Protagonist of paradise: the life, death, and legacy of Bruno Manser.
Bruno Manser, Tagebucher aus dem Regenwald (Diaries from the Rainforest). Basel: Christoph Merian Verlag, for Bruno-Manser-Fonds, 2004. Vol. 1, comprising an introductory essay by Ruedi Suter and Diaries 1-6, 153 pp; Vol. 2, Diaries 7-9, 173 pp; Vol. 3, Diaries 10-12, 205 pp; Vol. 4, Diaries 13-16, 170 pp. ISBN 3-85616-214-3.
Bruno Manser was born in Basel, 1954; disappeared about 17 km NW of Bario, 2000. In the absence of evidence, speculation may never be laid to rest whether his re-entry into Sarawak from Kalimantan was spotted or betrayed, and that a police marksman or timber-company guard terminated one of the most celebrated of environmentalist careers. Certainly, by late 1987 the rage of the Sarawak State Government had reached a point where the State Minister for Development could brand Manser a "security risk," who would be dealt with toughly under the Internal Security Act--not just as an illegal immigrant or overstayer as previously intended--if ever he was caught in Sarawak (Borneo Bulletin, 28 November 1987). Not much later, according to Ruedi Suter in his introduction to Manser's diaries, a price was put on his head by the Malaysian Government.
Manser had come to Sarawak in 1984 as a tourist--yet perhaps no ordinary tourist, given his previous embrace of the solitary life of a sheep and cowherder in Switzerland, propelled by a mixture of powerful artistic inclination and deepest spiritual impulses. After attaching himself briefly to a British scientific expedition in the Mulu area, he made off into the jungle. His conscious purpose at first was to test the possibilities of human survival close to nature. Against the initial odds for one so totally uninformed and ill-prepared, he did survive, and in due course stumbled across nomadic Penan somewhere around the headwaters of Sungai Tutoh or Sungai Limbang. He now added a new dimension to his quest: to catch a glimpse of emergent man in a condition optimally close to our uncorrupted historical origins (or to "get to know about the development of the human spirit," as a sympathetic journalist quoted him in English: George Kanavathi, "Manser--The man behind the myth," Borneo Bulletin, 6 June 1987). Altogether an uncanny affinity with his cantonal compatriot Karl Jung!
However, at the very point of discovering the nearest imaginable approximation to the Garden of Eden on the contemporary planet, Manser could not ignore the looming extinction of this precious cultural asset as Penan food sources were being eclipsed by the relentless inroads of logging interests, backed by the Sarawak State Government and Federal Government of Malaysia. Nor could he fail to have thoughts about the impact of Sarawak's deforestation on global warming. Having left Sarawak at the expiry of his first visa, and being offered thereafter nothing better than one-month entry-permits, he resolved to re-enter and stay illegally. His determination to study and learn was now combined with an unquenchable militancy for the nomads' survival.
It was a vital principle of Manser's only to place his literacy at the disposal of the Penans if they were genuinely enthusiastic for the struggle (Diary 7: 12); although he deplored the lack of a natural leader among the Penan, he was highly reluctant to push any individual forward against his inclination (Diary 11: 136). Native blockades as such dated from the late 1970s, and the police were involved in 20-30 preventive actions per year between 1982-84 (Stimmen: 78). The Malaysian environmentalist group Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Malaysian Friends of the Earth, SAM), with the Kayan activist Harrison Ngau always in a prominent role, had produced a significant research report with proposals for the attention of the Sarawak Government by late 1986 ("SAM campaigns against loggers," Borneo Bulletin, 29 November 1986). By contrast, it was only in the previous September that Manser had organized his first gathering of Penan and helped draw up the Declaration of Long Seridan (Stimmen: 61). Obviously the Penan were already aware of the blockade weapon being used by other ethnic groups, and Manser explicitly denied being the author of their blockading in 1987 ("The man and the myth"). Nevertheless, once he had begun to act as a "strategist of passive resistance" (Ruedi Suter, "Zuruck zur Einfachheit," in Tagebucher, Vol. l: 12)--as when proposing minimum conditions of solidarity and blockading techniques without which any struggle would be futile (Diary 11: 100), with the reassurance that he would balance the pathetic weakness of their resistance by exposing the logging interests to the outside world--it seems difficult not to see a certain "dynamism" in his role. Although the efforts of the Malaysian authorities to discredit him, whether by mockery (a "white Tarzan" in the jungle); contempt (a "misguided European idealist," preferring to preserve something quaint for anthropologists to study rather than support official policies for the Penans' "betterment" through development); or character assassination (a "sex tourist" who left a Penan wife and two children behind in the jungle), seem to bespeak a strain of bureaucratic paranoia, it remains that in ways oblique or direct the power of the State Government and Malaysian state stood to be eroded in some degree. Manser's capacity to escape from arrest and evade pursuing bullets was particularly taunting to the men in uniform.
