By one count there are 300 ethnic groups in Borneo. Indigenous groups like the Dayaks, Penan, Iban speak their own languages, many of which are grouped in the Kayanic family which in the Western Malayo-Polynesian (Austronesian) language group. Many follow customary laws known as “adat” and taboos known a “pli “. They have their own religions, although many are now Muslim or Christian,

Adat is supervised and administered by headmen and elders. Sometimes it is codified like modern laws. But often each village has their own adat. Many Bornean societies rank members into aristocrats, commoners or slaves.

Malays make up 40 percent of the population of West Kalimantan. They are distinguished from Dayaks in that they are Muslims and the Dayaks are not. There are also many Madurese (See Java)

See Separate Articles on the Dayaks, Different Dayak Groups, Iban and Penan

Book: “Into the Heart of Borneo” by Redmond O'Hanlon, an excellent adventure book by a quixotic Oxford professor looking a rare rhinoceros. Also worth checking out is “Headhunters of Borneo” by 19th century German explorer Carl Boch. Joseph Conrad described the town of Samarinda in “Almayer's Folly” (1895).


Borneo is the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. Straddling the equator, it covers 750,000 square kilometers (290,000 square miles), more than twice the area of the British Isles or more than Texas and Louisiana combined, and measures about (1290 kilometers (800 miles) from north to south and 800 kilometers (500 miles) from east to west. The northern 25 percent is occupied the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Islamic sultanate of Brunei; and the southern 75 percent is occupied by the Indonesian state of Kalimantan.

Borneo is part of an archipelago called the Greater Sunda Islands. It is thinly populated and covered by mountains and rain forests. Most of the cities and towns are along the coast. The soil is poor. Large areas of the coast are made up of marshes and mangrove swamps. Most of the interior consists of rugged mountains interspersed with deep gorges. This area is laced with clear and whiskey-colored streams. The highest point 13,455-foot-high Mount Kinabulu in Sabah. In Kalimantan few areas rise above 3,000 feet. The highest point, in the central range there is 9,582 feet.

The rain forest on Borneo covers an area about the size of France but is shrinking all the time as logging, palm oil and mining interests penetrate deep into its interior. Valuable ironwood, teak, ebony, sandalwood and plywood-producing rain forest trees have largely been harvested. Crops grown on Borneo include rubber, palm oil, rattan, hemp, sago, pepper, sugar cane and rice. Oil has been found in the east and north. Gold is panned from the rivers and iron ore, antimony, lead, zinc, arsenic, copper, mercury, chromite and silver are all found here but are generally too expensive to mine profitably.

Borneo was once connected to the Southeast Asian mainland and the plant and animal life in both places are similar. There are orangutans, gibbons, monkeys, honey bears, giant butterflies, and black hornbills (sacred to the Dayaks), clouded leopards, wild pigs and ,a few elephants and rhinos. They are no tigers. Freshwater dolphins live in Mahakam River in east Kalimantan. Crab-eating monkeys and crocodiles live in the marshes. Typically in Borneo you find 100 or different tree species in one hectare and 200 or 300 plant species in an area the size of a living room. Even though there over 3,000 tree species on Borneo dipterocarps make up half of all the giant canopy trees. Hundreds of orchid species are found in Borneo.

Borneo doesn’t have as pronounced rainy and wet season as other places in Southeast Asia have. Rain falls steadily throughout the year. rainfall amounts are often high. The people of Borneo traditionally raised dry rice, sago, tapioca, ad sweet potatoes and hunted, fished and gathered wild plants from the forest. Because the terrain is so rough and waterlogged there are few good roads. Rivers have traditionally provided the main transportation routes.

About 19 million people live in Borneo with roughly 75 percent of them in Indonesia and 25 percent in Malaysia and Brunei. The original inhabitants are Dayaks, a tribe that only recently gave up head hunting and were once referred to as the "wild men of Borneo." The coastal areas are dominated by Muslim Malays. Some of them are Dayaks who began converting to Islam after the 15th century. Other group such as the Javanese, Sudanese, Madurese, Chinese and Bugis from Sulawesi arrived mostly in the 20th century, particularly in the last three decades as part of Indonesia's transmigration program. The Dayaks are now greatly outnumbered by Malays and Indonesians from other islands.


