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Perceptions Of Borneo

Borneo, or Kalimantan, is in the news today. Indigenous Dayak people have declared war on immigrant Madurese people, and over 100 Madurese have been killed in the fighting, and many of them have lost their heads.

Kalimantan is the greater Indonesian part of the large island previously known as Borneo. The Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, and the independent sultanate of Brunei, make up the western side of the island. To the north is the southern Philippines.

In the international media the indigenous Dayak people are portrayed as gangs or mobs on the rampage, their tradition of taking the heads of their victims as savagery, and the Madurese as innocent victims.

I spent some months in 1966 living in a Dayak longhouse in Malaysia's state of Sarawak, and in the late 70s I travelled extensively on the Indonesian side of the border, in their Kalimantan province, meeting with Dayak people, and others. The indigenous Dayak story is being suppressed in media coverage of this whole issue.

I suppose the most striking recollection I have of my stay in a Dayak longhouse is of the dried and shrunken heads. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of them.

Six of us, four Maori and two Pakeha, were welcomed as guests in a traditional Dayak ceremony, and after being given permission to stay, were allocated our sleeping spaces in the Balai or communal hut, alongside the young men of the longhouse.

This Balai performed many of the functions of the Maori wharenui, or wharemoe. And in it were displayed the trophies and taonga of generations of their history. There were some weapons, but mostly dried and shrunken heads of their victims of warfare. They were hung from the rafters, decorating every available space, these remnants of battle and ambush. The overflow was kept in huge wicker baskets, also hung from the rafters. After being dried etc, the teeth were sewn back into the mouth, and in the evenings when the cooling breeze picked up and blew through the gaps in the atap reed walls, you could hear the teeth chattering on the wind.

Mostly they were the heads of other indigenous people, taken in the traditional ritual powerplays between groups staking their claims to land, forests and resources. But there were also Japanese heads from World War 2, and a few white heads as well from early colonial days. Perhaps a missionary head or two; who knows.

You can imagine the trepidation of these six New Zealand soldiers, having to sleep in the Balai with thousands of sightless but not toothless witnesses. But, when in Rome do as the Romans do, and when in a longhouse learn to do as the Dayak do, lest the hosts be offended.

As far as we knew, by 1966 the tradition of taking heads had been discarded, under the influence of Rajah Brooke, the British coloniser who established a private colonial empire in Borneo, and under the influence of Christian missionaries. Many of the Dayak in Sarawak were various shades of Christian, but our longhouse retained their indigenous spiritual and other beliefs, so we were never quite sure whether they had actually stopped taking heads. However, as honoured guests (with rifles and machine guns), we reckoned our heads were safe.

The point is though, that although the taking of heads of the victims of war might seem savage from a 21st century Western perspective, it was, and obviously still is, an embedded part of the Dayak culture. As such, it is not something to be condemned outright, without first studying and understanding the culture from which it arises. In the same way perhaps as we need to study and understand the seemingly barbaric behaviour of Queen Elizabeth I, in having her victims hung drawn and quartered, and the rotting pieces displayed in various London locations. There are probably Londoners today who would emulate the behaviour of their beloved queen, given half a chance.

Our Dayak hosts were also vociferous in their condemnation of the colonising Malays from Peninsular Malaysia. The jungles from which the Dayak derived their livelihood, and their whole being, were being eaten away by logging and mining interests. It was as though the Dayak people themselves were in danger of being eaten; consumed by the greed of the outsiders.

In 35 years I haven't been back to our longhouse in the Borneo jungle, but I doubt that it exists today.

And so, from head-taking to Indonesian Kalimantan.

When I toured there in the 1970s the many indigenous peoples, including the Dayak, were being progressively colonised and overrun by Javanese and Madurese. This was the Transmigrasi Project which was ostensibly to relieve population pressure on the islands of Java and Madura by transporting them to the many less densely populated outer islands of Indonesia. There they were established as farmers, planters, tradespeople, and businessmen. The natural resources of Kalimantan were also being plundered by Jakarta based businesses, and the indigenous people impoverished. Most noticeably, their life-giving jungles were also being levelled by the greed of outsiders.

Transmigrasi was and still is a planned programme of colonisation of the many thousands of indigenous peoples in the hundreds of other islands that make up Indonesia. It has been these last 35 years an important tool in the systematic creation of a Javanese empire throughout the Indonesian archipelago, from Aceh on the north-western tip of the island of Sumatra, through Kalimantan, Sulawesei, Maluku and other islands, and on through East Timor to West Papua, or Irian Jaya.

For all of that time the Indonesian military have supported and fostered transmigrasi, and the creation of the Javanese Empire, through the absolutely ruthless suppression of all forms of dissent.

The business empires created by the Soeharto family and their cronies, by huge military business interests, and by Western transnationals, have plundered the forestry, mineral and other resources of the outer islands. The indigenous peoples of those islands were robbed of their economic resources and impoverished.

That is all now coming apart at the seams, first in East Timor, and now in many of the other provinces, including Kalimantan. The provinces are finally and inevitably starting to fight back against the Javanese Empire.

That's why the Dayak people of Kalimantan are taking up arms against the Madurese people living there. And why some Madurese people are losing their heads.

Ross N Himona

© Scoop Media

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