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West Kalimantan diary--November 29-December 14, 1971.

Author's Introduction

In December 1971, while serving as a junior US Foreign Service Officer in Jakarta, I made an official visit to West Kalimantan, accompanied by my wife, Barbara Cade Pringle. We traveled from Pontianak up the Kapuas to Putussibau, then back down the river and across the border into Sarawak by way of the lakes region and Lubok Antu. In 1965-66, before joining the Foreign Service, as a graduate student from Cornell University, I had conducted research in Sarawak on the history of the Iban people, resulting in the publication of Rajahs and Rebels: The Ibans of Sarawak under Brooke Rule, 1841-1941, in 1970. I had always wanted to visit the lakes region of Kalimantan because it figured prominently in Sarawak Iban history and folklore, but such travel had been impossible at the time due to hostilities between Indonesia and Malaysia. By late 1971 things had largely settled down, but unrest among the ethnic Chinese of Kalimantan was still a fresh memory, and Indonesian troops were still stationed along the West Kalimantan-Sarawak border.

That I was able to make the trip at all was due to the help of Colonel George Benson, the US Defense Attache in Jakarta, who famously knew practically every top officer in the Indonesian Army. I explained to him why I wanted to go to this area and then continue across the border to Sarawak, and he obtained permission from the Indonesian military. Arrangements were made for an Indonesian military escort through the lakes area, and for a Malaysian Army contingent to meet us at the Malaysian border--an important element in the plan which almost did not happen.


The trip lasted a little over two weeks and followed the normal procedures of US Embassy regional travel. I met and talked with local officials and resident US citizens, who in this case were entirely missionaries. My objectives were to establish contact with Americans who might at some point need Embassy assistance, and to gain better understanding of the economic and political parameters of a province which had been seriously disturbed in the recent past.

Unless the subject matter was urgent, which it was not in this case, such trips were normally recorded in non-cable reports known as "airgrams," as this one was. I enjoyed writing airgrams, now as defunct as the dodo, because they allowed more leisurely delving into "non-essential" background information, which is sometimes more interesting than standard diplomatic reporting. This one was sent by diplomatic pouch from Embassy Jakarta to the Department of State in Washington on January 17, 1972, numbered A [for airgram] 011, with copies sent to neighboring US diplomatic posts. From Washington it was distributed to other US Government agencies with an interest in Indonesia. It was never "classified," but its distribution was "controlled" by a "Limited Official Use" caption. That designation was lifted in 1977 and the report has effectively been in the public domain ever since, although, as far as I know, never published.

Looking back on it, the trip was a little foolhardy at times, especially the portion through the border region. Part of it was by boat, and we almost got into serious trouble when a sudden thunderstorm hit the lake we were crossing, stirring up big waves which almost swamped us just as we were reaching shore. In compiling the report I played down that episode, which might have disturbed my supervisors. Then we got stuck at the border when our Malaysian escort failed to show up, requiring frantic radio calls to Kuching on a weekend when nobody was in the office. Our Siliwangi/RPKAD escorts had left us to return to their longhouse barracks (see photo), and we feared we might have to go back the way we had come, more a wade than a walk, minus guides and without any means of crossing the lake.

Our journey into Sarawak took us through the region where the Danau Sentarum National Park has since been established and which has been the subject of two collections of essays in Volumes 31 and 41 (2000 and 2010) of the BRB. At the time of my travel, this region was not yet the focus of significant academic interest or environmental concern. Palm oil plantations and major peat fires were still in the future. My report focused primarily on gradually diminishing ethnic Chinese unrest along the border, the interaction between Indonesian Army units and the local population, and the challenges of travel along Borneo's biggest river. The unique geographic aspects of the lakes region were obvious then as now, especially the annual harvest of fish and the resulting lively trade across the Sarawak border.

In concluding, I emphasized the need for a decentralized approach to West Kalimantan's unique environmental problems, as opposed to the Java-centric administration which would continue until after the fall of Suharto. I perceived a contrast with Sarawak, "where a useful tradition of state autonomy still prevails in some areas," not imagining how quaint such an observation might appear in the future.

West Kalimantan Diary November 29 and December 2: Pontianak and Vicinity

The Pontianak airport is an apt introduction to West Kalimantan. It is adorned by the hulks of several rotting Soviet-supplied navy helicopters, long since plundered of parts to supply two others of the same breed, still barely operable, which are frequently being cranked up with much unhealthy coughing of smoke just as commercial travelers are deplaning. But in addition to these depressing relics there are signs of hope and progress. The airport is now served by no fewer than four commercial airlines (Garuda, Seulawah, Merpati and Senopati) maintaining as many as three flights to Djakarta daily. A regular Pertamina (state oil company) flight from Singapore to Balikpapan, loaded with oil technicians, transits the Pontianak airport several times weekly. And the provincial Army commander's new U.S. supplied Scout helicopter, also frequently to be seen at the airport, provides an additional refreshing contrast to the navy's Soviet hulks.