Many Bornean people have traditionally lived in longhouses that hold up to a 150 people and are like village under one roof. In the center of house is a common room off which the rooms of the house radiate, sort of like side streets off of a main square. The rooms are connected by a common veranda or porch. The kitchen is divided from the main room by a wall and in the corner an area, where women slept. Men often slept outside. There were traditionally no windows. In the old days there were no possessions except for some large pots used for storing and fermenting wine.

The residents of the longhouse sleep on straw mat floors in one room and eat around an open cooking fire in another. The center of the traditional social life is the long porch, where old people gather in the evening to chat, weave rattan baskets, repair fishing nets and relax while their children watch television powered by Honda generators. One longhouse dweller said, “The longhouse is like a multimedia super corridor for us. We know instantly if someone in the family has a problem because information travels fast in a longhouse.”

The longhouses are built on stilts for protection from animals, insects and raiding tribes. Dogs, chicken and children run loose although prized gamecocks are tethered by the their owner’s door. Modern longhouses have metal roofs and shuddered windows. Some have electricity; some don’t. Waste from people and animals in the long houses drops through slats in the floor.

Longhouses were originally built in part for defense. See Iban

Sago and Betelnut

Indonesians and Malaysians on many islands eat sago as their primary food. It is ground into a powder. Boiling water is poured on it and it is pounded into a kind paste. Many eat it with fish sauce.

The pulp of the sago palm is the staple for many Borneo groups. To many groups the sago palm is known as the tree of life. To harvest sago, saga limbs are cut down, the trunks are split open lengthwise and the soft pith is pounded.

Sago is raised commercially in swampy areas. When they are harvested the palms are felled and trunks are dragged to villages. The bark is stripped off in segments into which the stem has been cut. The pith inside is rasped into rough sawdust. The sawdust is washed and mixed with water and placed on a mat and trampled by foot. The water with suspended flour is poured through the mat, leaving woody material behind. The surplus water is drained away and the paste is allowed dry.

Many chew betelnut. See Penan.

Tribal Jewelry and Clothes from Sarawak

Brigitte Rozario wrote in The Star: “A beaded vest worn by the Bidayuh people of Sarawak is on display. This is a rare old piece and very intricate. According to Leonard Yiu, a collector of tribal jewelry, the Bidayuh costumes of today are different as the beads are very big. There are also a few selendang (scarf) textiles, pua (Sarawak tribal tapestry) and other fabrics that were hand-woven. Some are local and some, from Indonesia. Some of the selendang textiles on display are woven with gold threads, which Yiu says denotes that royalty wore them. [Source: Brigitte Rozario, The Star (Malaysia), September 17, 2006 ]

“According to him, the age of the selendang can be gauged by the general wear and tear of the item. In addition, the workmanship of older pieces is better and the design usually more intricate. “If it’s machine-made the feel is different. Being hand-woven you can see the lines on the selendang are not straight. The machine-made ones of today have very straight lines. Somehow, it loses its appeal without that human touch,” says Yiu.

“Among the silver items on display are hairpins, sireh (betel nut) boxes and even modesty plates (worn by children, who didn’t usually wear any clothing) from around the region. Yiu says, “Some of the items I bought had been passed down from grandparents or ancestors. When I asked (the people whom I bought these items from) what a particular symbol meant, they had no idea.

“Most native peoples don’t have their own written language so everything has been passed down orally. Because of this, a lot has been lost. “For instance, the motifs on the costumes and jewellery have meaning but it was lost when the symbolism was not passed down to the current generation,” laments Yiu.”

Headhunting in Borneo

Headhunting has traditionally been practiced by many of Borneo ethnic groups, including the Dayak tribes, the Iban, Kayan, Kenya. Most of the heads have traditional been collected in highly ritual raids. The Very Rev. Thomas Jackson wrote in “Perfect Apostolic of Labuan and North Borneo, 1884:2": "They have a custom of killing people in order to obtain human skulls, which they suspend as trophies from the roofs of their huts. It is from this custom these people have obtained the name of “Head Hunters”. But, not withstanding the barbarous customs that exist amongst them, they have many good qualities."

Skulls from headhunting raids have traditionally been displayed in longhouses. Some longhouses today still have heads hanging from the ceiling as relics of their glorious past. The most recent ones are Japanese heads taken in World War II.

