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HONG KONG — As the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan has been effectively cleansed of its Madurese minority, it has been another forceful reminder that communal conflict can be a terrifying reality that requires a quick and firm response if its effects are to be minimized and national unity preserved.

Inevitably, much foreign coverage of the communal carnage has featured the return of the Dayaks, the local majority people, to their headhunting and even cannibalistic habits. But stressing the symptom usually means that one ignores the disease.

Communal conflict frequently calls forth unspeakable deeds and bestial brutality. (This is to use the term “communal” literally: when one community in a nation is in conflict with another.)

The Dayaks are not a primitive people reacting irrationally, though many foreigners — and Javanese — may see them that way. The Dayaks are a community under pressure. Such atrocities are not a failure of developing nations alone, as was savagely illustrated by the basically communal Balkan wars of the 1990s. Whenever rival communities are aroused and fearful for their future in any part of the globe, they can do terrible things to one another.

The Dayaks were a community profoundly fearful for their future. The Dayaks — which is itself a collective name for a variety of indigenous tribes — retain memories of the time when they could roam the jungles of Kalimantan pursuing their subsistence agriculture undisturbed. Two harsh realities have recently disturbed them.

First, the political elite in Jakarta has been selling huge tracts of that jungle for plantations, mining and other purposes. These tracts have been cleared with scant regard for the Dayak habitat, hence those huge pollution hazes over Southeast Asia, caused by forest and peat fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra.

Second, all this economic activity has been accompanied by ever-increasing numbers of immigrants — mainly from the overcrowded island of Madura, east of Java. Some came as part of the official transmigration program pushed by the government of former President Suharto. Those immigrants often received official handouts, while just as often the Dayaks received no compensation for what they regarded as their lost lands.

Many Madurese also came to Kalimantan of their own volition. So the animist or Christian Dayaks were directly subjected to intense pressures from more commercially minded people like the Muslim Madurese.

Sampit, the place where the latest troubles began, was once a small Dayak hamlet. Then it became a predominantly Madurese township. Today there are no Madurese willing to stay there because, after two weeks of bloodletting, there are now two communities frightened for their future, not just one.

The easy explanation would be that the Dayaks, pushed to the limits of tolerance and insecurity, suddenly snapped and reverted to their headhunting habits of old. But did they snap or were they pushed?

Was there political instigation, either within Kalimantan or from Jakarta? Was the rumor that started the carnage (about a pregnant Dayak woman being burned to death when Madurese torched her home) spontaneous or carefully contrived?

So far the only explanation of how the killings started is that two Dayaks resented being dismissed from their government jobs. The Dayaks started killing in Sampit, the Madurese briefly retaliated — and then the Dayaks ran amok. That may be true, but one suspects there was much more to it.

The current death toll (as of March 5) of around 500 is questionable. Time and again, reporters covering communal conflicts seek an official toll when the local administration is manifestly incapable of providing one, and is certain to try and keep the figures low to save face. A four- or even five-figure death toll is not inconceivable. Broken Madurese lives and families are additional casualties. Whatever started them off, the Dayaks clearly and specifically aimed at cleansing Central Kalimantan province of all Madurese. They are succeeding in their aim — with government help. Those who have not been killed have either fled or are in squalid refugee camps, waiting for Indonesian Navy ships to take them to Java or Madura.

A high death toll is more likely since Jakarta was extremely slow to respond to the crisis. Communal conflict required the brisk application of force before the Dayak communal frenzy got out of hand. Instead, the well-armed police and military stood idly by for 10 days while the Dayaks, armed only with spears and machetes, satisfied their blood lust. Predictably the killing spread from Sampit to the provincial capital of Palankaraya and on into rural settlements.

Likewise, the political elite in Jakarta has been slow to stress the nationalist need for unity and cohesion. Instead it has sent some potentially damaging signals to the rest of the archipelago. The millions of transplanted migrants have seen again that Jakarta may not defend them. Native peoples have learned that they may get away with some ethnic cleansing of migrants. Non-Javanese throughout the country will note one more episode of Javanese disdain for distant areas and peoples.

Faced with this grave situation in Kalimantan, President Abdurrahman Wahid has done nothing except continue his inept and self-indulgent style of leadership. As news of the carnage began to filter through, he left on yet another unjustifiable foreign tour to West Asia and Africa. Wahid’s irresponsible leadership style increasingly worries foreign governments.

Wahid apologists suggest his motive in leaving was to show that Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri was incapable of handling an emergency. As it turned out, it took Megawati two weeks before she visited the stricken area for only two hours. But Wahid’s absence has increased the political pressures for his impeachment.

This communal horror is the latest outbreak of severe violence in the Indonesian archipelago, which now has various forms of communal and secessionist conflicts at every point of the compass. In private, Southeast Asian leaders are deeply disturbed at the possible consequences for them if Indonesian anarchy continues to spread and deepen.

For everyone — Indonesians and non-Indonesians alike — the main anxiety is whether Indonesia’s political elite has the power and the determination to prevent the world’s fourth-largest nation from dissolving into chaos.

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