The road from the airport to town transverses swampy terrain and numerous rust-colored, peat-stained seams. It passes a large detention camp for Chinese communist (PGRS/Paraku) prisoners, and the provincial university, which boasts seven faculties and about the same number of permanent buildings. In the morning, military formations are held along the highway, a taste of the fact that in West Kalimantan, even more than in most outlying areas of Indonesia, the Army is in charge.

Pontianak appears dirty and deprived in almost every respect compared to Kuching, capital of Sarawak (Malaysia) which is the other metropolis of Western Borneo and a city with only half Pontianak's population of 200,000. Some future brochure may describe it as the Chinese Venice of Borneo, but at the moment Pontianak is one of the few towns in Indonesia without discernible pretensions toward a tourist industry. There are no hotels, and despite the heavily Chinese population, no good restaurants. The city is proud of its location almost exactly on the equator, a homemade monument to which is the one thing visitors are invariably taken to see, but although the climate is indeed equatorial, it is nearly impossible to buy a cold beer.

But to judge the city fairly, you must view it from the fiver. Although its badly silted mouth prevents most large ships from entering the Kapuas, the Pontianak waterfront teems with local traffic. An age-stained cliff of three-storied Chinese shophouses hangs precariously over a wide stream filled with craft ranging from ocean-going Bugis schooners to the bulky homemade launches (bandung) which are the mainstay of commerce on the riverine highways of the interior.

The city is built around a Y-shaped intersection between the Little Kapuas and Landak Rivers, where the first Sultan, an Arab adventurer, founded an initial settlement in 1772. (The last Sultan, Hamid II, famous for his role as a Dutch collaborator during the revolution, and for his alleged complicity in a nearly successful effort to assassinate the entire Republican cabinet in 1950, has survived and prospered, and is now running an air charter service in Djakarta). Pontianak still has a considerable Arab population, well intermarried with local Malays, and a later, Edwardian version of the Sultan's wooden palace is still to be seen on the site.According to the Mayor of Pontianak's Master Plan, which is likely to remain on paper for lack of money, the area will eventually be turned into a cultural and recreational area, something which Pontianak could certainly use.

Today, the center of West Kalimantan's political universe has moved across the river to a large concrete building which houses the headquarters of Brigadier General Sumadi, the provincial Army (KODAM XII) commander. (The Governor, a weak and ailing individual probably slated for early replacement, has his office on the outskirts of town, in a complex of new buildings which is reportedly sinking into the swampy terrain. By sheer coincidence his name is also Sumadi.) General Sumadi was out of town but his Chief of Staff, Colonel Wahab, and other staff officers welcomed us and made initial preparations for the rest of our trip via the Kapuas to Sarawak. The KODAM XII intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Darjatmo, informed us that the mute via Sintang, Semitau and Nanga Badau, provisionally approved in Djakarta, would present no security hazards. He also called in the Malaysian Liaison Officer, a young Captain Achmad, and briefed him on the expected time of our arrival at the Sarawak frontier.

November 29-December 1: The West Coast: Singkawang and Sambas

With a jeep and escort provided by the Army, we spent two days exploring the West Coast. The journey begins with a ferry ride across the Kapuas. An excellent road passes through city outskirts north of the river, past the equator monument, a new Pertamina oil depot, some fairly impressive new secondary schools, and the tombs of the Sultans of Pontianak at Balu Lajang. It then proceeds along a coast largely dominated by coconut small holdings, with some wet rice fields and groves producing locally famous juicy green mandarin oranges. The population is an ethnographer's paradise. In addition to many Chinese (some Christian, but mostly Confucianist) there are kampongs of Moslem Buginese, Javanese, and Madurese settlers. Towards Singkawang there are Dayaks (some pagans and some Christians) in the interior. It is a relatively fertile and prosperous area. Singkawang, its capital, is even more heavily Chinese than Pontianak. Boasting a large and neatly laid out bazaar and a pleasant sea-cooled climate, it formerly prospered as a result of direct Wade ties with Singapore. Those halcyon days have vanished, but the city is still second in size and certainly first in attractiveness among the urban areas of West Kalimantan.

As has been the case for almost two hundred years, the heavy Chinese population is both a blessing and a curse to this area, bringing economic gain and political tension. Of the 400,000 or so ethnic Chinese in West Kalimantan (more than 20% of the provincial population) nearly 170,000 me in Sambas (with Singkawang its capital). Most are Hakkas (or Khehs). Some are the descendants of gold miners who formed independent Chinese "republics" (kongsis) in the interior in the late eighteenth century, and later rose in bloody rebellion against the Dutch. Others are the offspring of later waves of migrants who came to plant rubber and grow pepper when the gold played out. Many are related to the contiguous Hakka Chinese community of Sarawak's First Division (the hinterland of Kuching)--indeed the Sarawakians originated as an offshoot of the old Sambas--Montrado gold mining community. They are a tough, peasant people, never easily governed at any time in their history. Their lack of culture is reflected in the fact flint speaking Mandarin never caught on in West Kalimantan, where Hakka dialect remains the predominant language of the Chinese community. Today the younger generation is learning Indonesian, since all education in Chinese is officially prohibited, but in general the Chinese community of West Kalimantan remains largely unassimilated, far more so than is the case in Djakarta or in most other parts of Indonesia.

