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SINGAPORE — As Indonesia assesses the carnage from the recent ethnic violence in its province of Kalimantan, a poignant legacy of the failure of its transmigration policy slowly but surely emerges.

A lesson from the fiasco is that when implementing purely economic policies or directives, cultural differences between the people affected should be taken into account. Hatched in the 1960s and halted three decades later, the policy to shift people from densely-populated islands to sparsely-populated regions unfortunately ignored those differences. Today, Indonesia is reaping what it sowed 40 years earlier.

In the latest ethnic violence that has claimed more than 500 lives, the Dayaks, the indigenous population in Kalimantan, went on a rampage, torching the homes of Madurese settlers and beheading many of them.

Transmigration involved the shifting of excess populations from the overcrowded islands of Java, Madura, Lombok and Bali to the sparsely-populated outer regions of Kalimantan, Sumatra and Irian Jaya. Taking into account Indonesia’s geographical and demographic makeup, transmigration appeared to be a rational policy.

It was not an original one though, but merely copied from the Dutch colonial administration that had practiced it from 1905, when they moved excess people from Java to the outer islands to work in the plantations.

Indonesia is a diverse archipelagic nation stretching from Sabang on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra to Merauke to Irian Jaya in the east. Its coastline is longer than that of the United States. There are more than 500 ethnic groups and tribes which make up the country’s diverse 220 million population.

The main island of Java, where the seat of government power is located, comprises only 7 percent of Indonesia’s geographical area but accounts for 60 percent of its population.

Madura, Lombok and Bali share the same geographical and demographic features of Java though on a smaller scale. On the other hand Indonesia’s outer regions like Sumatra Island, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya (the latter two are parts of the large islands of Borneo and New Guinea) are physically many times larger than Java, and at the same time have very much smaller populations.

It thus made economic sense for the government to pursue the policy during the New Order administration of President Suharto from 1966-1998, when the rate of economic development was at its highest. The population shift would facilitate the development of the outer islands, which are mainly forested areas, into profitable agricultural concerns.

The would-be settlers were given plots of jungle land in the remote regions to cultivate into fruit, oil palm and rubber plantations. The government not only supplied them with tools and materials to build their own houses but also provided them with initial cash subsidies to tide them over till their crops were ready for cultivation and sale in the market.

The government did not anticipate any problems of integration because both the local and settler populations shared a common nationality and spoke a common language — Bahasa Indonesia.

The settlers were usually those who had suffered much economic hardship in their overcrowded homelands, unable to get jobs, proper education, and government amenities. As such, they had a strong will and capacity to succeed in their new environment.

Some of the more enterprising among them soon left their farming jobs to engage in trading and other menial jobs, bringing them into competition and eventually conflict with locals. Being more resourceful and enterprising, the settlers easily outpaced the locals in the race for jobs and government amenities at a time of economic hardship, thus arousing the resentment of the locals.

This resentment, initially of an economic nature, became aggravated when the cultural differences between the two groups came into the picture as they interacted at the workplace or socially.

In the case of Kalimantan, the local Dayaks felt that the Madurese were condescending toward them and showed no respect for their culture and traditions. Among the Madurese, there were also some who were contemptuous of the position of the Dayaks as the indigenous people, with more rights than the “settlers” — never mind their shared nationality and common language.

In times of conflict, to flaunt their superiority over the Madurese, the Dayaks resorted to an ancient ritual of chopping off the heads of enemies and proudly impaling them on stakes, just as their forefathers did.

Indonesia discontinued the policy of transmigration about 10 years ago, not so much because of cultural differences between the groups involved, but more so because the high cost of the program had made it prohibitive and economically viable.

All in all, the policy had led to about 4 million people being shifted out of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok to Sumatra, Kalimantan and Irian Jaya within 40 years. But whatever gains made from this exodus — considered a drop in the bucket when taking into account the total population of 220 million people — were offset by the high fertility rate of the country, particularly in the four islands where the transmigrants originated.

There was hardly any change in their high population densities at all. As the plight of the Madurese has shown, it is the people who had been shifted who suffered most, not the government or the local population. Even today, the settlers constitute a very visible and much resented minority, a vulnerable target for antigovernment sentiments, particularly among potential secessionists, maybe not so much in the case of Kalimantan but more so in places like Irian Jaya.

There, the settlers are seen as the product of government policies, and whatever resentment at the government will be directed at them first. The failure of Indonesia’s transmigration policy, whose effects have emerged only 10 years later, is a precious lesson for countries mulling a similar course.

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