At all events, he did eventually feel that he had reached the limit of his usefulness, and probably his luck, inside Sarawak. After leaking a probably false exit route and date ("Manser plans freedom dash," Borneo Bulletin, 7 May 1988), he resurfaced in Switzerland nearly two years later ("Manser makes dash for freedom," Borneo Bulletin, 21 April 1990). Once home, he threw himself into a frenetic campaign to alert the world to the ecological and human disaster of Sarawak. This not only raised funds but engendered a group of loyal admirers. Among these were a core with academic and publishing skills who were able within two years to pull Manser's diverse experience and knowledge together, setting it in a context of global economic forces and Malaysian geography plus statistics, to produce a manageable and indeed inspiring handbook of the struggle, full of individual Penan reflections on their fate, and appealing partly to a younger European audience: Stimmen aus dem Regenwald.
During the decade after his return to Europe, Manser's restless, not to say fearless, nature led him into a succession of publicity gimmicks and escapades, not excluding at least one attempt at surreptitious return and a stunt with a hang-glider in the heart of Kuching. Finally, in May 2000, he re-entered the Sarawak jungle on foot from Kalimantan, never to be seen again. To their everlasting credit, his friends in the Bruno Manser Foundation have now published the Tagebucher in a reproduction of outstanding beauty. Some of Manser's drawings, notably portraits of Penan individuals, had already appeared in Stimmen, but now we are treated to a magical feast of medico-botanical, zoological, ethno-musicological, sartorial and primitive-technology drawings, as well as all the written observations and reflections that Manser was able to smuggle out during his sojourn or carry with him at its conclusion.
Would-be readers need to be reminded that Manser did not enter the jungle with any academic purpose, and even in the course of time did not begin to focus on any particular subject, whether in the field of natural science, anthropology, or linguistics. He himself denies aiming further than "an outline" of Penan life (Diary 1: 51). Thus there is a huge amount of fascinating data for anyone with a specialist's knowledge of Borneo, but it is presented purely in the order in which particular items struck Manser's attention, generally without methodical follow-up. Sometimes events are not even presented in their order of occurrence, but retrospectively, as well as undated; thus it is difficult to reconstruct, for instance, his movements, length of stay at any given settlement, or the development of the Penan blockades and Manser's role in the campaign. For the most part, he lets the Penans bear witness to the destruction, the blockades, and native encounters with officials or company personnel. Fortunately, he was still able to devote precious writing and drawing time to the cultural scene and sights of nature. But from one source or another there is recurrent commentary of political significance which would have proved compromising if falling into the hands of the police--as one set of papers actually did--albeit the investigators would have had to arrange for translation from German, not to mention the occasional example of Manser's native dialect. Meanwhile, one is never entirely sure how fluent Manser himself became in Penan; how far he always correctly distinguishes its vocabulary from Kelabit and Malay; to what extent personal Penan testimonies (amazingly eloquent as they are) were written down, or liberally transcribed from tapes. Puzzlingly, Manser calls all the Penan "Punan" during his early acqaintance, and applies the term to the sedentary ones later. For their part (though the choice is not without merit) the editors have not attempted to integrate the materials into any kind of structure. Nor is there an Index.