It was the Chinese of this relatively fertile, relatively prosperous corner of Western Borneo who were the victims of a bloody Dayak uprising in 1967. An estimated one thousand were killed and more than 60,000 refugees gathered in makeshift camps in Pontianak and Singkawang. Today the government has pronounced that there are no more refugees, and the great majority of the able-bodied and employable are now making a living either on land which the government has provided, in the timber camps, or with relatives. About half are Indonesian citizens ("WNT"--Warga Negara Indonesia) while about half are still technically citizens of the People's Republic of China, and a few are stateless. According to experienced missionaries, the distinction has less to do with politics than with the fact that in 1960-61, when the GOI required all ethnic Chinese to declare actively for Indonesian citizenship or forfeit it entirely, many of West Kalimantan's rural Hakkas simply never heard about or understood what was going on.

Mrs. Robert Peterson, the wife of an American missionary, took us to see one of several refugee camps which, despite their official nonexistence, still exist in Singkawang, The people, mostly uneducated Hakka rubber tappers driven off their small holdings by the Dayak uprisings, are living in neat rows of barracks-like thatch-roofed structures. They make a modest living weaving mats and gathering firewood for sale in Singkawang. Several individuals nan a tailoring business with sewing machines supplied by the relief effort. The camp has just constructed a new school, and although some elderly individuals are still housed in a decrepit rubber warehouse (similar to those once occupied by almost all of them) the camp is neater and more prosperous-appearing than many ordinary villages visible from the roads around Singkawang. Although one Singkawang-based Swiss missionary is still devoting full time to refugee affairs, the special aid efforts which were initiated after the massacres are for the most part finished.

Mrs. Peterson also showed us around an orphanage which happened to be adjacent to another camp, this one occupied by PGRS/Paraku ex-guenilla detainees. Once again, innate Chinese energy and efficiency was obviously making the best of a bad scene. The barbed wire enclosed compound was filled with neat rows of vegetables, the cheerful Indonesian guards appeared totally relaxed, and we watched one group of well dressed, attractive young female prisoners re-entering the compound on their way back from a nearby stream where they are allowed to bathe.

The Petersons (who have been in Singkawang for seventeen years) now somewhat reluctantly concede that the uprisings of 1967 and subsequent army action to resettle all Chinese to the coast effectively eliminated active Chinese support for the guerrillas. They feel that although this harsh solution was extremely unjust to individuals, it may have been beneficial in the long run. (Several other Singkawang missionaries repeated this observation.) However the Petersons also note that anti-government sentiment, although now usually well concealed, is still high among the Chinese. It surfaced at the time of Peking's admission to the UN, when several accidental injuries and two mysterious deaths among the Chinese community in Singkawang were widely and nervously interpreted as punishment meted out to those who had in the past supplied information to the security forces. "If you work with these people on a day-to-day basis, you hear altogether too much of this sort of thing to believe that the Chinese problem is completely solved," commented Mrs. Peterson. General Sumadi was apparently referring to this incident when, at a December 22 Pontianak press conference, he mentioned subversive disturbances, including two killings carried out by communists in Sambas District in November.

On a brighter note, she agrees with the almost unanimous opinion that overall political and economic conditions have improved enormously since 1966. An active road-building program is underway, and highways, she says, are without doubt better than at any time in the Peterson's seventeen-year experience. We tested this proposition on a trip from Singkawang to Sambas. A formerly miserable section from Pemangkat northwards is being repaired. The entire trip from Pontianak to Sambas can now be negotiated in about five hours.


Sambas, the seat of an ancient sultanate and once the leading settlement of Western Borneo, is now a declining town of forty thousand. A riverine Malay settlement in the classic Southeast Asian tradition (rather like a miniature version of Brunei or Palembang), it has fallen far behind the bustling Chinese settlements of Singkawang and Pemangkat. Sambas boasts two imposing bridges over the Sambas River, built years ago by the Dutch, and a new crumb rubber factory. The latter is credited with saving the local robber industry, much afflicted by the twin calamity of low prices and the government's recent ban on the export of low grade sheet and scrap, from total disaster. It is a curious fact that throughout the Kalimantan portion of the trip we heard relatively few complaints about the low price of rubber, in contrast to the situation in Sarawak, where this topic is a major preoccupation.

December 3-6: The Kapuas (Putussibau and Sintang)

Poor communications are the bogey of West Kalimantan. A journey up the Kapuas, which at 700 miles from source to mouth is Indonesia's longest river, is either very slow or very expensive. There is no scheduled transportation of any kind beyond Pontianak. The ponderous bandung launches, which chug along according to the whims of current and commerce, take more than a week to reach Putussibau, the last settlement of any importance. In August and September, when water levels are lowest, launches sometimes can't get to Putussibau at all. The most powerful combination of speedboat and motor available (120 h.p.) can theoretically make it in two days, but only the highest army officers have access to such a craft. Rental and gasoline even for a somewhat less powerful speedboat can easily run to $400. The cheapest fast means of travel (not normally available to the public) is to charter a Cessna belonging to the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), the flying service for American Protestant missionaries. MAF (which has a much larger operation in West Irian) now operates two Cessnas in Kalimantan Barat. Although not licensed to operate a commercial charter service, MAF can usually accommodate touring officials for reasonable fees. During the last general election campaign, it was MAF that flew Foreign Minister Adam Malik to Sintang for a campaign speech, at his own request. (The only available alternative was an overworked military helicopter, and Malik reportedly declined a chance to use it).

