Dec 02, 2022 Last Updated 6:29 AM, Nov 29, 2022

Ethnic fascism in Borneo

Gerry van Klinken

When police raided the Hotel Rama in Sampit, Central Kalimantan, on 26 February this year, they found human heads littering the grounds. This was the headquarters for Dayak 'special forces' (pasukan khusus) who killed hundreds of transmigrants from the island of Madura, and expelled the remaining nearly 100,000 from the province. Police arrested 84 warriors.

The flurry of television images, with voice-overs about a revival of 'barbaric' headhunting, soon faded to the next war zone. Jakarta, too preoccupied to worry about provincial squabbles, soon pretended the problem had gone away.

Perhaps most disturbing was the silence of Indonesian opinion makers. Many sympathised with Dayaks as an indigenous people dispossessed of their forests by rapacious New Order development. Others, shocked by the savagery, felt Madurese citizenship rights deserved a defence as well. The two rights - the non-ethnic rights of all citizens versus the First People rights of Dayaks - seemed so irreconcilable as to make any statement inadequate.

There is a dilemma here, but it is not insoluble. Our sense of revulsion at what has happened must be our guide: hundreds (some say thousands) of men, women and children murdered for their ethnicity alone, and an entire community 'cleansed' from the province. This has more of fascism than of the gentle forest-dweller.

Where does this ethnic fascism come from? The key lies in rejecting the simplistic view that an entire ethnic group can have just one set of interests. The indigenous forest dwellers of our television documentaries live, of course, in the forest. Hotel Rama (with the heads) is in Central Kalimantan's busiest town, the port city of Sampit. The interests of rural and urban Dayaks are so dissimilar that it is fair to say the urban elite have in 2001 dealt a grave blow to the forest dwellers they claim to represent.


The American scholar Paul Brass is an expert on Hindu-Muslim riots in India. He says these events 'are best seen as dramatic productions with large casts of extras. They are... partly organised... [E]xtensive ad-libbing occurs in order to convey the impression of spontaneity.' The organisers, of whom there are many kinds, are 'riot specialists', part of an informal network that influential actors can call on in times of political crisis. We will in a moment discern something similar in Central Kalimantan.

If you had asked a forest-dweller in central Borneo 150 years ago what tribe they belonged to, they might have answered Ngaju, Ot Danum, or Ma'anyan. None would have said Dayak. That was a convenient category only in the minds of colonial anthropologists. But in the early twentieth century the category became a political reality. Dayak students in the city of Banjarmasin, anxious that their better-organised Banjar fellows were getting the pick of the civil service jobs, set up the first Dayak association in 1919. They worked hard - with pamphlets, books and speeches - to convince their brethren in the forest that they were all 'Dayaks' together. Ever since, Dayak-hood has been an invention of the urban middle class. Ignoring the concerns of the forest dwellers, the books they wrote had only one agenda: achieving a Dayak province of their own, run by educated Dayaks.

The Dutch briefly gave them what they wanted in late 1946, part of an effort to wean outer islanders away from the largely Javanese Republic of Indonesia. The arrangement was undone when Indonesia became independent. But the former Dayak students, now professional soldiers and teachers, persisted. Taking advantage of the unrest around Indonesia in 1956-57, they added punch with a guerrilla movement bearing the awkward acronym GMTPs. It worked - Central Kalimantan was created a Dayak province in 1957.

At first, its governors were Dayak. Tjilik Riwut (1957-67) was a popular TNI soldier who had supported the movement. Later the New Order gradually reduced Dayak autonomy. But as it began to wane, the urban Dayak elite, including some old fighters from the '50s, demanded an indigenous governor once more.

True to tradition, the Dayak scholar KMA Usop wrote a thick book in 1996 explaining why Dayak ethnicity was all about Dayaks running the province. Usop, retired rector of the university in Palangkaraya, talks with passion about being Dayak. We used to believe that the more 'modern' people become the less myths of blood interest them. Usop shows us the reverse. His book also provides marvelous ammunition to those who argue that the origins of Dayak ethnicity lie not in the mists of time but with the birth of the modern state in Indonesia - about a century ago.

Dayaks make up about two-thirds of Central Kalimantan's population. Madurese used to be around 6-7 percent. There is no evidence for the claim often heard that the Madurese lord it over the Dayaks. Economically, there is little difference between them. That gives the fight between Dayaks and Madurese an artificial, indeed a darkly conservative, racist character.


The urban Dayak elite who invented this fight have little record of fraternity with their rural cousins. They belonged to a New Order that impoverished the great mass of Dayak society. Usop, for example, was the Golkar spokesperson in Central Kalimantan under the New Order. He was used to the backroom business and political deals that characterised New Order cronyism. Like many others, he only jumped ship to the PDI-P when reformasi made Golkar a liability.

