Bruno Manser:


Lakei e’h metat


“man who has disappeared”

By keith harmon snow




In May 2000, Bruno Manser secretly returned to the besieged rainforests of Sarawak, Malaysia. Previously deported, officially declared an “enemy of the state,” Bruno evaded Malaysian security—as so many times before—for another clandestine rendezvous with his blood brothers, the Penan, the last hunter-gatherers of the island of Borneo.


Fighting for their universe, hearing that their chief defender in the west had returned, Bruno’s friends—like Penan leader Along Segah—waited at a nomadic camp in deep forest. Bruno never arrived. Search parties months later found his last fire and the dead end trails he had cut through impenetrable jungle. Like the man himself, his rucksack and gear were nowhere to be found. Bruno Manser—the Swiss shepherd turned Penan nomad—had vanished.


Bruno was a friend of mine. For 15 years he publicly echoed the drone of the incessant machines consuming the rainforests and their people. He was wild in heart and as equally tame. Fearless and foolish and naively trusting at times, Bruno lived not in fear of dying, but in the challenge of defeating misery. He was a witness by experience to daily needless suffering, driven by outrage and empathy, and he lived his philosophy to the end. It was not a definitive end, but a slow and agonizing realization by friends and family that the man they loved would never come home again.


It may be that Bruno Manser is already home. In 1984, Bruno for weeks trailed a shy Penan band until they accepted him. And then, for years, he lived as Penan, thought in the Penan language, suffered as Penan suffer. In the Penan cosmology, Bruno Manser was lakei Penan—“Penan man”—one of the tribe. His “Voices From the Rainforest” chronicles his odyssey, every detail he could name and draw, intimate portraits of Penan sharing joys and sorrows in the vortex of the rainforest. Bruno documented local folklore and traditional healing – plants like “Bone of the Flying Dog”—resources pirated by pharmaceutical corporations whose payback for the indigenous bearers of the sacred trust is arrogance and deception.


Bruno Manser had been to the mountaintop, and he had seen the Promised Land, and it was Penan. He journeyed the cosmological lifeways of the Penan and in his clairvoyance he embraced biological diversity and communal harmony and wilderness for its own sake. His non-profit Bruno Manser Fonds < > rose in notoriety to champion the rights of the rainforest peoples. One of Bruno’s dreams was to secure a modest biosphere reserve to sustain the last 300 nomadic Penan in Sarawak.


Disaffected by decades of destruction, increasingly cornered, the Penan in 1987 resumed their tactics of blockading logging roads. With flimsy barricades of sticks and rattans backed by hundreds of indigenous people, from elders to babies, the Penan counted on international public opinion to stop the logging. There was instead a near total whiteout in the western press. Most Americans heard nothing. It was as if it never happened.


The Malaysian Government responded to Penan action in 1987 with public relations, force and violence. (Bursten-Marsteller, the huge and secretive perception management firm in Washington, DC, has been employed by Malaysia for its public relations campaigns. BM also works for Barrick Gold: BM director Edward N. Neys sits on the board of Barrick, along with former Prime Minster of Canada Brian Mulroney, former US Senator Howard Baker, and former CIA director and US President George Bush.) With great media fanfare, the Malaysian government created the Magoh Biosphere Reserve in 1987 -- “for the Penan,” they said—but like the Adang Reserve (1993), it was attacked by logging conglomerates Samling and Limbang Trading – the latter belonging to Datuk James Wong, Sarawak’s Minister for the Environment.


Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in 1987 dishonored his people and his self by invoking Malaysia’s Internal State Security Act to jail 91 critics of his regime. Over 1,100 people have since been arrested – with numerous deaths – for challenging the logging. Up to 1,500 Malaysian soldiers and police have stormed barricades, beat and arrested people. Bulldozers have leveled nomadic camps. Tear gas killed a four year-old child. The government tolerates criminal gangs hired by logging firms to intimidate the indigenous people, and it may very well be that the government encourages them.


“I have lived with the Penan for such a long time that I feel their pain,” Bruno told me. “I feel it inside myself. I look at the destruction and I know the wonder – what a big wonder the primary forest—with all the hardship, with all the joy, and this wonder and joy is taken away from peaceful people that just look for their daily food. To see this violence by big machines that just turn this paradise into wasteful consumption—it hurts.”