By MAF Cessna our flight from Pontianak to Putussibau took only three hours. We touched down briefly at Nanga Pinoh on a typically unsettling ridge-top grass airstrip to unload a pair of touting District Development Bank officials who had co-chartered the aircraft with us. At Putussibau it turned out we had been expected the previous day, despite numerous official messages dispatched from Pontianak. We were nevertheless hospitably received by Bupati Sjabdansjah (a Kapuas Malay from Sintang) and other local officials.

Putussibau is the headquarters of Kapuas Hulu District, as big as most Javanese provinces, but home to only about 100,000 people--mostly longhouse-dwelling Dayaks of the Kayan, Iban, Kantu, Bukat, Taman, and Maloh tribes, with a lesser number of Malays and Chinese living in the scattered bazaars and villages along the main Kapuas. The settlement has a junior high school (SMP), a Catholic church, a scattering of government buildings and a couple of dozen Chinese shops housed in a rambling rickety bazaar devoid of paint and stocked with a scanty array of high-priced goods. The biggest event in Putussibau's recent past was the presence of a French geologic survey team, reputedly looking for uranium, which was based there for several months this year. The French have departed (no one knows if they found anything) and the bazaar has settled down to its normal state of stagnant somnolence.

At Bika (a short distance downriver from Putussibau) we visited some American Catholic fathers who operate a school and carry the Mass to a fairly substantial population of Catholic Kantu and Maloh Dayaks on the Kapuas and nearby branch streams. The Bika fathers showed us a number of community development food-for-work projects carried out with the help of PL 480 bulgur wheat supplied by Catholic Relief Services. Father Theodore Murphy (acting head of the mission in place of Father Joseph Hassett, now on home leave in America) mentioned wistfully that the Diocese of Sintang desperately needed an airplane, such as the MAF-serviced Protestants already have. Unfortunately, he implied, the conservative Bishop of Sintang, who is Dutch, is dead against such newfangled notions. Despite Bika's pastoral setting beside the placid free-lined Kapuas, life is not exactly a bed of rosaries. First class mail takes a minimum of one month to arrive from Pontianak (when it arrives at all).

The district is so ferociously malarial that (according to the fathers) preventative pills are ineffective over a long period. Everyone, Indonesian or foreign, has malaria. The disease is an accepted part of living at Bika, and the fathers were incredulous to hear that in equally remote areas of Sarawak, eradication programs have achieved an almost 100% success.

Like many of the American missionaries encountered on this trip, Kassett and Murphy have been in situ since the last dark days of the Sukamo era. Now as then, the missionaries tend to live in their own world, with only minimal knowledge of the broader Indonesian political and economic framework. They are gratefully aware that since 1966 they have not been regarded as Neocolim agents, but most are doing much the same jobs in the same way, and one senses that on balance, their Indonesia has changed little. The fathers were not aware that several months previously there had been front-page reports in the Djakarta press of famine and cholera epidemics in the Putnssibau-Hulu Kapuas area. Both they and the Bupati of Putussibau told us that these reports had been greatly exaggerated. The notoriously fickle slash-and-bum hill rice crop has been badly damaged by both drought and flood for two years running. Dry-season cholera--not an uncommon phenomenon in Borneo--created a brief flurry of excitement and occasioned the dispatch of a University of Indonesia medical team to Putussibau late last summer. But there was no serious epidemic, and although the rice shortage (also a familiar enough phenomenon) is a real hardship, the rivers and jungle are still full of fish, fruit and edible plants. People in interior Borneo frequently go hungry, but they hardly ever starve.


More than anything else, travelers on the Kapuas need patience. Outboard-powered craft (the only faster-than-snail's-pace variety) are scarce and expensive; motors are ill maintained and undependable, and the local level of boat handling sophistication is often extremely low. Our experience from Putussibau to Sintang was typical. The Bupati assured us that a tiny speedboat with a 33 h.p. engine which he had arranged for us (cost: almost $100) would make the trip in one day. In fact, as should have been obvious to anyone with minimal knowledge of the fiver, it was a full two-day trip. The speedboat was far too small for the load of ourselves, our driver, our baggage, and our burp-gun toting Bupati-supplied guard. Instead of planing, it ploughed through the Kapuas like Little Toot, and we would have been far better off with the same motor mounted on a more utilitarian longboat. Repeated experience indicates that no Indonesian in West Kallmantan can resist loading a speedboat down like a coal barge.