Headhunting was outlawed by the Dutch and the British on Borneo in 19th century but continued. Head hunting decreased over time, in part because of peace agreements in 1894 and 1924. In the 1940s, the Dutch made a major effort to crackdown on headhunting. Head parties were gaoled (places in chains).

In the mid 40s there was a spike in the number of head hunting occurrences as the Allies encouraged any means to defeat the Japanese. There was another increase in the 60s when the Indonesian government, fearing the spread of communism, encouraged the head hunting of Chinese immigrants. Headhunting is believed to still be practiced in some remote areas. In the coastal town of Balikpapan in Kalimantan, Indonesia in the 1970s, Dayaks purportedly attacked employees at a Javanese sawmill and separated several of them from their heads. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York, ♢]

See Dayaks, Penan, Iban

Methods of Taking Heads

According to an official of the Sarawak Government Service: “The way of cutting off their heads varies with the different tribes. The Sea Dyaks (Iban), for instance, sever the head at the neck, and so preserve both jaws. Among the Hill Dyaks (Kelabit, Kenyah and other tribes), on the other hand, heads are very carelessly taken, being split open or slashed across with parangs. Often it may be seen that quite large portions have been hacked out of the heads. Others again cut off the head so close to the trunk that great skill and a practised hand must have been used. [Source: ]

“Many tribesmen habitually carry about their person a little basket destined to receive a head. It is always very neatly plaited, ornamented with a variety of shells, and hung about with human hair. But only those Dyaks who have lawfully obtained such a head, as opposed to those who steal, or "find" them, may include this human hair ornamentation to their macabre baskets.

“The Sea Dyaks scoop out the brains by way of the nostrils, and then hang up the head to dry in the smoke of a wood fire - usually the fire which is maintained anyway for the cooking of all the food for the members of the tribe. Every now and then they will leave their preoccupations, saunter across to the fire, and tear or slash off a piece of the skin and burnt flesh of the cheek or chin, and eat it. They believe that by so doing they will add immediately to their store of courage and fearlessness. The brains are not always extracted by way of the nostrils, however. Sometimes a piece of bamboo, carved into the semblance of a spoon, is thrust into the lowest part of the skull, and the brains gradually extracted by the occipital orifice.” reported:“Talking to various elderly Kadazan here in Sabah it seems that they needed to sever the head of their enemy while he was still alive, preferably in combat. The head of an already dead man or woman was considered ‘useless’ because devoid of any spirits: the Kadazan, and other Dusunic ethnic people believe that our body is maintained by a number of specialised spirits that inhabit our body, the Rungus call them 'hatod'. There are spirits looking after our knees, others after our chest and so on. The most important spirit is of course located in the head - the 'lugu' in Rungus, or 'tandahau' in Kadazan. My friends have reasoned with such – admittedly logical – arguments as: “if you lose a leg, or an arm, you can still live, but when you lose your head, or got a major injury to your head you die…!” “When someone dies,” the stories continue, “our ‘maintenance spirits’ reassemble, go to Mt Kinabalu and eventually find themselves back on the earthly plain in the body of a newborn. If a human head is severed the body maintenance spirits leave through the wound the decapitation created, but without the head spirit which has rolled away with the head and finds itself alone and confused. It remains in the severed head hoping that someone will take care of it.” And that is exactly what the Kadazan did: the head was brought to the village, displayed in a bangkaha – a peculiar bamboo contraption for sun drying enemy heads – and then welcomed in a grand ceremony that aimed at making the spirit forget, forgive and feel at home in its new place.

Reasons for Head Hunting

Heads taken in headhunting raids brought glory to the warrior who collected them and good luck to their village. They were usually preserved and worshiped in special rituals. Certain parts of the body—the heart, brains, blood and liver—was believed to bring power to those who consumed them. Some Dayaks of Sarawaks used to eat the palms of their enemies. Cutting out the heart, it was believed, destroys the evil that is believed to reside in that organ.

Most heads are taken out as an act of revenge, often for the breaking of “adat” ("traditional law"). A Catholic Dayak teacher told the Independent, "In the eyes of the Dayaks when people do not respect our adat, they become enemies, and we don't consider our enemies to be human any more. They become animals in our eyes. And the Dayaks eat animals."