Bruno was an adventurer, a poet, an ethnographer, a nomad, an artist, a lover of life, a speaker of truth to power. He was celebrated with films and awards. To his detractors – anxious to shoot the messenger who thrust the Penan story onto the world stage—Bruno was a “white Tarzan,” a “hitch-hiker hero,” a “medical school drop-out.” With such labels, did the media denigrate him widely? Bruno shrugged off the personal attacks, seeing fear behind them, as he persistently struck at the heart of injustice. He never shrugged off the logging.


Bruno was meanly hated. He was seen as the living, breathing personification of western arrogance and meddling into the “rights” of elite Asians to pillage the earth. He persevered from within and without to chronicle the meager Penan struggle against the total expropriation of their universe. He was relentless, a dull ache in the monster of consumption, an irritating noise in the ears of those who oppress. And so a bounty was put on his head; soldiers in Malaysia hunted him. Fifty thousand dollars buys a lot of silence.


Bruno was loved. He touched people deeply. The Swiss people universally supported him (the Swiss government did not.) In Bruno’s honor, close friends and some members of the Royal Geographic Society planted an elm tree in London’s Hyde Park. Like all who have tasted the veracity of Bruno’s heart, the Penan are devastated by his death. In January 2002, hundreds of Penan gathered to commemorate their lakei Penan through the ritual tawai—a ceremony to “think fondly of someone or something that is not here.” With taboos against speaking the names of the dead, the Penan now address their missing brother as lakei tawang—“man who has become lost”—and lakei e’h metat—“man who has disappeared.”


“It was very telling, since it was only for Penan—they didn’t invite outsiders,” says Ian McKenzie, Penan linguist and close friend of Bruno. McKenzie is helping protect the Penan mythology and establish a written literature. Like everyone close to Bruno, it took a long time for McKenzie to accept that Bruno was gone. “It didn’t really hit me until I took the shovel and piled earth onto the elm tree [in Hyde Park]; then some tears started.” 



Perhaps Bruno was surprised and “disappeared.” by his detractors – loggers, soldiers, government agents. Perhaps a lone thief murdered him. Absent any remains, friends and family credit an outside force. When does one give up hope? The unknowing—the image of Bruno suffering or harmed – is brutal. Accusations are meaningless. Silence breeds confusion and distrust. A human being “disappeared” is an effective and disorienting terror, no matter the means to the end. That is why “disappearing” is peddled by the military prophets of free trade. Repression is a byproduct of globalization, absent from annual reports and accounting ledgers, and the elite in Malaysia have no monopoly on it.


I met Bruno in Tokyo, 1992. With Kuroda Yoichi, the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network, and the fledgling Sarawak Campaign Committee, Bruno held a week’s long hunger strike at Marubeni Corporation headquarters. He changed my life, literally over night, because I saw in the spirit of his quest the irrefutable truths of injustice. Bruno’s passion drove a stake through the heart of my denial.


It was coming on Christmas, but it was never about presents: Bruno rejected materialism, he once made his own clothes, and he tore the labels off his other clothes in solidarity with sweatshop labor. The empty sacks of the Santa Claus at the protest symbolized the hunger of the Penan. Japanese experts oversee every stage of extractive industries, but Marubeni executives looked Bruno in the eye and denied all responsibility for human rights atrocities: “It is an internal problem for Malaysia,” they said. For weeks the dissenters persevered, dwarfed by the pillars of industry and the indifference of the Japanese people. Inside, Marubeni executives were embarrassed. Outside, the frozen wind blew in yet another winter of discontent. Christmas, 1992, brought no presence for the Penan.


“There was no way you could get the attention of Americans,” says Wade Davis, author of the Penan chronicle Nomads of the Dawn (Pomegranate Press), a close friend who shared his home with Bruno on his many trips to the U.S. in the 1990’s. “It was very frustrating for all of us, the failure of the international environmental movement to do anything to help the Penan. We generated an enormous amount of noise but nothing happened. It was that fundamental equation of chain saws and bulldozers, the valuable dipterocarps [trees], and the industrial forces that marched through all of tropical Asia.”


Marubeni, Mitsubishi, Samling, Sumitomo, Limbang Trading, Weyerhauser, Maxxam, Stone Container: these stateless zaibatsu churn whole forests into waste, with impunity, as investigations of the timber industry show. Glossy corporate brochures with stunning images of nature advertise “good corporate citizenry” and “sustainable forest stewardship.” Well, I have seen forests in Asia, Africa and the Americas that they have “stewarded”, and I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.



