The Dayak tea party
SEPT 10 ― It must have been a beautiful day for an outdoor tea party in West Kalimantan. It is the early 1980s when Borneo’s forests are still comparatively lush although the forests would have to struggle to survive an onslaught of slash-&-burn for commercial rubber plantations and wide-scale logging.
In the meantime, all is serene along the banks of the Kapuas River where the Javanese and Sumatran wives of managers of a rubber plantation wait for their guests to arrive.
The guests were the wives of local Dayak tribesmen, who upon arrival, gathered up all the food, and left, leaving their shocked hostesses in their wake.
The managers dismissed this as part of the “strange and difficult culture” of the Dayaks, while ignoring the fact that this behaviour was aberrant in Dayak culture and thus was a political statement of conflicting economic and political interests.
The Dayaks of the area were facing the loss of their forests and subsequently source of food, due to the appropriation of traditional lands for the rubber plantation. There were reports that the Dayaks were unhappy with the compensation received.
An eye for an eye, albeit a small victory of appropriating the plantation’s food, in protest of unfair appropriation of their native lands, one might say.
The managers who reported the incident claimed that the loss of food was a small matter. In fact, they were most upset that this behaviour had frightened their wives.
Yet it could be said that the Dayaks clearly intended for their behaviour to be strange and frightening, or at the very least, offensive. By forcibly taking the food, the Dayak women overturned a situation of “planter generosity and worker indebtedness” into one of self-empowerment and political statement.
The tea party incident and subsequent analysis are described in one of the chapters of a book detailing the history of marginal peoples and global markets in Borneo, entitled “The Banana Tree at the Gate”, by Michael R. Dove (2012)*.
Dove further argues that the managers’ construction of the incident is disingenuous as “the planters’ rhetoric diverted attention away from the economic dimensions of the conflict in favour of spurious cultural dimensions.” (Dove, 2012).
Dove cites a situation in Sumatra where planters on colonial plantations similarly tended to misconstrue conflicts over competing economic interests as conflicts over inferior cultures.
Three decades later, the Dayaks whether in Kalimantan or neighbouring Sarawak, still face similar discrimination but with a twist. Today in Sarawak, we observe wilfully deceptive constructions by economically- and politically-empowered Dayaks over the rural communities that they are supposed to represent, in the latter’s attempts to reclaim land now appropriated by the State for oil palm plantations or mega-dams.
During the State debate on the 2012 Budget, the Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak Alfred Jabu Numpang (of Dayak origin), described a protest against a government-planned joint-venture on native customary lands, as an Opposition tactic. He further blamed an opposition party for being the “stumbling block to poverty eradication programmes in the rural communities”, despite the ruling political coalition being in power for the past several decades.
We see this similar rhetoric of any rural community uprisings against state economic plans for Dayak native lands, over and over again. Misleading rhetoric such as “Opposition tactic”, or “NGO agitation due to Western interference” divert attention from basic conflicting economic interests over land.
Most of these problems stem from conflict between government-linked companies and Dayak communities for fair compensation. Oil palm plantations are developed on native land consisting of fruit groves, rubber and pepper gardens, swidden fallows: all of which provide important economic benefits to the communities. Dayak politicians do their constituents much injustice by dismissing their concerns over land appropriation and compensation as manipulation by outsiders.
Several days ago, the divergence of Dayak political polarity came together in protest over a proposal made by the Civil Service Commission chairman Tun Zaki Azmi to lower the criteria for Dayaks to enter the civil service.
Dayaks in political power were quoted by the mainstream media to have similar sentiments with what would be their traditional foe: Peter Kallang, chairman of the Miri Orang Ulu National Association and also chairman of the SAVE Rivers, a coalition to stop State appropriation of native lands to build mega-dams in Sarawak.
All had felt that there were enough qualified Dayaks and other minority groups who could serve in the civil service. However, as a result of what Kallang had bitingly described as discrimination by the recruiters, such Dayaks have since fallen behind thus resulting in only two per cent of the federal civil service manpower.
The proposal has been described as an “insult and mockery” to the Dayak community, for we can attest to many qualified and talented Dayaks who have made their mark in business, federal government, and much recently, in the Olympics.
Yet when it comes to Dayaks defending their lands, or trying to claim fair compensation for land appropriation, the legitimacy of their struggle is misrepresented by the discourse from the political and economic elite.
Like how many Pakatan Rakyat supporters have dismissed the rural Dayak voters as “stupid and naive” for seemingly continuing to vote in Barisan Nasional (despite overwhelming claims that the electoral roll have been manipulated over the years; the past Sarawak state election in 2011 in fact inspired the now-famous Bersih 2.0 walk for clean and fair elections), this damning conclusion seems to suit the Dayak political elite just fine, as they similarly dismiss any struggle for native land rights as “political manipulation of the naive Dayak”, whether by opposition or NGO.
Unless, of course, this construction threatens and mocks their position in an urban setting such as the civil service, do we then see the elite rise to the defence of the Dayak honour.
Despite the slurs, Dayaks continue to carry on with varying symbolisms of the infamous 1980 tea party coup, to fight for what we believe is our right.
Whether the Dayak land struggle, or the national struggle for political ambition, we need to search within and debate the true discourse instead of being continuously distracted by rhetoric spun by the elite (for example, see recent furore over claims to change the national flag, the uninvited Sultan, etc.).
And when in doubt, take the goddamn food home and leave them with no cake.
* Dove, M.R. (2012) “The Banana Tree at the Gate.” Singapore: NUS Press Singapore.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.