Richard Lloyd write in the Independent, "Decapitation and cannibalism are the deeply symbolic practices, the ultimate humiliation of a defeated enemy. Cut someone's head off and you reduce him to a pantomime mask. This is the point about severed heads—they don't look fearful so much as comical, like Halloween pumpkins.”

According to Discover Malaysia: “Within the complex polytheist and animist beliefs of the Dayaks, beheading one’s enemy was seen as the way of killing off for good the spirit of the person who had been killed. The spiritual significance of the ceremony also lay in the belief that at the end of mourning for the community's dead. The heads were put on display at traditional burial rites, where the bones of relatives were dug out from the earth and cleaned before being put in burial vaults. Ideas of manhood were also bound up with the practice, and the taken heads were surely a reward.” [Source:]

Borneo tribal people also believe that head hunting helps soil fertility and give a person strength. Heads are sometimes used as a dowry, to strengthen buildings, protect against attacks, and display status.

Headhunting Today reported: In many parts of contemporary Borneo headhunting is a part of the past preserved in narrative form and in some areas headhunting rituals continue. While in olden days fresh heads were required for certain ceremonies ‘old’ skulls may now be used as replacement, or the skulls of orang utan and even wooden substitutes or coconuts. This is in areas where head-hunting rituals are needed for spiritual benefits such as for agriculture (rice) and the building of a new house (longhouse). In the case of the direct descendants of the Kadazan warrior Monsopiad, yearly simple rites are conducted to maintain and ensure the ‘happiness’ of his 42 skulls and the spirits dwelling therein. The yearly rites were completed with a major ceremony (momohizan) that recurred every five to seven years. The ceremony lasted over several days and was very costly because the whole family had to be gathered, plus of course many friends and all had to be served foods and drinks. It was essentially a very prestigious event for the ‘guardian of skulls’ and his family, where the spiritual purpose outweighed the cost. In fact, the ritual was necessary in order to maintain and renew the spiritual/magical bonds with the otherworld. With the disappearance of the last Bobohizan – the Kadazan ritual specialists – the present keeper of skulls and 6th direct descendant of Monsopiad is worried that the spirits inhabiting the skulls will resort to mischief. The simple ceremonies in order to keep the spirits ‘calm’ must still be conducted on a yearly basis, and certain taboos must be observed by those wishing to see the skulls. [Source: ]

“To-day, headhunting has officially disappeared. The last to give up the old custom in Sabah were the Murut, because their main reason for headhunting – initialisation into manhood – was more on a spiritual level than the Kadazandusun headhunting which primarily occurred during territorial disputes. The Kadazan passed their ancestors’ skull collection on to new generations who maintained the spirits in the skulls. Thus they had no need to add regularly to the collection, whereas each Murut man needed to prove his manhood with the killing of at least one person and show the skull for proof. [Ibid]

“Headhunting was reportedly revived during WWII when the Japanese occupied Borneo. In fact, the English encouraged the locals on a guerrilla war against the Japanese, and paid for every enemy head two shilling*. Rumours persist of modern-day headhunting, of course. It is said that when a new bridge is built, a head (or several, depending on the size of the bridge) is needed in its fundaments. Prolonged draught and other natural calamities also may require a human sacrifice to calm nature and reinstall harmony between mankind, nature and the astral world. When in a faraway village people advise you to lock all doors and windows in the night, or if they insist that you sleep with them in the same room as they do, simply don’t ask. [Ibid]

Severed Heads and Violence Against Madurese in Borneo

In recent times, beheading by Dayak people resurfaced in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, during brutal outbreaks of ethnic violence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2001, over 500 Madurese immigrants were killed and tens of thousands forced to run away, with the bodies of some victims decapitated in rituals. Conversion to Islam or Christianity and anti-headhunting legislation by the colonial powers were supposed to have wiped out headhunting.