Such caveats having been mooted, it remains to praise this inspirational work on its own terms. By virtue of its diversity it offers something for almost every specialist. Anyone who knows a post-traditional group of Borneo--as, in the primary reviewer's case, the Dusuns of Brunei--will be thrilled to meet descriptions and explanations of practices or skills which linger in folk memory in the plains and foothills but can no longer be observed: the obtaining of wild sago and extraction of camphor; hunting with blowpipes or dogs (including the use of special herbs and charms to put fire into a lazy cur); knowing the non-spluttering resins suitable for firebrands, and how to make forest soap; the knack of tying a loincloth; the conduct of birthing (both Penan and Kelabit custom, compared). The folktales noted by Manser are familiar from the corpus of many another ethnic group. Asking forgiveness from the spirits of trees which Penans cut or fell, and believing that to make fun of certain animals will conjure up a devastating thunderstorm, also have a very familiar ring.
On the other hand, there are features of nomadic culture which are necessarily foreign to settled communities at any time: an extremely marked equality of the sexes; a striking paucity of ceremonies (evidently because the daytime is taken up with the search for food or the making of implements, baskets or mats by the whole family, the evening with cooking and eating); little consultation of omens (nomads being unable to afford to postpone daily hunting and gathering); absence of domestic animals and fowls for food, and an absolute taboo on ever killing the hunting dogs or pet gibbons which share the family's life; the custom of wrapping the corpse of a deceased family member in a mat, to be placed above the hearth before the family abandons the hut forever (Manser did not witness this himself, however, as under Christian influence, burial had already become the norm); and last but not least, a social "structure" that is not characterized by leadership or power over and above the small, peripatetic kin-groups organized for hunting and gathering, each of which "owns" a section of forest whose produce is not shared with neighboring groups except in time of plenty. Only as Penans abandon the jungle and become sedentary in a longhouse is there a need for a headman, to regulate inter-family relations and (as Manser saw it) preside over the degeneration of community.
In light of pre-sedentary structure, it is scarcely surprising that Manser found the nomads difficult to galvanize for self-defense. Such an enterprise was also hindered by their typical taciturnity, and the once highly functional cultural values of non-aggression and trust, which now leave the Penans easy prey to logging-company intimidation, intellectual deception about the world beyond Penan experience, and downright trickery. Coincidentally and compatibly, Manser's own Christian ethics disposed him towards nonviolence. At first, he also thought it a correct pragmatic judgement that blowpipes and shotguns were no match for the automatic weapons of the police, and also that the outside world would condemn the Penans if they did resort to violence! With hindsight he did favor striking at the logging companies by blowing up bridges, but showed no sign of grasping the notion that violence--not least, violence against hopeless odds--was a precondition for stirring and sustaining international media interest in the cause.
Tragically, these Diaries seem destined to stand as a memorial to a man already dead. But they make a highly fitting memorial to a person of no little genius and greatness. He may have failed to divert either Sarawak or the planet from the diverse types of destruction which, in the first instance, are now more or less fulfilled, in the second, still pending but increasingly predicted. But at least he tried, which very few of the rest of us can say on our behalf: ours merely the questionable satisfaction of knowing that we never disagreed with Bruno Manser, as did, in the strongest terms, his adversaries Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad (Prime Minister of Malaysia, 1981-2003), Datuk Patinggi Amar Abdul Taib bin Mahmud (Chief Minister of Sarawak during Manser's time), and Datuk Amar James Wong (top timber tycoon and State Minister for Environment and Tourism at that period)! By the criterion of power successfully wielded, they are the "great men" of Malaysia's era of development. The importance of titles and state propaganda for the projection of their virtues does not contradict, but confirms, the reality of that power.
Eva Maria and Roger Kershaw
295 Clashnessie, Lochinver
Scotland IV2 7 4JF
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|Title Annotation:||Stimmen aus dem Regenwald. Zeugnisse eines bedrohten Volkes (Voices from the Rainforest. Testimonies of a Threatened People); Tagebucher aus dem Regenwald (Diaries from the Rainforest).|
|Publication:||Borneo Research Bulletin|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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