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Behind Borneo's Ethnic Clashes

Gruesome acts of violence have characterized the recent conflict between ethnic groups on the Indonesian half of the island of Borneo. Already this year, gangs of indigenous Dayaks on the island have murdered more than 400 immigrants from Madura, an island off Java.

Borneo ethnic clash

An indigenous Dayak boy stands in front of a burning Madurese house. The escalating violence has taken more than 400 lives this year.

Photograph by AP

Throughout Indonesia, ethnic conflicts have been on the rise since 1998, when economic collapse ended the 32-year rule of Indonesia's authoritarian President Suharto.

The root of the violence stretches back much farther than the decades of authoritarian leadership, says anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer- in-Residence Wade Davis.

"Indonesia is made up of more than 10,000 islands stretching over a vast distance," says Davis. "It was formed from the residue of the Dutch colonial empire." [Indonesia achieved independence in 1945.]

Davis adds "it's an artificial composite of hundreds of ethnicities that [until recently] was held together by authoritarian rule."

Population Pressure

The Suharto regime stirred up tensions between Indonesia's more than 300 ethnic groups with a policy designed to relieve population pressure.

As population grew in the large, central islands of Indonesia, leaders encouraged immigration to less populated islands, such as Borneo, which has a relatively small population of 1.4 million compared to a total Indonesian population of approximately 212 million.

"The government policy of encouraging migration in effect has created volatile situations in which new immigrants compete with indigenous populations for land and other economic resources," says Davis.

"This policy has always caused conflict with indigenous people," says Davis. "The tragedy of the situation is that it is pitting poor against poor."

Since the mid-twentieth century, immigrants from Madura, an impoverished, overpopulated island off the coast of Java, have been coming to Borneo under the guidance of the government relocation plan.

Dayaks, traditionally farmers and hunters in Borneo's lush rain forest, resented the intrusion onto their native land. The recent immigration, plus the influx of large corporate farming and logging operations have pushed the Dayaks from their homes in choice riverside locations to inland villages.

In the villages, the predominantly Christian Dayaks encountered the Muslim Madurans, who competed with the Dayaks for jobs and whose different customs clashed with the Dayaks.

Violence between the groups first broke out in 1997, when armed Dayaks murdered more than 1,000 Madurese in an attempt to drive them off the island. After the fall of the Suharto regime, violence broke out again.

Battling Ethnic Groups

The situation, says Davis, is one that has arisen on many islands in Indonesia: How to deal with indigenous rights of ethnic groups.

On Monday, the Indonesian government vowed to halt the ethnic violence on Borneo within the next few days.

Already, more than 7,000 Madurans have been evacuated from Borneo by navy ship. Approximately 13,000 have been relocated from jungle hideaways to a refugee camp near the police station in Sampit, a port city.

"One cannot forgive the violence," says Davis, "but one must understand the nature of it. To describe it as ethnic cleansing is to miss the historical significance of what's going on."

U.S. residents can tune in to National Geographic Today at 7 and 10 p.m. for the complete interview with Wade Davis on the conflict in Indonesia.

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