On violence in December 1996, Sinapan Samydorai of Human Rights Solidairty wrote: “Initially the ethnic conflict between the indigenous Dayaks and migrants from Madura Island occurred in the Sanggu-Ledo District, about 100 kilometers north of the provincial capital Pontianak, West Kalimantan. The Dayaks rioted over the failure of local police to prosecute a Maduran man accused of raping a Dayak woman. The Dayaks later killed the Maduran man, inciting violent retaliations and provincewide conflict. The Dayaks of West Kalimantan have more confidence in adat, their own traditional tribal laws, than in the national police and justice system. The Dayaks also complain that migrant workers receive preferential treatment by local officials and are rarely prosecuted for breaking the law. The attacks are being waged using traditional rules: a life for a life. An offense against an individual is an offense against the whole tribe. [Source:Sinapan Samydorai, Human Rights Solidairty, August 14, 2001^|^]

In late January 1997, a Catholic school in In Pontianak, Kalimantan attended by Dayak children was attacked and set on fire. In retaliation, Dayak youths attacked the Madurese, leading to massive violent clashes. In early February 1997, military reinforcements landed overnight in West Kalimantan. More then 3,000 troops were flown into the region following the outbreak of riots. The Indonesian military conducted a harsh crackdown leading to scores of deaths to restore order with force. The military arrested 86 people. Of those detained, 12 were being questioned by the military while the rest were in police detention.^|^

On February 6, 1997, the conflict escalated into violent, massive clashes. In Menjalin parish in Pontianak, the Catholic dormitory received 5,000 Dayak refugees from neighbouring villages. The refugees were mostly women and children scared of Madurese attacks. The Dayaks are only 2 percent of the population in Pontianak. The Dayak refugees sought protection from Madurese revenge. On February 18, clashes erupted in Sungai Kunyit about 60 kilometers northwest of the provincial capital of Pontianak. Dayak warriors looted more than 100 houses and stores belonging to the Madurese. The police estimated that 100 to 300 people may have died in the riots. ^|^

Five thousand Dayak warriors rampaged through the town and attacked the villages of Merabu, Kampung Jawa and Jirak, plus four transmigration sites. These Dayak warriors from the forest hinterland killed Madurese around the area of Pontianak, one of the three regions where the killings occurred. Christian church leaders claim the number of Madurese missing or dead is in the thousands and that the Dayak casualties, shot by troops, are less than 200. More than 1,000 displaced people fled the district, and some are in refugee camps controlled by the military. The damage caused is estimated to be in the amount of US.4 million, including the destruction of nearly 1,000 homes. ^|^

Dayaks, armed with spears and machetes, attacked a road block in Anjungan guarded by the military, resulting in the killing of one soldier. The troops shot and killed about 20 Dayaks. Areas north of Anjungan, 55 kilometers northeast of Pontianak, and east of Mandor, 70 kilometers north of Pontianak, were still under Dayak control with minimal military presence. There were Dayak checkpoints on roads leading to Ngabang, 81 kilometers east of Mandor. About one million Dayaks in an act of solidarity may continue to attack the Madurese and even the military if they block their path. It is alleged and widely believed that the army itself has killed large numbers of Dayaks - killings it now wants to cover up. ^|^

On February 15, 1997, Dayak and Madurese community elders declared a peace pact in Pontianak to prevent further unrest, but it failed to stop the clashes in Sungai Kunyit. The ceremony for peace involved about 1,000 people, including the Dayak and Madurese communities, local government and military leaders. A declaration was read in which community leaders from the various ethnic groups, including the Dayak and Madurese, pledged to work for peace. The ceremony had no impact on the fighting parties at the village level.

Violence and Decapitated Madurese Heads in Borneo in 1999

In 1999, more than 3,000 people were killed and 40,000 of were displaced when Malays, Bugis and Chinese backed by Dayak tribesmen attacked Madurese immigrants in West Kalimantan. The trouble reportedly began after a dispute over a bus fare. In one incident in March 1999, more than 200 people were killed, mostly Madurese by Dayak tribesmen, in the Sambas district of Borneo. The violence began after the murder of a Dayak boy. One Madurese survivor told Asiaweek, "We were hunted like dogs." He said he and his family lived in the forest for a week, surviving off snakes and bark. He was eventually picked up by an army patrol and taken to a refugee camp.

During one week in March 1999, 73 people were killed in rural areas around the town of Singkawang in West Kalimantan. Many of the dead were horrible mutilated and their body parts were paraded around and displayed. Witnesses reported that Dayaks and Malays decapitated three Madurese, and parading their heads through the town of Tebas. The body of one man was cooked in the marketplace and small pieces of his liver were offered to bystanders. Many people accepted. Dayaks have traditionally believed that eating one's enemy allows one to absorb their courage.

