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[Image] Where is Bruno Manser?
Rainforest & Human Rights Activist Missing in Sarawak
The Swiss Diplomatic Corps has started an official search for the rain
BY RUEDI SUTER
Since May 2000 Bruno Manser is missing. This human rights activist
wanted to visit his friends, the Penan forest nomads in the Sarawak, who
are surrounded by logging companies, the army and the police. It seems
he never arrived. Search parties have had no luck. Now the Swiss
Diplomatic Corps has stepped in. Manser could have been arrested, had an
accident or could have been murdered.
What has happened to Bruno Manser? The family, the Bruno-Manser-Fonds
(BMF) and all the close friends of this rain forest protector from Basel
are and have been very worried during the last few months. The above
question has still not been answered. What are the known facts? The 47
year old human rights activist disappeared on the island of Borneo in
the Malaysian province of Sarawak. In spring this year he wanted to
reach the Penan forest nomads surrounded by loggers, army and police,
via Indonesian Kalimantan over jungle paths. That was the last anybody
heard of and from him.
Bruno Manser spent six years with the last of the nomadic living Penan,
from 1984 -1990, learnt their language, their knowledge and their
survival tactics as hunters and collectors, has written about them and
made drawnings of them. This white man became one of them and was given
the name "Laki Penan", the "Penan Man".
High prestige amongst the nomadic Penan
This Swiss Penan had high prestige amongst the nomadic Penan. He did as
they do, moved around the jungle naked, knew the animals and the fruit
of the jungle, used the blow pipe to hunt and realised as one of the
first people to do so, that organised protest was necessary to protect
the vital basis of survival of the Penan from the growing noise of motor
saws and bulldozers gradually coming closer.
Slowly these until then unknown people where hearded and cut off by
logging roads constructed by the logging companies under the blessing of
the government. Through non-violent actions and uncomfortable pin-pricks
these original inhabitants protested against the techonological progress
of civilised destruction and attracted, toward the late 1980s, Western
interest in the Sarawak.
For the endangered Penan and later worldwide Bruno Manser became a
symbol for the protest against the unscrupulous destruction of Sarawak's
rain forests. He also started becoming an antagonistic nuisance in the
eyes of Sarawak's Chief Minister Taib Mahmud. On 15th February 2000,
just before he left, Bruno Manser told OnlineReports:"Through his
logging licence policies Taib Mahmud is personally responsible for
nearly the whole area of the rain forests of the Sarawak becoming one
big field of destruction in the matter of one generation."
Declared as "enemy of the state"
In 1990 rainforest protector Bruno Manser had to flee the Penan - his
"second family" - and the country. Malaysia had declared this Swiss as
"enemy of the state no. 1" and sent out special units looking for him.
But Manser didn't give up. The Bruno-Manser-Fonds was founded in Basel
and an office set up with the help of many sponsors. Through the work
led by its secretaries Roger Graf and later John Kuenzli it became a
recognised center of activities and information dealing in rain forest
issues. Manser himself contributed to raising consciousness in the Swiss
media for climate and rain forest issues through his calm and convincing
manner. This stubborn man - his forbearers came from the Appenzell -
often pushed himself over his physical and psychological limits. In 1993
he did a 60 day hunger strike in front of the Bundeshaus in Bern to
raise consciousness in the Federal Council and among Swiss consumers for
the necessity of a compulsory declaration of all woods and an import
embargo of tropical woods. This strike was supported by 37 organisations
and political parties, the parlament of the town of Basel and many well
known persons and later created quite a stir. But Switzerland to this
day still has no compulsory declaration.
Bruno Manser tried to fight against the lightning fast destruction of
the rain forests and held many lectures in Switzerland and abroad, made
contact to NGOs, the EU, UNO, governments, unmasked offenders and
participated in other activities, for ex. in the programme "Fuenf vor
Zwoelf" where he let himself drop 800 meters along the teleferique cable
down the Small Matterhorn. But these small successes were too little too
slow for this man who always felt in direct contact to the Penan.
"I am tired but I can't stop"
He suffered. Already in May 1998 he said: "As long as logging goes on in
Sarawak and as long as the bulldozers continue their destruction our
activities will not have achieved anything. I am tired but I can't stop
until all the Malaysian promises have been kept, namely the right of
self-determination for the Penan and the protection of their environment
in a biosphere reservation promised in 1987."
