In February, Indonesia's Dayaks drew international attention after
the gruesome killings of hundreds of Indonesian settlers, even decapitating
some victims in an echo of a long abandoned traditional headhunting
practice. The events cast a shadow over the indigenous people of
Borneo, resurrecting the specter of primitive "savages" running
Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from ruling Borneo,
the largest island in Southeast Asia, Dayaks are an oppressed majority.
The recent rampages on the Indonesian
side of Borneo (the island is shared with Malaysia
and, in the tiny northwest corner, the oil sheikdom Brunei) mirror
two earlier violent outbursts, in 1997 and 1999. The violence failed
then, and is failing now, to transform Dayak politics in Borneo,
where indigenous people are fragmented, directionless and indeed
apathetic about the prospects for change. "The only practical solution
to the plight of the Dayak is a cross-border, pan-Dayak movement,"
says one former senior official in Malaysia, who requested anonymity.
"But the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia are terrified of
this and do everything they can to prevent it."
Indigenous people across the world find adapting to the reality
difficult. But in Borneo the problem of Dayak tribalism--dozens of
groups, while falling under the Dayak rubric and sharing basic social
and cultural practices,
still speak different languages and express some unease with one another--is
rendered more poignant by geographic considerations. Borneo holds
288,000 square miles of stunning rainforests, thriving rivers and
unparalleled biodiversity. National borders, remnants of colonialism,
don't begin to reflect the basic unity of the island.
Violence has ravaged
Borneo's population barely reaches 15 million, making the island
one of the most sparsely peopled places in all of Asia. Even after
decades of colonization--first by the Dutch and the British and
later by the Malays and the Javanese--Dayak peoples still roughly
count as a majority of the population. While Dayaks lack economic
power and receive only token representation in government, they
have proven adept at resisting the encroachments of outsiders. In
Malaysia, the nomadic Penan group has fought loggers, raising awareness
of the importance of forests to traditional peoples. Dayaks also
have gained some leverage by the mere threat that they will withdraw
their considerable support for the Malay ruling coalition.
History also sets apart the Dayaks in Malaysia, whose federal structure
affords them greater autonomy than those across the border in Indonesia.
Under a mid-'60s treaty, Britain's Borneo territories of Sabah and
Sarawak were stitched together with its Malaya colony located hundreds
of miles to the west. The result was Malaysia. As part of the deal,
Dayaks in Sarawak
and Sabah lost their claims to the huge oil and gas reserves, but
retained the right to use their own languages in schools. Moreover,
a firm limit was placed on the ability of Malays from elsewhere
in the country to move to Sarawak and Sabah, thus guaranteeing that
indigenous people, while exploited, would not be overrun by settlers.
In Indonesia, the Dayaks received no such guarantees. Outrages by
immigrants from other islands in the Indonesian archipelago, such
as logging of Dayak communal lands, were ignored by Indonesian government,
fueling the Dayaks' rage.