During the wave of violence Dayak paraded through the streets carrying severed ears, arms and heads. CNN videotaped images of dismembered bodies with their hearts cut out and boys playing soccer with a decapitated head. The Independent reported a laughing man with a severed arm posing for photographs with it as if it were a trophy fish.

Richard Lloyd Parry of the Independent wrote, "I saw my sixth and seventh a Dayak village...They were visible from a few hundred yards away, standing on oil drums, with a crowd of about 200 people milling around...In the past six days I have seen seven of them, along with a severed ear, two arms, and numerous pieces of heart and liver, and a dismembered torso cooked over a fire by the side of the road."

"They look like all the other heads I had seen...They were a middle aged couple, a few years younger than my own parents. Their ears and lips had been shaved off with machetes, giving them a snarling sub-human look. The wife's nose had also been removed, and a cigarette had been pressed into the cavity. Her eyes were clenched tight shut, and above them an atrocious wound had been cut deep into her forehead."

Cannibalism of Madurese in Borneo

Parry met one man with a machete with a red painted handle carved in the shape of a horse. Tied to his belt was transparent bag with some liver in it. He said the liver came from a body they cooked on the side of the road. "We killed it and we ate it," he said, "because we hate the Madurese. Mostly we shoot them first, and we chop the body. It tastes just like chicken. Especially the liver—just the same as chicken."

The man then explained he didn't kill babies and children had to be around 13 or 15 before he would kill them. After the man left, Lloyd' driver told him, "You know I've been all over this country—to Sumatra, to Java...and these people—they're the nicest, the friendliest, the best."

Parry wrote: "We drove back through the town market where a charred femur lay on the raid among the embers of a fire. A Dayak man approached, holding a lump of what he said was human meat. He popped it into his mouth. I asked him the first thing that came into my head, and he said: 'Delicious.'"

Violence and Decapitated Madurese Heads in Borneo in 2001

Ten days of violence in Central Kalimantan in February 2001, left at least 500 people dead, most of them Madurese migrants. Much of the violence was centered around the towns of Sampit and Palangkaraya and reportedly began after two Dayaks, who lost their jobs, paid a mob to attack Madurese family house and the Madurese retaliated, killing 15 Dayaks. Again the scenes were horrific. Victims had their hearts ripped out of their bodies and their heads chopped off. In one incident a woman was beheaded and her baby was killed and the woman’s head was kicked down the street like a soccer ball.

Tens of thousands of Madurese were loaded onto ships and evacuated. Most fled so quickly they left their possessions behind. The Madurese claimed that the Indonesian government did not do enough to protect them. They claimed Indonesian police stood by and did nothing as Dayaks looted and sets fire to Madurese homes and attacked Madurese with machetes and spears. An elite military unit sent by the Indonesian government to help evacuate the Madurese and restore order fled the area after Dayak tribesmen threatened to behead them.

Gangs of Dayak tribesmen armed with spears, machetes and blowguns tracked down Madurese and set up roadblock to keep them from escaping. Their aim was to drive the Madurese away. A spokesman for the Dayaks said, The violence was aimed at “cleansing the Madurese...If all our Madurese brothers are evacuated then the calm will come on its own...If they ever come back they will face the same treatment.”

The effort was largely successful from the Dayaks point of view. Around 50,000 Madurese were driven from their homes. About 21,000 were evacuated to East Java and Madura. Another 30,000 were forced into refugee camps in Central Kalimantan. As of late 2001, 40,000 Madurese displaced by the violence were living in camps in West Kalimantan

Massacre of Madurese at Parenggean

In February 2001, despite promises of protection by local police, 118 Madurese refugees were massacred in less than an hour in Parenggean, an isolated town of 25,000 about 110 kilometers west of Palangkaraya. Six of the victims were beheaded. The other 112 were mostly hacked to death by Dayak tribesmen with machetes, spears and knives in a soccer field the victims had been trucks into after being lured out of the jungle with false promises of safe passage. Some victims had their limbs chopped off. Others had their stomachs slashed open.

One survivor told AP, “As they got down from the truck, they were killed right away. Chop, chop! They was no way they could run. They fell suddenly as they were chopped.” A government official told AP, “The first thing that struck me when I reached the football field was the murder of the babies, the old people and the women. They were all piled up together.”

