, cluster tightly together on the hill top for defensive purposes, and to watch over their ricefields below. Their tall thatched roofs tower above tree level, displaying an ancient dignity which contrasts with the shabby galvanised iron roofs of the modern town. The juxtaposition of the two worlds is fantastic for tourists, but creates many complexities for government and for local politics. These days the ancient and the modern are inextricably intertwined, and electric light cables can be seen disappearing into the thatch roofs. The skull tree in the central court of the village had the skulls removed back in the 1930s, but it remains a reminder of warfare. The inhabitants still remember the rituals for reading the omens before going out to put their lives on the line in battle.

The Wewewa raiding party had several reasons for confidence as they marched across the border. They are by far the largest ethnic group in West Sumba, with 125,000 people compared to the 20,000 people of Loli, and their man, Wewewa-born Rudolf Malo, was in office as head (regent or bupati) of the government of West Sumba.

They also had reason to feel justified in launching what they saw as a counter-attack against the people of Loli. Although the affair had started as a demonstration calling for reformasi, it had become transposed into the framework of inter-ethnic conflict. Now it was flaring out of control and moving towards a horrifying climax. 


It had begun just ten days before, on 24th October, with a small demonstration by around thirty university graduates. They were protesting at the government offices about the systematic corruption of the civil service examinations that was cheating them out of the jobs they had trained for.

The demonstrations of disappointed candidates for the civil service grew in size on the 26th, 29th and 31st October, and took on an increasing level of animosity because the government was seen to be unresponsive. The action had clearly tapped a deeply felt resentment against the abuse of power by those already in office using their influence to get jobs for their relatives. Bupati Malo responded by declaring that it was not within his capacity to solve the corruption problem. Indeed, bribes paid to those in the provincial office were outside his immediate responsibility, but his declaration of powerlessness was disingenuous and not believed. When he added accusations that the demonstrators were politically suspect, this sounded like a threat to permanently exclude them from appointment. The demonstrators were not to be intimidated. Their numbers continued to grow and they now made personal attacks on the bupati and demanded his resignation.

Next came a counter-demonstration of 500 supporters and family of Bupati Malo. They were trucked into town to demand that the police and the army stand by Bupati Malo and clamp down on the demonstrators who had insulted him. The demonstrators had used the bupati’s taboo childhood name, Mete, which is indeed offensive in the local tradition. The bupati’s supporters said this had to be stopped.

The tactic of counter-demonstrations might have worked in years gone by, but in the post-Suharto era it produced a defiant reaction. The anti-corruption demonstration now erupted out of the control of the university graduates who had begun it. They had only been able to earn their degrees through the sacrifices of their relatives in the villages at home, selling their rice crops and their buffaloes to pay for their education far away in Bali or Java . Now the frustrated relatives were aroused and angry. They took over the demonstration and turned their wrath on supporters and family of Bupati Malo. They stoned the houses of anyone in town who they saw as part of the bupati’s clique. The occupants abandoned their houses in town and fled in fear back to Wewewa. Many of the empty houses were then broken into and the TV sets and other valuables carried away.

The original demonstration had not been a predominantly Loli group; they were a group united more by their shared experience of studying in Bali or Java, and by the discrimination against them. But the mob stoning and robbing the houses was drawn from the villages immediately surrounding the town. It was predominantly a Loli mob attacking the Wewewa people close to the bupati. This was the attack that had in turn enraged the Wewewa on the fateful 5th November.

The 2000-strong Wewewa raiding party did not head directly for the centre of town, though it was only 6 kilometres from the border. They first attacked the Lolinese border villages. The thatched roofs of Sumbanese houses make them highly vulnerable to fire, and fire spreads rapidly from one house to the next, so Sumbanese villages are quite indefensible once an enemy gets in close. Soon after about 5 am all 30 houses of the village of Patama We’e had been burned to the ground. Its inhabitants were fleeing for their lives across the fields. A quarter of an hour later, further along the road, the two thatched-roof villages of Tawiana and Kabu Ngaba were also ablaze and the raiding party was marching on in loose formation towards Waikabubak.

The town’s population of 15,000 spreads out along the roads to around the 3 km mark, so the raiders were soon passing between the houses of the town, mostly abandoned by their fleeing inhabitants. Small groups broke off to re-occupy the houses of Wewewa people which had been abandoned the day before, but the main group pressed on.

By 6 am they had reached the Christian senior high school, just 1 km from the centre of town. One eyewitness, watching awestruck from a hiding place across the rice fields, reported that as the leaders of the raiding party reached the school, the tail of the group was just passing the Mona Lisa Hotel 1200 metres behind. This must surely have been the biggest war party ever assembled in the history of Sumba, and they were now within reach of Kampung Tarung, whose tall, highly inflammable thatch roofs were easily visible protruding above the trees.

But 2000 men was not enough, and their progress had been too slow. The thick clouds of smoke rising from the burning border villages had sent a signal down the 20 km length of the Loli valley, an unmistakable one given the tension of the day before. There were no telephones, but the shouted message passed from village to village is still a powerful technology when the message is a simple one. The men from the upper Loli valley had time to respond. Some galloped their horses down the road, some strode on foot at a brisk pace, others commandeered trucks or hung onto the bumper bars of overloaded 4-wheel drives and Kijang vans. They stormed chaotically past the police and army posts in the centre of town and joined the men of the lower valley in defence of Tarung.