The mighty river flows, not as the crow flies, but in majestic mile-consuming meanders. Here and there nature or some long-forgotten Dutch Resident has punched a narrow channel across the neck of a loop. Such a shortcut (pintas) may save as much as three or four miles at a clip. Water levels are frequently too low to permit their use in the dry season, another reason why that is a bad time to travel in Kalimantan. Given likely continued dependence on river travel, a program of deepening the pintas and digging more woad be of great benefit to the interior. At present, however, the Kapuas is totally uncharted, although surveys of its silt-blocked mouth are now being conducted.

Sintang the metropolis of the middle Kapuas, is by far the most imposing and important settlement above Pontianak. Located at the mouth of the Melawi, a major southern tributary, it is a district (kabupaten) headquarters and, more significantly, the major military base for the anti-insurgency effort along the Sarawak frontier. It boasts such amenities as a senior high school, a hospital, a large municipal market, and a Padang-style restaurant. There is even a mad from (if not exactly to) Sintang, jeepable as far south as Nanga Pinoh on the Melawi. Much more important, the old Dutch road to Pontianak, long unusable, is scheduled for rehabilitation.

At Sintang, Colonel Kadamsno, the Commander of Regiment (KOREM) 121 (which has charge of West Kalimantan's eastern sector) confidently outlined the recent steps taken against the guerrillas in his sector (see airgram to follow). Our host, Bupati N. Soekardi, is an Islamized Ot Danum Dayak with a pretty Javanese wife and eight children. Without exception, the other members of Sintang's high officialdom are Javanese. They form a small, slightly homesick community delighted at the prospect of entertaining foreign visitors, who make ripples in a routine which must often seem as drab and endless as the river itself.

December 7-10: The Kapuas Lakes Area to the Sarawak Border

Additional arrangements for our onward travel were completed on December 6, on which day both the Bupati and the KOREM Commander left Sintang on separate missions. The next morning, in their absence, the arrangements disintegrated, illustrating once again that while top civil and military leadership in provincial Indonesia is often impressive, organizational talent in depth is a rarity. The Bupati's supposedly arranged boat proved to have mysteriously disappeared on another errand, or perhaps it never existed. The Army soon provided a substitute, but after a triumphal departure from the dock, waving fond farewells to our hosts, we discovered that our first destination was a fuel dump several hundred yards upriver, where it turned out that: a) the attendant was nowhere to be found; b) our driver's papers required four more stamps before he could draw fuel. This took another two hours to straighten out. As a result, despite maximum good will and helpfulness on the part of the officials at Sintang, we left too late to reach our destination in the safety of daylight.

The previously approved mute to the Sarawak border retraced our path four hours' travel back up the Kapuas to Semitau, where we obtained additional fuel from another army supply point. Immediately thereafter the motor quit, because the new fuel was full of water. (Rainwater had leaked into carelessly closed drams.) After another hour's delay we resumed travel up the Kapuas. By now it was late afternoon.

From Semitau the mute to the lakes proceeds up the Kapuas for an additional short distance, then turns northwards into the broad Tawang River. Two hours of additional travel brings one to a vast expanse of water, bordered by trees standing in water. The Kapuas Lakes, great shallow depressions in a sea of swamp forest, are variable in size and number. During the rainy season, when water levels in the main river are high, they fill with water; in the dry season they are sometimes reduced to mere stream channels wandering through plains of swamp grass and dried mud. At low water, vast numbers of fish are trapped in small areas, and the local Malay population, joined by Dayaks from neighboring areas including Sarawak, reaps a rich harvest, which is salted, smoked and exported by the ton to points as distant as Djakarta. It is a peculiar, lonely world of mangrove and endless moisture, populated only by scattered villages of Malay fishermen, little researched for whatever mineral or agricultural potential it might hold.

Thanks to earlier delays we emerged on the lakes only as night was falling. The increasingly distant shoreline was soon lost in total blackness. The motor began to cough and sputter, and we stopped again in the middle of nowhere to clean dirty spark plugs. Finally a single light cluster appeared in the distance. Fortunately it turned out to be our destination, the army camp at Pulau Madjang, a small island on the northern side of the largest lake. Only minutes after tying up there a tremendous thunderstorm swept over the area. Our speedboat, which as usual had been badly overloaded, would have been in serious trouble on the lake.

Pulau Madjang supports a tiny Malay village and a few buildings used by the Army. It is the staging and supply point for a battalion-sized unit (satgas--for satuan tugas--678) (since rotated and replaced) deployed to the north along the Sarawak border. Supplies reach Pulau Madjang on large bandung launches; beyond it they must frequently be transferred to smaller craft, and (for most destinations) eventually carried by trail. The posts which Madjang serves include the satgas headquarters at Landjak. One company is stationed there. The other two component companies are at Nanga Badau (our next destination) and at Benoea Martinus, site of a Roman Catholic mission to the Ibans. The satgas is a mixed unit (gabungan) made up of elements drawn from the Siliwangi and other Java-based divisions and the Special Forces (RPKAD). We were welcomed by a young Siliwangi lieutenant, who had been sent from Landjak with fifteen troops to escort us on the next stage of our journey. We slept in the junior officers' room, vacated for our purpose, and ate well on army rice plus special treats included in end-of-the-fasting month (Lebaran) gift packages made up for front line troops by the Army Wives Association in Pontianak. Each package contained tinned sardines, condensed milk, a T-shirt, a pair of blue shorts, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a speech by the Panglima, General Sumadi.

