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Forced togetherness bites back in volatile Borneo

To glue together a young nation spread across some 13,000 islands, Indonesia for decades moved people from crowded islands like Madura to sparsely populated ones like Borneo.

But, as in American Wild West, that "transmigration," as it is called, sometimes set off explosive violence between people who were just too different.

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Last month, savage violence erupted in Kalimantan (the portion of Borneo within Indonesia) between "new" settlers from Madura and residents for generations, such as the tribal Dyaks.

The killings reinforced the idea that Indonesia is fracturing nearly a year after the economy fell apart and longtime ruler Suharto was forced out.

Beginning March 15, gangs of mostly ethnic Malays, joined by Dyak tribesmen and ethnic Chinese, systematically burned every Madurese home, and killed those unfortunate enough not to escape, in a 90-mile stretch between the cities of Singkawang and Sambas.

"Dyak" is a catch-all name for the approximately 200 indigenous tribes that inhabit Borneo. While headhunting and ritualized cannibalism are largely a thing of the past, the ancient customs were revived with a vengeance during massacres that killed more than 200 people and left more than 33,000 refugees.

One rice farmer named Masruda was on the receiving end of the violence of those who want to kick the Madurese transmigrants out of Borneo forever.

Before he was born, Masruda's parents left the impoverished island of Madura off the east coast of Java to look for a better life in West Kalimantan. He has never been to his parents' homeland.

"I want to go back home [to Sambas]," says Masruda, who is now a refugee waiting in a gymnasium in the provincial captial of Pontianak. "But it's burned down. I'll go back to Madura, I guess," he says.

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While General Wiranto, minister of defense and armed forces commander, blamed the massacres on the political and economic crisis, locals say tensions had been bubbling under the surface since the Madurese arrived in the 1970s as part of the government transmigration program.

More than two weeks after the massacres began, the government said it may relocate the refugees en masse, possibly to uninhabited islands. And Madurese leaders have already asked Jakarta not to repatriate the refugees to their home island.

Ethnic Malays as well as more neutral local observers say the Madurese inspired such hatred because they grabbed land with strong-arm tactics.

Chu Lung, an ethnic Chinese 10 miles north of the city of Singkawang, saw a mob burn the home of her neighbors, a Madurese family. She doesn't know if they'll return.

Four years ago, Ms. Chu says, the couple arrived on her doorstep and announced that they wanted to build a house on her property. "They really pushed me to let them build it," she says. The couple put the house up without her permission.

"I was scared to make a report [to the police]. I was afraid they would hurt me," she says. It's a story repeated throughout the village. Malays and Dyaks have accused the Madurese of building houses wherever they pleased, and cultivating land that wasn't theirs.

Milan, a truck driver, is one of the few interviewed who admitted to taking part in the mob violence. While some claim the attacks were spontaneous, he says revenge had been in the works since a Malay bus conductor was reportedly stabbed by a Madurese in February.

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