May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

A history of diversity

Mary Somers Heidhues

In West Kalimantan, people like to speak of the ‘three pillars’ (tiga tiang) that form the province’s most important ethnic groups (Dayak, Malay and Chinese) and emphasise the special claims of these three groups to the region. The history of West Kalimantan’s ethnic groups, however, shows that the picture of ethnic harmony in the province has been more complicated and less harmonious than this image suggests.

The Dayak, Malay and Chinese ethnic groups each lay claim to a long residence in West Kalimantan. In museum displays and cultural events these three cultures are represented as distinct yet harmoniously integrated in the social and political life of the province. However, these representations were shaken when the results of the 2000 census were published. The census included a long list of ethnic groups in the rapidly growing province of four million inhabitants. Politicians criticised the census-takers heatedly, with one governor even proposing to ban the publication of the official results of the count. Yet given the frequency of ethnic conflict in the province in recent years, this result should not have been so surprising.

The census showed that about 20 per cent of the population did not belong to any of the ‘three pillars’, but were migrants from other parts of the archipelago. Nearly 10 per cent were Javanese and over five per cent came from Madura. Buginese made up around three per cent of the population. In addition, many ‘Dayaks’ appeared to now call themselves ‘Kendayan’ or ‘Darat’. ‘Malays’ were perhaps 20 per cent.

The emphasis on the supposed harmony of the three ‘major’ groups has been an attempt to balance ethnic and religious interests. The Dayak, who dominate the interior, include diverse ethnic groups; some of these reject the label ‘Dayak’ as disrespectful. Typically they are not Muslims, and they consider themselves to be ‘indigenous’ to the island. The Malays, who live mostly on the coast or along major rivers, are a Muslim people united by language and custom, formed partly by immigration from other parts of the archipelago, but more significantly by the conversion of non-Muslim Dayaks to Islam.

Ethnic Chinese

Having arrived in West Kalimantan in the mid-18th century, the Chinese pre-date other immigrant groups like the Javanese or Madurese. Their role in the economy, their longstanding links with the other two groups, and the fact that many of them live from farming and fishing make their local roots clear. They also act, although this is unspoken, as non-Muslim allies of the Dayaks. In the past they married Dayak women, while some Dayaks learned to converse in Chinese or borrowed aspects of Chinese culture. The Teochiu Chinese, who originate from the neighbourhood of Shantou in Guangdong province, are the most numerous language group in Pontianak city and to the south. Hakkas, who come from inland areas of that southeastern coastal province, predominate in the former goldmining areas north of Pontianak that the Dutch sometimes called the ‘Chinese Districts.’


When the Chinese began to arrive in West Kalimantan, or Borneo, as it was then called, Malay principalities dominated the coastal and riverine areas, monopolising (or attempting to) trade with the uplands and drawing taxes and corvée labour from the subject Dayak peoples. The Dayaks in turn depended on Malay overlords for rice, salt, and tobacco, or for prestigious imported items like the giant Chinese pots called tempayan.

The Chinese at first mined gold on behalf of the Sultan of Sambas and the Panembahan of Mempawah. But their cooperative form of organisation, the kongsi, soon enabled them to free themselves from the control of the local rulers. These independent-minded mining associations became virtual states whose foreign contacts enabled them to evade the Malay overlords and exchange gold abroad for opium, arms, and other supplies. The presence of the Chinese also upset the delicate balance of Dayak-Malay relations, as the kongsis formed their own alliances with the indigenous Borneans. By the end of the 18th century, the kongsis fought with one another and almost completely ignored the authority of the sultans.

During the 19th century, the Dutch established control of West Kalimantan, beginning with the coastal areas. The Dutch largely allied themselves with the Malays, eliminated the kongsis and, after 1850, moved to assert control over the interior. They tried to use the Malays and Dayaks, as well as colonial troops, to subdue the Chinese, but some Dayaks and Malays fought on the Chinese side.

In reality, however, the Dutch barely exercised authority over the Chinese and had little presence in the interior. Chinese traders, in contrast, moved far into the hinterland to purchase rubber and other export goods from the Dayak population.

The Chinese of the West Coast maintained their own customs, especially their language. Their lifestyle, the tradition of independence, and their numerical strength in the Chinese Districts, where up to 90 per cent of the 100,000 Chinese lived, made them quite different from the peranakan communities of Java. Politically, they saw themselves as part of China, especially as Chinese nationalism became strong after the 1911 Revolution. Most Chinese were not wealthy and lived economically close to the level of the local population.

During World War II, the Japanese occupiers massacred hundreds of Chinese businessmen and community leaders, as well as Malay rulers and their relatives, and the tiny local intelligentsia of other ethnic groups. As a result, the Dutch were able to re-establish authority relatively easily in 1945, but had few people to work with in building a federal state. While the Chinese remained rather aloof, new leaders among the Dayaks, who had profited from missionary education, came to the fore. Once assumed to be docile and backward, these Dayaks were now speaking politically for themselves. After 1959, West Kalimantan became a separate province with a Dayak governor.

A New Order

The events of 1965 and the establishment of control by the New Order brought many changes to the province. Dayak leaders were pushed aside as military men took over major offices. Left-wing activities were suspect, as were the Chinese, who, it was claimed, sympathized with the Sarawak guerrilla movement that fought against Malaysia, PGRS (Pasukan Gerilya Rakyat Sarawak). Under Sukarno, Indonesia had favoured the rebels, and West Kalimantan´s military commander had actually granted them bases on Indonesian territory, as well as recruiting local supporters. Now they were being hunted as communists.

The New Order military turned Dayak sentiment against the Chinese. The conflict with Malaysia had upset the local economy and many were in need. A purported rebel attack on a Dayak village did the rest. The guerrillas had established their bases in the mountains near the Sarawak border. When the Dayaks turned against the Chinese, in contrast, the thrust of their attacks was in the Chinese Districts, considerably to the south.

From October 1967, a series of ‘Dayak Raids,’ characterised by increasing brutality and finally burning and killing, drove the Chinese from the rural areas and small towns toward the coast. A centre of violence was the area around Anjungan and Mandor. Dayaks occupied rice fields that had been planted by Chinese. The raids uprooted a long-settled population, led to thousands of deaths, and moved the Chinese to concentrate in larger towns and along the coast.


Meanwhile, West Kalimantan became much more complex ethnically. The long-settled Arab minority, considered close to the Malays, was linked to the Sultanate of Pontianak. The first ruler of Pontianak had employed Buginese retainers, and many Buginese had settled along the coast, opening coconut plantations, partly with immigrant labour from the homeland. The colonial authorities had imported Javanese and others to staff the bureaucracy. These immigrants were almost all Muslims, and because of this their presence did not give rise to ethnic rivalry, at least initially.

Many Javanese and others arrived under New Order programs as official transmigrants, but hundreds of thousands of Madurese came as unofficial or ‘wild’ transmigrants to West Kalimantan. The relationship with the Madurese was not as simple as that with other groups. Even as Muslims, they tended not to assimilate into the local population. In addition, their willingness to take on unskilled, hard labour, put them in competition with Dayaks. The Dayaks were moving toward the cities and the coast and were in need of employment, especially as deforestation and population pressure displaced them. Cultural and religious hostility did the rest. 1967 saw the first Dayak-Madurese conflict, presaging future hostilities. Repeated but apparently random Dayak-Madurese clashes finally led, beginning in December 1997, to large-scale and organised violence.

Mary Somers Heidhues ( is the author of Golddiggers, Farmers, and Traders in the ‘Chinese Districts’ of West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004

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