The rain forests had deeply become a part of him. He visited American
and African jungles and stayed there for weeks. Undercover he managed to
get through to the Sarawak several times to see his friends again who
were expecting him. Every time he yet again witnessed the lightning fast
destruction of their precious environment mainly by the logging
companies Samling Co, Rimbunan Hijau Sdn. Bhd. and by the W.T.K.
Company: uprooted original inhabitants, new roads, cleared landscapes,
eroded mountains, lifeless rivers, exstinct plants and animals. Manser
knew time was running out for the Penan and the forest.
Middle 1998 he decided to risk everything. Starting diplomatically, he
offered Chief Minister Taib Mahmud his cooperation in founding the
biosphere reservation and to forgive him for having broken Malaysian
immigration laws. No reaction. All following endeavours to achieve
communications with Mahmud were equally unsuccessful.
Manser then learnt to parachute in record time. He planed to deliver a
lamb, "Gumperli", out of the air as a symbol of reconciliation to the
Chief Minister on the Hara Ray peace day festival at the end of the
Ramadan month in Kuching. The Malaysian Consulate in Geneva put pressure
on the airline companies not to transport the lamb hereby this endeavour
was also hindered. Manser then jumped with the animal on 6th April 1998
over the UNO in Geneva in his desperation to draw attention to the
situation in Sarawak.
Turns above the Taib residence in a motorised glider
Once again no reaction from Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. In March
1999 the customs officers in Kuching let a small, athletic businessman
enter wearing his father's business suit, carrying a briefcase and
wearing a badly knotted tie. On March 29th 1999 Bruno Manser flew a
couple of highly publicized turns above the Taib residence in a
motorised glider in honour of the return of the pilgrims from Mecca.
Intentionally landing next to the residence he let himself be arrested
after which he was immediately transported to Kuala Lumpur and later
deported to Switzerland. His humourous, risky and naiv goal to convince
Chiefminister Taib Mahmud of the necessity of protecting the rain forest
was once again unsuccessful.
Manser left for Borneo on the 15th February 2000 fearing that the last
remains of the Penan forest would be sacrificed to the logging industry.
BMF secretary John Kuenzli and a Swedish film team joined him in
Indonesian Kalimantan. This film team had already shot the film "Tong
Tana" with him and now wanted to film him on his way through the jungle
to Sarawak. They then left and John Kuenzli and Manser carried on alone.
By the time Kuenzli had to leave Manser was still writing postcards to
his friends as usual. This time he wrote about 400 cards.
"Bruno was feeling well", a fried said
Bruno Manser then entrusted himself to a Swiss who knew his way around
the territory. The trip took two very tiring weeks. First by boat, then
heavily burdened on foot over unpathed territory in virgin forest and
over precarious mountain sides. Manser slept in a hammok, his friend
slept on the ground. It rained every day. When the two of them passed
their last night together near the border they were totally exhausted.
On May 18th Bruno Manser gave his returning countryman a letter for his
lifepartner in which he wrote about diarrhoea and a broken rib. His
friend was the last European to see him. "When we parted Bruno was
feeling well. He seemed strong to me", said his companion to
According to BMF secretary John Kuenzli, Bruno Manser must have passed
the forested border to Sarawak on 22nd May with the help of a local
guide. Last contact to him was in a town called Bareo. Here he wrote a
letter to his girl- friend while hiding in a bush near the town. He was
very tired and was waiting for darkness before continuing along the
logging roads. Kuenzli believes this letter was brought to the post
office in Bareo by some unknown person. It reached Switzerland with
Malaysian stamps on it but no post office stamp.
Since then the BMF office in Basel has been trying to make contact with
Manser through all means available, i.e. trusted contacts and other
often malfunctioning means of communication to find out where he is. All
without any success. The Penan had also sent out groups searching
discretely for him in the forest, in the cleared areas and around the
source of the Limbang river which he had originally been heading toward.
Two men were found who said they had guided him for two weeks on Sarawak
territory in the jungle.
Relatives and friends are worried
In autumn the pressure grew in the BMF office. Worried relatives and
friends demanded that the Diplomatic Corps and the public be informed
that Bruno Manser is missing. The office hesitated because such an
announcement would involve the Malaysian security forces. Because of
this continuing insecurity fortune tellers, dream readers and others
were asked for advice. All agree Bruno Manser still seems to be alive.
