Opinion

The solution to the Sambas
riots


By R. Masri Sareb Putra

JAKARTA (JP): Many believe the recent riots in Sambas, West Kalimantan, are similar to those breaking out in other parts of the country, including the one in Ambon, Maluku, because they seem to resemble each other in theircasus belli and their escalation patterns.

However, the backgrounds and the root cause of the riots are obviously contradictory.

Some parties have alleged that ""invisible hands"" involving international provocateurs have played a role behind the scenes in Sambas. Such an allegation is groundless and exaggerated because even before the word ""provocateur"" began to be popular in this country, similar inter-ethnic rioting had occurred in Sambas; the latest riot was the ninth since 1967.

This article seeks to provide the background to the Sambas riot, explore its root cause and offer a solution to the problem at hand.

As for the motives of the conflict, there are, at least, five possible reasons for the outbreak of riots on March 16.

First, the riot in Sambas was an accumulation of problems relating to theintegration of the indigenous ethnic group and Madurese migrants. Prior to the recent riots, conflicts between the two groups occurred several times; the last outbreak in 1996. Efforts to bring about reconciliation were made repeatedly.

Second, it is only a coincidence that the two conflicting ethnic groups profess different religions. Some people consider the conflict as resultingfrom antagonism between the two religions. In fact, religions are in no wayconnected with these inter-ethnic conflicts, as religion and ethnicity are two separate things.

Third, the conflict may have been provoked by a third party who, knowing the potential for conflict in the area has long been present in Sambas, fishing in troubled waters.

Fourth, it is always likely that remnants of the Security Disturbance Movement -- a rebel organization crushed by the Armed Forces together with local people from 1960 to 1970 -- remain in existence.

Fifth, this conflict is indeed brought about by development excesses. Thegovernment concentrated its development undertakings in Java and has, in a way, neglected the regions. Unfortunately, the people in West Kalimantan are well aware that while their province is Indonesia's fifth largest foreign-exchange earner, it is the third poorest province in the country.

The first and third causes may be correct, while the fourth, which soundsreasonable, is no longer relevant. It is the fifth cause which is most likely (and almost always the case) to trigger conflicts. Integration between migrants and indigenous people has not been running smoothly and isalso a contributing factor.

It is widely known that West Kalimantan is rich in natural resources, which have lured businessmen to operate mining, agriculture and forestry ventures. Unfortunately, almost one third of the province's total area of 146,700 km2, has become barren land as a result of irresponsible tree felling.

Indigenous people understand that land tilling -- practiced for generations -- cannot be the reason for the damage to the province's forestry areas. Unfortunately, the indigenous people have often been accused of harming the land. In fact, with their centuries-old traditional farming methods, the indigenous people know how to take care of the forests. They are aware they cannot open up farming land in the same area for 15 years, because by then the trees will have grown and the fertile soil layer will have become thick enough to farm again.

In short, indigenous people are well aware that nature is part of their lives and must therefore be conserved. They understand it is of utmost significance to keep a balance between human beings and nature. To indigenous people, damaging nature is tantamount to damaging human beings. Therefore, nature-damaging acts are customarily punished.

Unfortunately, forest concessionaires do not understand that indigenous people are close to nature. By damaging nature and felling trees, be they big or small, forest concessionaires have dashed to pieces indigenous people's future.

Recently, the situation has deteriorated because the control of tree felling in West Kalimantan has weakened. It is natural that forest concessionaires vie for control over land, so that in many cases it is locals who are victimized. When forest concessionaires are busy using theirchain saws to fell trees, indigenous locals, who have felled only one tree to meet their household needs, are accused of stealing. This is indeed a portrait of injustice.

West Kalimantan is also endowed with abundant gold deposits. Since the 17th century, Chinese immigrants have mined gold in Sambas. They first camethere at the request of the Sultan of Sambas, Aboebakar Tadjoedin I. Once, a dispute among gold miners in the area triggered a civil war.

West Kalimantan's coastal area, from Singkawang to Pemangkat, Tebas and Sambas, is famous for its fertile soil. Tagged ""a rice granary"", the area also produces the famous Pontianak oranges.

Sambas is also known as a copra and pepper producer, two commodities which, when sold to Malaysia after they are processed, bring in lucrative proceeds.

It is interesting to find out who owns these mining, forestry, agricultural and estate companies. Unsurprisingly, the enterprises are controlled by former president Soeharto's family members and their associates. Tommy Soeharto, for example, once monopolized the sale of Pontianak oranges and Soeharto associates control gold mines in Monterado and Budok.

Indigenous locals have lived in an oppressive atmosphere brought about byyears of exploitation and injustice. During the New Order era, protests against encroachment upon one's property and efforts to maintain private ownership were considered acts against the government. No one dared to stand up against this unjust allegation.

During the New Order era, the government always discovered means to suppress the anger of indigenous locals in Sambas. The suppressed anger wasa sort of time bomb; once the anger could be no longer suppressed, it foundits own target and not necessarily rational ones. Anything could be targeted as long as the anger could be channeled.

Unfortunately, those targeted are Madurese migrants. In fact, they have done nothing wrong. What is wrong is the stereotypical image and opinion built about them. To indigenous locals, Madurese migrants are often viewed as people sent by the government to usurp West Kalimantan's agricultural and mining assets. They are regarded as symbols of a new colonialism whichmust be opposed.

The question is: ""Who constructed and inflated this image of Madurese migrants? Provocateurs?"" If yes, who are they and what are their interests? Even if provocateurs were in Sambas and fanned the riots, the authoritiesshould have been able to localize the situation in order to prevent the trouble from escalating. Local leaders are well aware that riot-related matters must be approached culturally through customary laws. A security approach, introduced by the government on several occasions, will never solve the problem.

However, such a cultural approach was not adopted when a group of Madurese migrants took revenge upon a group of Malays, killing a Dayak. To the Dayaks, intentional bloodshed and deaths are taboo. In such cases, theyapply the traditional law of ""an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"".

But this traditional law can always be exercised in a different manner according to the local custom. For example, a head, can be replaced by another object as long as a special rite is performed for this purpose.

Unfortunately, security apparatuses were too slow taking action and were unresponsive to this matter.

Failure to settle this issue on the basis of customary law made the criesof war unavoidable. The chief of the Dayaks issued ""a red bowl"", indicatinga declaration of war, which had to be passed on to the war commander of each tribe. As soon as the red bowl was received, all Dayaks joined forces to fight against the attackers.

This kind of war will never be stopped unless a rite is held to recall the spirit of war. In the case of the recent riot in Sambas, this rite should have been held immediately to prevent the riot from escalating and spreading to other places.

In the short term, a rite to recall the spirit of war must be immediatelyperformed. Then, as is customary, ethnic groups embroiled in the dispute should draw up, agree to and pledge to comply with a peace pact.

In the long term, the central government should not repeat past mistakes.For example, local leaders (governors and district heads), should be selected among the best candidates in the region, not from candidates appointed by the government.

Last but not least, the government should not try to once again avoid responsibility for its actions. The government must punish those exploitingthe natural wealth of West Kalimantan. It should not scapegoat migrants of a certain ethnic group; these migrants are innocent.

The writer, born in Sambas, is a Dayak ethnology researcher.

Window: To indigenous locals, Madurese migrants are often viewed as people sent by the government to usurp West Kalimantan's agricultural and mining assets. They are regarded as symbols of a new colonialism which must be opposed.

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