The victims had hidden in the jungle for four days after fleeing an earlier bout of violence. Most had no food or water or shelter yet they stayed in the forest out of fear of being hunted down by Dayaks. Those that the Dayaks caught were beheaded. Survivors only emerged after government officials announced through loud speakers mounted on cars that there were police and government officials on hand to guarantee their safety. After the Madurese emerged the policemen there to protect them were driven off by Dayaks armed with machetes and homemade weapons.

Background of the Madurese-Dayak Violence

Sinapan Samydorai of Human Rights Solidairty wrote: “In the 1930s, the Madurese began arriving in West Kalimantan. Under the government’s transmigration program in the 1970s, the Madurese population sharply increased; they were marginalized and poor. Most of the transmigrants are Muslims from Java or Madura with no links to the Catholic Dayaks. New transmigrants work in the plantations - rubber, palm oil, coconut, timber - and primary industry. [Source: Sinapan Samydorai, Human Rights Solidairty, August 14, 2001^|^]

“In recent decades, logging and intense mining has destroyed the forest and the livelihood of the Dayaks. The government’s development program encourages investment in plantations, timber factories, mining and other private enterprises which provide employment, but land disputes have increased. The National Human Rights Commission established in 1993 has received numerous pleas from villagers and indigenous peoples struggling for their land rights. The Indonesian political system does not allow space for any alternative groups or local parties to develop in the rural areas. Often the displaced people find themselves facing the bureaucracy of the ruling Golkar Party. When the development projects are not successful, the ruling party is not willing to take the responsibility to resolve the issues with the local people and the investors. The Golkar Party wins the votes of the rural people, however, by campaigning on the basis that the various development projects or enterprises will contribute to the indigenous communities’ economic growth. ^|^

“In the district of Kelam, only three years ago, bulldozers of the logging contractors cleared a path leading into the village. When the bulldozers arrived, three-quarters of the people were scared. They could not understand how they would survive without the trees. The Indonesian government offered basic wooden cottages nearby on the edge of a rubber plantation. The government’s current target is to permanently resettle 20,000 families per year. Many Dayaks relocate and become squatters on the edges of towns filling the dirty, dangerous and low-paying jobs in the plywood factories.” ^|^

Causes of Dayak-Madurese Conflict

Sinapan Samydorai of Human Rights Solidairty wrote: “The Dayaks are now facing the destruction of their customary land and forest. Many are facing relocation from their traditional places. The Indonesian govermnent in practice does not accept the rights of indigenous people to their customary land and natural resources. Large areas of tribal terrritory are being converted into timber, rubber and palm oil estates, or are being allocated to foreign mining companies. The tribal lands are being developed as plantations and mines with transmigrant labour. In addition, logging concession lands are still reserved for logging. These development programmes seriously threaten the indigenous people since the programmes are linked with transmigration. The transmigrants and their families cultivate new lands with modern planting skills to plant rice, candlenut (kemiri) or rubber trees. This grabbing of customary lands further reduces the reserve land for the indigenous people. [Source: Sinapan Samydorai, Human Rights Solidairty, August 14, 2001 ^|^]

“The Christian Dayaks are being displaced from their land and are unable to continue their subsistence farming and pig-raising. They have no alternative skills and have difficulties finding new jobs. The Dayaks are living in poverty. The Madurese compete with the Dayaks for jobs as both the communities are at the bottom of the economic ladder. The Islamic Madurese are able to gain jobs on the plantations and grow crops, but the Madurese have settled on the Dayaks’ land and have better access to political power. The police also treat the Madurese favourably in disputes and are seldom punished for past attacks on the Dayaks. Both the Dayaks and the Madurese live in the same neighbourhoods in large areas of the territory. ^|^

“Political and economic discontent ignited the recent conflicts, not merely cultural differences, as the Dayaks are unable to maintain their livelihood or compete with the migrant Madurese. The Dayaks are demanding the recognition of their land rights and representation in the government. The burning of three plantations in recent years shows the Dayaks’ growing resentment of the government’s appropriation of traditional land and the forced selling of Dayak land at below market price.” ^|^

Problems Faced by Borneo Tribes

See Penan, Iban

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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