This has also been confirmed by the Penan necromancers.
There is no more concrete information. A demand, written by the Limbang
nomads on Malaysian territory and sent in July to the Chief Minister
could be a clue. What of the unexpected road block by the Penan on
August 11th near Long Kevok? There hadn't been such an activity since
the 1980s. Is the Swiss "Laki Penan" behind this new wave of protest?
Has Bruno Manser gone into hiding intentionally?
In September there were rumours amongst the Penan, that Manser was in
the area. It was not the only one - Manser had been shot by the army at
the road block in Long Kevok. - was another. And: The body of an
European had been found in the forest. But the parachute teacher and
good friend of Manser's flew on the 21st October into the Bario region
where Bruno Manser had last been seen. All those asked said that they
knew nothing about him.
On 10th November there was a crisis meeting held at the BMF office in
Basel. Manser's mother, his sisters and brothers, his lifepartner and a
few other close friends were invited. John Kuenzli informed them of the
latest but little news there was. Nothing had really changed and as
before anything was possible:
• Bruno Manser could be hiding to make himself available to the Penan
during their last protest efforts and to help make the world aware of
what was going on in the Sarawak. Known as a lone fighter, someone who
sometimes threw the worries of his friends into the wind and who often
took great risks, this possibility is not all that unlikely. What is
different this time is that none of his family or close friends have
heard from him. That has never happened before. Irrespective of the
situtations he found himself in in the past he always managed to get
some message through to them. His mother told OnlineReports: "No, no, he
has never been gone so long without sending some signs of his still
being alive." His brothers and sisters and friends confirm this
experience. Therefore they are scared something really bad has happened.
• Bruno Manser is lying sick or hurt in the home of some nomadic family.
Rock falls are a common occurance in the jungle of the Sarawak, as are
many other dangers such as malaria, infections, snake bites and all
other kinds of accidents. This is the reason even the Penan rarely go
alone through the jungle, something that Manser had to do repetedly to
reach them. On the other hand, the fact that none of the Penan searching
for him found him speaks against this possibility. He is an experienced
bush trekker and survival expert, has an iron determination and is in
good physical condition. He can move well on the land and thanks to his
hunting and collecting skills will very unlikely experience hunger.
• Bruno Manser is in prison. Because he was moving along known logging
roads in a territory under great military and police surveillance an
imprisonment must be taken into account. If so, the possibility that
this is being kept strictly secret to avoid any intenational attention
is quite realistic.
• Bruno Manser wants to stay invisible and has asked some of the around
9000 Penan (of which around 300 still live as nomads) to keep him
hidden. This version is supported by the sudden escalation of protest
manifestations after some years of relative peace in the region. Roger
Graf's sound knowledge of the Penan as a people who are not secretive
speaks against it. If Manser were in hiding somewhere some information
would definitely have seeped through by now.
• Bruno Manser is dead. The jungle he aimed for is dangerous, there is
no doubt about that. Additionally to all the many natural dangers, the
possibility of murder must be taken into account as well. He is still a
wanted man with a bounty price waiting for anyone bringing him in.
Especially the army and police stationed in the area could be very
interested in the death of this uncomfortable Swiss. The enraged loggers
and their clients are another great danger and would gladly make use of
the first opportunity to present itself to get rid of this hated
activist, say those who know the circumstances well.
Swiss diplomats involved
Now Swiss diplomats are trying to find out what has happened to Bruno
Manser. The Bruno-Manser-Fonds has - as OnlineReports informed already
on 18th November - asked the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (EDA)
for their help. First discrete investigations are already, they say,
underway via the Swiss Consulate in Kuala Lumpur and the Swiss Honorary
Consulate in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. If no concrete results are
forthcoming then Switzerland will have to report Bruno Manser to
Malaysia officially as a missing person.
Then everybody will know - Chiefminister Tahib Mahmud included - that
Bruno Manser, dead or alive, is in the country. All the police stations
and all public places will carry a photo of him. Wanted person posters
of the "enemy of the state no. 1", of a man who is fighting for the
rights of those with the least rights in the province of Sarawak. They
who in despair watch their basis of existence being destroyed - the
ANY INFORMATION ?
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BRUNO MANSER FOND <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Ruedi Suter <Ruedi.Suter@mediaspace.ch>
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