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Violence between Dayak and Madurese has occurred several times in in West Kalimantan -- eight times in the last two decades. Ethnic tensions continue in West Kalimantan, where hundreds of people were killed and thousands displaced following fighting that began in late December 1996. Bloody clashes between the indigenous Dayak people, migrants from Madura and the military started in early January 1997, and resulted in a death toll of over 500; the army admitted to 300 dead. The army sent in 3,000 troops to fight tribesmen, including six battalions of troops and the Army Strategic Reserve, eventually patched together a fragile truce. By late March 1999, Indonesian press reports said that at least 33,000 Madurese refugees were sheltering in the capital, Pontianak.

The violence is a symptom of discontent which has built up over many years, and the history of clashes between the Dayaks and the Madurese go back as far as 1983, when many died in clashes in Pontianak. Many landless peasants from Java and the island of Madura (SE of Java) moved to West Kalimantan as part of a government resettlement program which offers free land, housing and food aid. Tensions between Dayaks, who make up 40 per cent of West Kalimantan's population and have converted to Christianity, and the Muslim Madurans have been fueled by fears that the migrants will take away land and jobs from the indigenous people. Dayak communities have been dispossessed as their traditional forest lands are appropriated by outsiders in government-supported resettlement, development and large-scale commercial enterprise schemes. Anthropological accounts of Dayaks make much of their former reputation as headhunters, based on a belief that to take a head is to take the strength of your victim.

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