Wednesday, November 23

Heart of Darkness

We branch off into the Sekonyer river from the main trunk of the Kumai. This is Dayak country.

The Dayak are the native people of Borneo. The term covers over 200 hill-dwelling and river-dwelling ethnic subgroups, each with its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture but many common traits. Dayak languages are categorised as part of the Austronesian languages in Asia. The Dayak were animist in belief; however many have converted to Islam, and some embraced evangelical Christianity more recently. According to Wikipedia, estimates for the Dayak population range from 2 to 4 million.

The Dayak indigenous religion has been given the name Kaharingan, and may be said to be a form of animism. For official purposes, it is categorized as a form of Hinduism in Indonesia. Nevertheless, these generalizations fail to convey the distinctiveness, meaningfulness, richness and depth of Dayak religion, myth and teachings. Underlying the world-view is an account of the creation and re-creation of this middle-earth where the Dayak dwell, arising out of a cosmic battle in the beginning of time between a primal couple, a male and female bird/dragon (serpent). Representations of this primal couple are amongst the most pervasive motifs of Dayak art.

(The United Nations University has a video showing the life of the Borneo forest-Dayaks here.)

Our immediate destination, the Tanjung Puting National Park, is many hours upstream, so we settle down to talk as the klotok furrows upriver. Padri, our guide, tells me by way of introduction that he is a 'riot orphan'; his parents were decapitated around 1999 in the violence between 'Muslims' (settlers from Madura or Java, as well as those Dayaks in towns and river villages who have convered to Islam) and 'Christians' (Dayaks who are nominally Christian but who span proto-Hindu or animist practices, typically inhabiting the interior of the island.)

Padri calls himself Dayak Melayu. The "Malay" Dayak live in West Kalimantan along the coast, and also in the islands of the Karimata Strait. They are the Dayaks that have converted to Islam. The languages of the Dayak Melayu consist of Tapitn, Banana', Kayung, Delang, Semitau, Suhaid, Mentebah-Suruk dialects, and so on. Their arts and culture have been influenced by Islam, yet activities associated with birth, marriage, burial, building a house, planting crop -- all still involve traditional animistic beliefs. The dukun (shaman) of the Dayak Melayu remain influential in traditional medicine, and are called upon to give advice on when you plan your daughter's marriage or choose a name for your grandson.

Padri recounts how, as a young boy, he received the trunk of his father's body, hack-marks from mandau all over the gaping torso.

Along with a younger brother and a small sister, he was brought up by an uncle. His bewilderment turned into a determination to make something of himself, to learn English, which he now speaks well. Apart from freelancing as a tourguide, he is going to the local community college in Panglakan Bun, and has taken some coursework in IT. He is trying to decide whether to go to college in Java to major in computer science, or to stay in Borneo and build an Orangutan-tours business.

From The Inventory of Conflict And Environment:

The Madurese first arrived in West Kalimantan in the 1930's, but the numbers increased during the 1970's. This was the result of the Indonesian government's transmigration plan, which encouraged people to leave more populated islands such as Madura and Java for low populated islands such as Kalimantan. Little consideration was given to the indigenous Dayaks. As the rainforest was cut down and replaced by palm oil and coconut plantations, the indigenous tribes found themselves at the bottom of a complex hierarchy of different groups, unable to continue their traditional patterns of agriculture and slow to adapt new types of employment. (Economist, 1997) The Christian Dayaks now share the low end of the economic ladder with the Madurese. There are currently about 100,000 Madurese in various parts of Kalimantan and two million Dayaks from at least ten separate tribes.

The Dayaks feel that the Madurese have taken their land. The cultural conflict between the two groups has also been a source of the unrest. More importantly are Dayak demands for greater land rights and representation in government. Many analysts see the burning of three plantations in recent years as evidence of the Dayak's growing resentment of the government's appropriation of traditional land, and the forced selling of Dayak land at below market price. (Djalal, 1997) It is an accumulation of several conflicts. There of course is a cultural gap, but mainly it is the dissatisfaction in how Dayak land has been taken away illegally. One Dayak claimed that "the people in Kalimantan were harmonious until the bad people from East Java came." (Reuters, 1997

Between 1996 and 1999, as the regime of General Suharto collapsed and violence broke out all over Indonesia, Richard Lloyd Parry, a British foreign correspondent, forayed into some of the worst strife. His account, titled In The Time Of Madness — "a book about violence, and about being afraid" — tries to make sense of what happened in Java, Borneo and East Timor. Here are some snippets from his conversations with a Dutch Capuchin missionary amongst the Dayaks:

Since the trouble at the pop concert, Dayaks all over West Kalimantan had been preparing. When the fighting began in December they had had only sharpened bamboo poles and a few hunting rifles. A month later they had metal heads for the spears, and newly forged mandau, the traditional hacking machete ... Father Kristof passed an album of photographs which showed the Menjalin Dayaks preparing for battle. They had feathers tied to their heads with red ribbons, and ribbons on their spears ... The kamang tariu is the spirit which possesses the Dayaks in time of war. When it is present, it provides physical protection and immunity from thirst and fatigue, but it has a powerful appetite of its own. 'The kamang tariu drinks blood, it has to be fed blood,' said the pastor. 'There were Dayaks in Pontianak who could not go to war, but who were possessed.' Their friends had to cut the throat of a chicken and give it to them, to feed the spirit.'

I asked what happened when the Dayaks returned from an attack on a village.

'They brought back bags of heads. The heart, they eat directly. The idea is that it should still be fresh. A fresh heart has different power from lungs, and lungs are different from stomachs. Even the blood. From children to old people to babies, no exception at all. Four thousand of them, all beheaded with mandau. Yes, it is remarkable ...

I blinked and said, 'Father, as a priest, how do you see all this?'

'It's difficult to say in two or three words, but to understand you have to go back sixteen years to when I arrived here. Compared to then, all the Dayaks are now Christian. They go to war with a cross. They've all bought rosaries. They are not killers.' And then, in English, 'It's very difficult to explain. ...

'Dayaks have two sets of rules and teachings -- the ones of their ancestors, and the rules and regulations set by the government. But when they are under pressure and need to express what they are feeling in the face of that pressure, they have no choice. They have to go by the ancestral book.

Finally Father Kristof said, 'When we love people ...' then stopped, then started again. 'If a son commits a murder and goes to prison, the mother always loves him. She says, "My son is a good boy still." I don't say that what has happened here is good. You have to understand the position of the Dayak people now. They are ignored by the government. They have no political role. No one in key positions, no people of influence in the army. They are under pressure and they have no economic power. All they have is land, land that has been theirs for thousands of years. Now the government appropriates land for transmigration. The timber companies come, other commercial concerns. The Dayaks become upset, alienated from society. That's what makes them stand up for their rights. They are ...' - he struggled for the right word, back in English again now - ' ... natural people. They are in conflict with a tribe that has totally different traditions.'

Tagore the idealist of cultural essence, Conrad the sensibilist of the tragic - yet, poking in the ashes of history, the barbarians rising only after here Wenlock Wood lost to logging, there the Uricon dammed.


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