Next morning we departed by bandung launch, heading for the northwestern section of the lakes zone, then through a bewildering maze of free-lined channels eventually leading into the Boenoet River. After two hours we transferred to an outboard-powered longboat which wound onwards under a thick jungle canopy. Our Siliwangi escorts were armed with World War II American M-1s and carbines. Their uniform, while marked by much individual variation, consisted mostly of fatigue shirts, bush hats, blue shorts and tennis shoes. They peered vigilantly into the damp gloom on either side, although the area has been free from guerrilla activity for almost a year.

At a spot called Pangkalan Pinang, we deserted the longboat and climbed a small hill to a dilapidated frame building of mysterious origins, used by fishermen bound for the lakes and now well decorated with imaginative charcoal graffiti by girl-hungry soldiers. Here our Siliwangi escorts turned us over to an even more colorful collection of red beret-clad Special Forces (RPKAD) men, armed with AK-47s. Several boasted moddish shoulder length hair over their jungle camouflage suits, and one (from the Mobil Brigade's canine corps) had in tow an extremely healthy German Shepherd. We later learned that although this recently assigned animal costs nearly as much to feed (on specially shipped-in dog food) as the rest of his unit, he does not fare well in the swampy terrain and has been of very limited usefulness.

The next stage of the trip consisted of a two-hour walk, or wade, along a flooded trail to Pesaja, where the RPKAD soldiers are stationed. Pesaja turned out to be a twenty-one door (family) Iban Dayak longhouse with a population of 117, exclusive of the RPKAD squad which lives on the longhouse veranda. We stopped for a brief chat. The soldiers seemed to be on good terms with the inhabitants, who in turn appeared relatively healthy and prosperous. They were growing pepper on a nearby hill, a practice we were to see repeated endlessly in nearby Iban areas of Sarawak. When we asked if the people were still doing traditional Iban weaving (they were) the RPKAD troops relayed the request politely. Like almost all the soldiers we encountered in this area, they had picked up a good deal of the Iban language, which is not radically different from standard Indonesian. While the Sundanese and Javanese troops were mildly condescending about the backwardness of the Ibans, they also recognized the energy and intelligence of the local people and credited them with a capacity to learn.

Despite their appearance of youth and studentish informality, the great majority of the Indonesian GIs are professionals and veterans. Many of the enlisted men and officers we encountered had served in Kalimantan before, some on two occasions as far back as the period of Confrontation (1963-5). Normal operational army tours in Kalimantan are presently one year in length, however, intelligence and territorial affairs (civic action) officers serve indefinitely, usually for much longer periods.

Another two-hour hike brought us to Nanga Badau, the last Indonesian settlement before the Sarawak frontier. There is no big jungle in this area. Swamps alternate with low hills covered with tangled scrub, the end product of excessive Iban slash-and-burn shifting cultivation. Once again the trail was frequently thigh-deep in water.

Nanga Badau is a subdistrict (ketjamatan) headquarters and one of the satgas's three companies is based here. The settlement is no more than a path winding through a scattered collection of Malay houses, plus a few small government buildings, mostly unpainted. Several tiny and primitive shops sell goods which originated in Lubok Antu, the nearby Sarawak border settlement. There are no Chinese in Nanga Badau. We were told there had been one or two Chinese shopkeepers, but they were among the 17,000 who, according to the army, were resettled from areas north of Sintang to the main Kapuas (diKapuaskan) earlier this year. Nor was there any sign of the army-operated stores which have reportedly taken over commerce from the displaced Chinese in border areas further west.

The security situation is relaxed in Nanga Radau these days. The subdistrict chief (tjamat) was killed by Paraku guerrillas almost two years ago, and is buried in a rustic "Hero's Cemetery" which also holds a half dozen or so troops who fell fighting neocolonialism during Confrontation. (At that time British gunners at Lubok Antu regularly dropped shells on surrounding trails to discourage Indonesian raiders from infiltrating across the border.) Now the Siliwangi men at Nanga Badau spend most of their time playing volleyball, raising plump chickens (we were informed that Kalimantan is amazingly free of poultry diseases) and counting the days until their one-year tours are over and they can return to their home units in Bandung and Krawang West Java One of them also teaches at the local two-room school. The government is unable to supply teachers to many remote areas in West Kalimantan, and (as was formerly the case in Nanga Badau) if the army isn't around, or doesn't have mento spare for teaching, there just isn't any school.

The Company Commander was visiting an outlying post, but we were warmly and hospitably received by his two subordinates, Lieutenants Oetji and Turut. Both are former NCOs with more than fifteen years of Siliwangi service each. Once again we were impressed by their knowledge of local conditions and apparently relaxed and cordial relationship with the local people. Their major complaint was the fact that the Information Ministry, which used to send mobile films to front line units several times a year, has completely stopped this service. Nanga Badau seems almost totally cut off from the outside world. There are no books, no magazines, no movies, no newspapers, and we saw very few radio receivers.