“I know that it is possible to stop the logging in Sarawak,” Bruno told me. “Within one week the license-holder must return the license to the chief minister, and within five weeks he must leave the area with all his gear, if the chief minister withdraws the license, and he has the legal right to do so to benefit the people. Of course, Sarawak’s Chief Minister Taib Mahmud and his friends are the chief beneficiaries of logging in Sarawak.” No surprise, Taib Mahmud and his family control most newspapers in Sarawak.


Defense of the earth and the rights of indigenous people were the pillars of my ten-year friendship with Bruno. There were times when I could not communicate with him, so despairing was I of my incapacity to help him, to help the Penan. We shared concerns – uniquely – for one of the most oblique disasters running: the Congo. Bruno penetrated eastern Congo in 1995, then as now a cesspool of U.S. covert operations and multinational mining, and he documented the devastation of the nomads and the rainforests of Ituri. Companies logging Sarawak are logging the Congo: over 85% of Africa’s rainforests have been felled or ruined. The corporate media – International Herald Tribune, Japan Times, Observer, New York Times – are covering it all up.


“My last year’s trip to Ituri was a shock,” Bruno wrote me, October 20th, 1996. “I realize that just acting with joy, anger and conviction will help visions become facts. The struggle continues.” Bruno chose his words as intentionally he chose his battles: on November 10, 1995, Nigerian playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa was hung for demanding the indigenous Ogoni people’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Royal Dutch/Shell and Chevron are the enemies of Ogoni.) Having survived four botched attempts to hang him, Ken Saro-Wiwa breathed his last words: “The struggle continues.”


The tactics used against indigenous people are a global phenomenon. For the Huarani of Equador, the Yora of Peru, the Hawai’ians, the Batak of the Philippines, the Oneida of New York, and the Innu of Quebec – it is the same brutal story, and it is happening now. There are the polite assurances of equitability; the infinite promises made and broken; the silent deceptions; the confiscation of property; the paramilitary brutality, torture and prolonged detention without charge or trial; the repressive legislation promulgated to mutilate the truth and defend the lies; the million dollar public relations and media propaganda campaigns; and the murder. These are the forces Bruno challenged – clueless of how to do it, making plenty of mistakes along the way—and the discourses and realities of imperialism and privilege were weapons used against him.


“Stop being arrogant and thinking it is the white man’s burden to decide the fate of the peoples in this world,” Prime Minister Mahathir wrote to Bruno in 1992. “It is about time that you stop your arrogance and your intolerable European superiority. You are no better than the Penans. If you have a right to decide for yourself, why can’t you leave the Penans to decide for themselves after they have been given a chance to improve their living standards?”


For the Penan, it is almost over. In 2000, Bruno himself admitted, “success is less than zero.” Machines have initiated an ecological unraveling. Rivers are polluted. Sacred burial grounds are desecrated. Scores of unknown species disappear daily. Penan girls are routinely raped; one Penan leader was bayoneted in the stomach, left to die in the forest. People have been “disappeared.” Penan forced onto government settlements suffer hunger, disease; the anger and shame of deception and theft; the apathy and hopelessness of a people cast to the wind, uprooted from everything they know, alienated from their very selves. Giving the lie to Dr. Mahathir’s claims of “improved standards of life” are the incontrovertible facts of genocide.


For the Penan, it has yet to begin. In August 2002, searching for his brother, Erich Manser found machines erasing the very place where Bruno vanished. Once impenetrable jungle, all traces of Bruno were obliterated by machines that press the Penan into oblivion. Still, the Penan live: Penan blockades sprang up again in 2002. Says Erich Manser, “Bruno’s close friend Along Segah told me that, ‘the manager of the logging company said he will come with helicopters and police and blind my eyes.’ Along Segah is very afraid.”


It was altruism as much as ego, frustration as much as hope that drove Bruno to wild stunts and dangerous publicity actions. He worked with imagination and creativity, proscribed by the tenets of non-violence—and the intransigence of power—in respect of the Penan way. In 1993 Bruno fasted publicly in Switzerland in a 60-day campaign supported at times by up to 40 hunger strikers. In 1996, plunging 800 meters at high speed, Bruno and Jacques Christinet hung huge banners on the auxiliary cable of the Swiss Kleinmatterhorn aerial cable car. It was a dangerous stunt; at least one of Bruno’s closest allies criticized him.