There is a small bridge on the main road which marks the western boundary of the centre of Waikabubak. A shallow creek running unobtrusively behind the Pertamina petrol station formed the last line of defence of Kampung Tarung. This creek marked the line that the Wewewa raiding party would never cross. Local villagers now speak of it in mystical terms, saying that the little creek suddenly seemed deep and wide to the attacking party.

The battle raged for most of the morning, and brought a complete and devastating defeat for the Wewewa raiders. The last of the fighting was ended by an early downpour of La Nina rain. When it cleared the people of Wewewa and Loli were confronted with a horrific scene that no-one had desired, no-one expected, and no-one would take responsibility for.

The official death toll is based on the 26 bodies that were escorted back to Wewewa. Other deaths may have been kept secret by their families. These were not the neat and quick deaths produced by bullet wounds. All had been chopped to death with machetes, or sometimes speared. Six had limbs or the head hacked off. Most were men, but one Wewewa woman died of machete wounds outside her home. One boy was killed as well, speared while trying to hide under a bed with adult men.


Even to try to analyse such an event can seem like an offence against decency. Yet try to understand it we must. In Waikabubak and in the provincial capital of Kupang several explanations have emerged.

The first treated it as a case of inter-ethnic conflict, ignoring the way it arose out of conflict within the political elite. This has been the official line, led by provincial governor Piet Tallo. The governor immediately flew in the police Mobile Brigade to prevent further outbreaks, and arrived himself the next day. He sidelined Bupati Malo, and presided over the peace-making process himself. But he rejected calls to sack the bupati. Although he did move to deal with the corruption in the civil service appointments, he treated this as if there were no connection with the bloodshed in Waikabubak. Fortunately Governor Tallo had some credibility here. Bribes and nepotistic appointments had been blatant throughout the province for many years. Tallo already had a record of intervening helpfully in some of the more outrageous cases that came to light while he was Deputy Governor from 1992-97.

The governor was not alone in his mediation effort. Several religious and academic figures, successful Sumbanese working in Kupang, stepped forward to support him, and the peace-making moved forward quickly. One of the measures of its success was an amnesty for a no-names-no-packdrill return of stolen good to the houses that had been robbed. Clearly, effective leadership is still possible in the reformasi era.

At first it seemed that blame for the bloodshed would not be sheeted home to the political manoeuvres of the bupati and his critics. But having been sidelined in the peacemaking process, Bupati Malo had no way of regaining his lost authority. On 21st November, 31 prominent Wewewa public figures, among them former Malo supporters, signed a letter calling for his resignation. More such calls followed. By 23rd December it was clear he would not be amongst the first-term bupatis to be given a second term.

To observers outside West Sumba it may make more sense to blame the failing political system rather than the individual. It could be said that Bupati Malo’s main fault is that he continued to act like a New Order bupati after the rules had changed. Perhaps his military background (he is an airforce colonel) gave him too inflexible a view of how he could manage political conflict in the reformasi era.

So far, details of the links between elite politics and the mobilisation of villagers have remained concealed. Even the provincial newspaper Pos Kupang, which has done a great job of documenting and explaining the events, seems to lack a tradition of investigative reporting. There remain major gaps in the story it has told. Pos Kupang put emphasis on the use of the bupati’s taboo name, and on a wild rumour that a Loli man had been murdered in Wewewa which had inflamed the situation. These details are indeed part of the story, but the emphasis on them presents the villagers as an emotion-driven irrational mob rather than as political actors who, however misguidedly, are attempting to defend their vital interests.

The villagers’ point of view has not been reported. But they do have interesting things to say. One of the most remarkable aspects of the story, the fact that all 26 deaths were on the Wewewa side, while no-one from Loli died, has not so far received any attention. Perhaps there will be sophisticated military or psychological explanations offered, but the village people have a simple explanation. The last outbreak of fighting on the border between Loli and Wewewa, in 1992, an affair much smaller than the events of 1998, had ended with a peace-making ceremony in which each side swore a classic poetic oath never again to invade the territory of the other: ‘If I break this vow, may I be struck by lightning as I cross the hills; If I betray my word, may I be struck by a snake as I cross the fields’. It was the Wewewa people who broke the vow, so the villagers say, and brought this curse down upon their heads.

This appeal to the mystical may not be a very convincing explanation these days, but to many in the villages it has a stark moral simplicity which helps to make sense of this sorry tale.

David Mitchell is a medical doctor in Melbourne. He lived in Sumba as a volunteer in 1968-75, and visits there often.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

Latest Articles

Feminists and LGBT


Can they work together? Religious objections make it hard

Concerts for cash

Oct 27, 2023 - MICHAEL H. B. RADITYA

Indonesia has a plan to boost the economy through large-scale arts, cultural and sporting events, but are they ready?

Healing the nation? Part 2

Sep 13, 2023 - SASKIA E. WIERINGA

Recent attempts to address the Indonesian genocide after 1 October 1966

Healing the nation? Part 1

Sep 13, 2023 - SASKIA E. WIERINGA

Recent attempts to address the Indonesian genocide after 1 October 1966

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.