All day long a constant procession of Ibans passed down the trail toward Sarawak, bound for the bazaar at Lubok Antu. We were told that at peak times of the year, as many as 150 pass through Nanga Badau daily. Each needs an Indonesian permit to cross the border (easily obtained) and the Malaysians require a cholera immunization. The Ibans can obtain this from the tiny government dispensary at Nanga Badau, usually paying in rice or other produce. They depart laden with pepper, dried fish, rottan mats and other produce, and (after spending a night in Lubok Antu in the attic of a Chinese shop) return laden down with the joys of civilization, ranging from cooking pots to cosmetics. The Siliwangi troops frequently ask Lubok Antu-bound Ibans to buy things for them, and what amenities exist in Nanga Badau are almost all of Sarawak origin.

For a time it appeared that we might become permanent residents of Nanga Badau. Just as we were preparing to leave for the border on December 8, Lt. Oetji informed us that an ominous radio message had just arrived from Sintang. The Indonesians had radioed the Malaysians at Simanggang to ask whether arrangements had been made to escort us from the border to Lubok Antu, a one-hour walk. The Malaysians, who knew we were coming but may have considered an escort unnecessary, were put on the spot. They informed the Indonesians that authorization for an escort would have to be obtained from Kuala Lumpur. Colonel Kadarusno (the Indonesian CO at Sintang, then in Pontianak) then sent a message to his liaison officer in Kuching, pointing out that we had previously received permission from Malaysian Immigration authorities to cross the border at Lubok Antu, and that it would be awkward to have us stuck in the jungle indefinitely. By the afternoon of December 9, the Malaysians had replied that it would be all right for us to proceed. Moral: We never saw any reason to doubt the sincerity of repeated Indonesian assertions that liaison with Malaysia is generally excellent. But although each country has its liaison officers at several points across the border, and voice radio contact is possible at a moment's notice, misunderstandings and bureaucratic snafus are still possible, if not to some extent unavoidable.


The following day began with another slippery hike, again escorted by Siliwangi troops. The Lubok Antu-Nanga Badau frail goes through a break in the border range. As a result, this is one of the very few routes where it is possible to enter Sarawak from Indonesia without climbing a hill worthy of mention. Although the boundary is a watershed, the local troops on both sides have established a more practical de facto line where the trail crosses a small stream. Here we took leave of the Siliwangi and were met by a squad of the Royal Malay Regiment, one of whom had by prior arrangement entered Indonesian territory to meet us. The contrast with the Indonesian troops was dramatic. Our new escorts were dressed from head to toe in shiny new British-style equipment. There were no cowboy-style variations in uniform, no long hair, no tennis shoes, no bare feet. They all had the same kind of automatic rifle, even a field radio.

The trail on the Malaysian side of the border was in far worse condition than the Indonesian portion, where the Army has organized and aided the local Ibans to build a number of small bridges over the worst habitually flooded areas. (Perhaps because the Malaysians have roads they are no longer very footpath conscious.) After another hour of sweaty slithering and splashing, a seemingly vast array of huge, modern buildings appeared ahead of us. We were about to enter a different world.

December 10-14: Sarawak Postscript

Despite the uncertainties of the previous day, entering Malaysia presented no problems. A young Chinese immigration officer informed us that he did not have a stamp suitable for our passports, since virtually all his business was with short-term Indonesian visitors. He said the matter could be attended to later in Kuching, as turned out to be the case. He and the rest of Lubok Antu's officialdom were preoccupied with a more important guest, the Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak, Simon Maja, who by coincidence was just arriving on tour. Maja is the leading Iban politician from Lubok Antu District. The substantial Chinese bazaar was hung with flags in his honor, and decorated with slogans in the Iban language (which like other minor regional languages is rarely if ever written officially or publicly in Indonesia.)

The Lubok Antu bazaar, although comprising only a dozen or so shops, is better stocked than anything in West Kalimantan beyond Pontianak. A profusion of painted outbuildings, a government resthouse with screens and running water, a handsome agricultural school with experimental plots, all are dramatic evidence of lingering British tradition, a habit of maintenance rare in Indonesia, and Chinese wealth. When the reporting officer had visited Lubok Antu five years previously the only access was by boat. Confrontation was still in progress, and the atmosphere was altogether more tense and primitive. Now the bazaar is thronged with Indonesian and Sarawak Ibans, and a new "open market" of foodstalls dispenses a dazzling (to the newcomer) range of Chinese and Malay food, plus domestic and imported beer, soft drinks and cigarettes. The most dramatic single difference is the new road, completed only a few years ago, which leads to the main Kuching-Sibu highway. Yet to Sarawakians, Lubok Antu is still a second-rate outstation, full of boredom and hardship. Within a few hours we were riding a Chinese owned and operated Sarawak Transportation Company bus toward Simanggang and Kuching.