In 1998, Bruno and BMF collected $10,000 for a mobile dental clinic for the Penan, but the Sarawak government would not have it. Seeking dialog with Sarawak’s Chief Minister, Taib Mahmud, Bruno then planned to parachute with a white lamb – a symbol of peace for the pilgrims to Mecca – to engage Mahmud on his 62nd birthday. With 100 trial jumps behind him, Bruno’s plan collapsed after all airlines refused him transport to Sarawak. He slipped through Malaysian security to land a motorized hang-glider on the Chief Minister’s lawn. Bruno and eleven waiting Penan were quickly arrested; Bruno was deported. (The mobile clinic has not happened.)

Why did Bruno do it? Bruno found, in truth, nothing better to do with his life. Bruno Manser exercised choice, and he chose to walk that old, beaten path of compassion and hope. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote about this choice in Faust and John Steinbeck wrote about it in East of Eden. We all struggle with our demons, with choice, as our souls dance their private dances between renunciation and desire. Bruno gave his life in service to others. Death could not keep him from it.


On May 12, 2001, Sarawak’s High Court upheld customary land rights, at last vindicating the indigenous people’s struggle and the efforts of Bruno Manser. Uncontrolled, illegal logging has drastically altered the lives of over 220,000 indigenous people of the Dyak (includes Penan) and Kelabit tribes in Borneo. Without an immediate and total moratorium on logging operations in Sarawak, Bruno’s life work will stand only as a testimonial to beauty that once was, and, sadly, as an indictment of crimes against humanity. More people, more voices, urgent action is needed: the bulldozers seem set on taking the very last tree. The Penan are our brothers and sisters. Offering them both bridges and shields to a mutually equitable future, the indigenous people are our teachers. Indeed, our very existence may depend on their wisdom.


I will never forget the day that I stood with Bruno in Tokyo as he contemplated an action of civil disobedience – he wanted to hang from a high structure in Shibuya, with a huge banner for the Penan. It was a busy intersection, and people swarmed all around us. In Bruno’s bag was a climbing harness and ropes, and I think Bruno’s soul must have left his body, because none of my words reached him. He was like a samurai in focused mental preparation for seppuku – ritual disembowelment for the sake of one’s honor—because action to mitigate suffering was the only honorable choice Bruno knew. He was in his element, always pushing the limits, living life over the edge, even in that place so barren of spirit and wildness, the concrete and neon apocalypse. And then Bruno laughed, and his eyes met mine, and he shrugged, and we got back on the train. “Not today,” he said, smiling. But it was a smile of pathos, and he sighed deeply, and he sank into the rhythm of the Yamanote line, and he slept.


I interviewed Bruno Manser on Christmas Eve, 1992. The Marubeni action was over, but it was the eve of our new friendship. I was a starving journalist, busking in subways, teaching English, selling a few stories and photos here and there. Bruno sat humbly in my barren cubby-hole apartment in Tokyo, and with my cat, Sam, on his lap, and a dusty quilt draped over him against the cold winter night, I asked him about life with the Penan. His humility and humor and commitment transformed me overnight. After that, for my weekly “environment” column in one of Japan’s most prominent daily newspapers, I wrote a very mild commentary on technological arrogance, corporate greenwash and Japanese responsibility for human rights atrocities in Sarawak (see “Friend Or Foe: Technology, People and the Environment,” The Daily Yomiuri, January 13, 1993). An American editorial intern discretely slipped my column past senior Japanese editors. It was a fleeting attempt to help the Penan, a single tiny article buried in a huge daily paper, and it really said nothing at all. I lost the column the same day, and the intern was demoted into obscurity.


I believe that Bruno would ask forgiveness for his detractors, and also from them. And so let us forgive them, as we forgive ourselves, for we know not what we do. In the end, however, Bruno would importune us to immediate personal action for the rights and freedoms of the Penan – just as he would seek this for any logger or soldier, for Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, for anyone whose basic human rights were so totally violated. He would ask us to begin now, and with deep compassion. On the wheel of life – the ultimate arbiter of truth—the end is the beginning, the struggle continues. ~ begin.