But PDI-P never became important. Instead, Usop and those who thought like him wanted a new ball game. The future lay in ethnic politics. Its vehicle was the ethnic association. LMMDD-KT - long acronyms are still the norm - was the most prominent among them. Usop was its leading figure. Another was an organisation with a name reminiscent of the 1956 guerrillas - APP-GMTPs.

These associations are first of all businesses. LMMDD-KT was in on the environmentally damaging 'million hectare peat swamp' project (PLG). Illegal forestry and small-scale gold mining were also important. Life in these frontier areas is tough. The underemployed Dayak loggers and miners who joined them found protection there. In exchange, they became their 'special forces' in 2001.

Police and military got their cut too. The chairman of APP-GMTPs, Yansen Binti, also leads the thuggish Pemuda Panca Marga, an organisation made up of the sons of soldiers. Together, they used their muscle to keep competitors at bay.

The money was plentiful. Central Kalimantan is heaven for illegal loggers. The young tycoon Abdul Rasyid became notorious in 1999 after courageous environmentalists proved he was stripping Tanjung Puting National Park. He was a major donor during Central Kalimantan's corrupt gubernurial election last year, according to an independent report. Yet he remains a member of the supreme national legislative body the MPR.

In 1999 the ethnic associations became de facto political parties and moved resolutely onto the political stage. They gave press conferences and organised demos during the gubernurial race. LMMDD-KT demonstrated again when Usop lost the race against another Dayak.

The next milestone was the implementation of regional autonomy on 1 January 2001. The stakes were high. They chose this moment to whip up an anti-Madurese crisis. Civil society in Central Kalimantan was too weak to prevent this blatant manipulation of public opinion.

On 15 December 2000 one of their thugs, the 36-year old Sendong, was killed in a brawl at the gold mining shantytown of Kereng Pangi. A riot broke out and hundreds of Madurese fled town. It was merely the beginning. The associations began a campaign to unify feeling around this Dayak 'hero'. They threatened more violence unless Jakarta took action against his killers. On 20 February 2001, led by LMMDD-KT, they issued a statement that the Madurese had taken over Sampit. It was largely a fabrication, but served to justify the massacre that began that day.

Was it worth it? This elite seem to think so. The ethnic cleansing campaign effectively united the chronically fractured Dayak politicians behind a single banner. Even governor Asmawi Agani, not at first an Usop ally, found himself demanding that the 84 Dayak warriors arrested at the Hotel Rama be released. The police were forced to comply. As they were to similar pressure to release Usop himself - he was arrested as the main 'provokator' on 3 May.

For fear of losing their own heads, meanwhile, other ethnic groups quickly fell in behind the Dayak hegemony.

Most importantly, the resurgent Dayak elite sent a powerful message to Jakarta that they had rewritten the rules. So far Jakarta has not challenged them. In June 2001 Usop was the main organiser of a 'People's Congress' in Palangkaraya. It castigated the Madurese as the real troublemakers and told them to apologise if they wanted to return. The governor helped pay for the congress.

Jack Snyder warns in his book (From voting to violence, 2000) that nations emerging from authoritarianism can fall prey to demagogues who take advantage of the chaotic new democratic space. That is a good explanation for the rise of ethnic fascism in Central Kalimantan. It is a fundamental challenge to Indonesian civil society and its friends overseas.

Now is the time to put out an alternative message. Not ethnic pride, but social justice is the real issue. Some Dayak farmers displaced by the million-hectare peat swamp project had it right. When they came to Palangkaraya to plead their cause last March, in the midst of the furore, they had this to say: 'We're not interested in the Madurese issue. We just want our land back.'

Gerry van Klinken ( edits Inside Indonesia magazine. Thanks to Sentot, who generously shared his findings.

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

Latest Articles

Acehnese fishermen and Rohingya rescue at sea

Nov 16, 2022 - BILAL DEWANSYAH

The criminalisation of people smuggling has created complex moral and legal difficulties for those who assist refugees in peril

Review: Bali, 50 years of changes

Sep 25, 2022 - MARY ZURBUCHEN

Chasing a cure for beriberi

Sep 15, 2022 - NIA DELIANA

A long search for a cure for beriberi in Southeast Asia in the late nineteenth century was led by trial and a lot of error

Review: The candidate’s dilemma


Review: 25 years of music activism


For two decades Bali-based rock band Navicula’s mission has been to tackle some of the country’s biggest social and environmental ills

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

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


Lontar Modern Indonesia



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