At every stage of the journey, and during four days of leave in Kuching that followed, we were impressed by additional signs of progress since our 1965-66 residence in the county, and stunned by the contrast with West Kalimantan. It is mind-boggling for anyone who has just come from the Kapuas to realize that on this side of the dotted line it is safe to drink tap water in a small town, or to consider the fact that a beginning school teacher, trained but without a university degree, earns almost $100 (U.S.) per month--at least five times the Indonesian average. It is unbelievable to see a modern road system being built and maintained through the often savagely difficult Borneo terrain. And although it is debatable how much of the palpable Malaysian affluence is reaching Sarawak's rural people, we saw enough evidence of improved agriculture, especially better wet rice and proliferating pepper and new frame-construction Iban longhouses, to conclude that not all the improvement has been for the benefit of Chinese city folk. The question of whether Sarawak's apparent prosperity matches rising expectations, or is a sufficient antidote to a complex and demanding political situation, would require much more than a four-day visit to answer.

We had, however, been able to sample something of Indonesian attitudes toward what they can perceive of Sarawak's affluence. At Sintang the leading local official wives mentioned that the Malaysian Army once invited them across to Simanggang (headquarters of Sarawak's Second Division) by Malaysian helicopter. Asked how it was, one of them answered "Nice--just like Bandung." The comparison between what may well claim to be Java's most elegant metropolis and a dusty Sarawak outstation struck us as odd at the time, until later we saw how far Simanggang has come in five years. But this off-hand reaction was not typical. In general, Indonesians are simply not impressed by what they have heard of Malaysian prosperity. In the case of Sarawak, all they see is a heavy Chinese population and a resulting security problem which has spread to Indonesia. There is a widespread assumption that the relative wealth does not extend to the non-Chinese and (even worse) that it permits the Chinese to manipulate the others politically. Combined with an underlying faith that Indonesia is much larger, more politically mature, and otherwise far ahead of Malaysia, the net result is a genuine feeling of superiority, rather than the reverse.

In view of this altitude, the chance that a continuing cross-border disparity in living standards might cause the West Kalimantan leaders to question their own system seems slight In any event, the worlds of West Kalimantan and Sarawak are still separated by an almost total communications gap. Except for a limited number of people living in the border areas, and the respective military commands, people are wholly ignorant of (and largely unconcerned about) conditions in the other jurisdiction. It might be noted that if educated Sarawakians (particularly the Chinese) took advantage of broadening travel opportunities--there are now weekly commercial flights between Pontianak and Kuching and another weekly flight is planned--they might be considerably happier with their own lot than is sometimes the case at present.


We emerged from our cross border trek with the strong impression that the security situation is far from the most serious problem faced by West Kalimantan. The basic dilemma of the province is one that it shares with all the more isolated, underpopulated Outer Island areas of Indonesia, All are regions with potentially bright futures, given the long-term value of the world's shrinking reserve of wide open spaces. Development opportunities are common to all, yet each presents a unique set of thomy problems which at the moment stand in the way of realizing potential wealth. In the case of West Kalimantan, one major technical barrier is the widespread occurrence of infertile (non-volcanic) leached-out tropical soils. Pathetically little research has been devoted to seeking breakthrough development of new crops suitable for such soils, or to seeking markets and uses for the natural products of the Borneo rainforests, aside from plundering them of timber.

Such problems receive little attention partly because Indonesia is still governed under an almost wholly Javacentric system. No matter how talented the top provincial decision-makers may be (and in the case of West Kalimantan the level is far from uniformly impressive, particularly among the civilians), they are always counting the days remaining before transfer elsewhere, hopefully back to Java. Those who do remain in one province long enough to identify its special problems are shackled by an administrative system which dictates uniform policies for an entire polyglot archipelago. Here the contrast with Sarawak, where a useful tradition of state autonomy still prevails in some key areas, is instructive. The Sarawak school system, for example, has long been geared to some special Borneo problems, such as motivating teachers to serve in remote rural areas. In West Kalimantant on the other hand, a Java-oriented educational system, further handicapped by previous poverty, cannot even attempt to be Borneo-oriented. As a result, the upriver areas often go without education entirely, unless the Army happens to be on hand to provide teachers. As this would indicate, the insurgency has been something of a boon to the areas bordering Sarawak, which thanks to Paraku/PGRS have at least registered on the consciousness of the provincial rulers in Pontianak.

What is needed is not merely a degree of local administrative autonomy, but a broader attack on the problem of mobilizing local capital, developing local skills, perhaps above all stimulating local enthusiasm and creativity. As things stand, all of these attributes (when they exist) are systematically funneled off to Djakarta. (In the case of the West Kalimantan Chinese, of course, such talents have been underutilized or repressed for what many Indonesians may regard as valid and overriding political reasons.) Too often the provinces remain stuck in rural stagnation, waiting hopefully for mineral strikes or other chance developments to stimulate an influx of luxury-bearing foreigners who will create twentieth century enclaves in the swamp forest of local apathy. At present the apathy shows little sign of developing into something uglier, if only because ten years ago the Outer Islands tried the activist route of rebellion, and it didn't work. But the present situation is not at all healthy, not least because neither provincial leaders nor those in Djakarta (with a tiny number of overworked exceptions) are even aware that the problem exists.

Robert Pringle

Alexandria, Virginia, USA
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Author:Pringle, Robert
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Travel narrative
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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