The Disappearance of Bruno Manser

keith harmon snow


"Everything you do will be meaningless, but you must do it." —Mohandas K. Gandhi

"Those who oppress will learn what misfortune has been prepared for them." —The Koran (26:227)

Bruno Manser was a friend of mine. For 15 years he publicly echoed the drone of the incessant machines consuming the rainforests. 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 passion and outrage and joy, and he lived his philosophy of compassion and truth to the end.

In April 2001 Bruno secretly returned—persona non grata—to the rainforests of Sarawak, Malaysia to rendezvous with his blood brothers, the Penan, the last hunter-gatherers of Borneo. Fighting for their lives, 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 had disappeared. Bruno Manser—the internationally famous Swiss shepherd turned Penan—had vanished.

In 1984, Bruno had trailed a shy Penan band until they took him in. For six years he lived as Penan, thought in the Penan language, suffered as Penan suffer. In the Penan cosmology, Bruno Manser was laki Penan—"Penan man"—one of the tribe. Bruno’s Voices from the Rainforest chronicles his odyssey with every detail he could name and draw, intimate portraits of Penan sharing joys and sorrows in the vortex of the forest. Bruno documented plants used in 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. Scores of unknown species disappear daily.


Bruno Manser had been to the mountaintop and he had seen the Promised Land, and it was Penan. He had traveled the cosmological lifeways of the Penan and in his clairvoyance he embraced biological diversity and communal harmony and wilderness for its own sake. His nonprofit Bruno Manser Fonds (Bruno Manser Fund) championed the rights of peoples of the rainforests, and his dream was to secure a modest biosphere reserve to sustain the last 300 nomadic Penan in Sarawak. Malaysian officials promised to gazette a reserve as early as 1987, but Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad dishonored his people and his self by instead invoking the Internal State Security Act to jail 91 critics of his regime.

"I have lived with the Penan for such a long time that I feel their pain," Bruno once 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 a peaceful people who just look for their daily food. To see this violence by big machines that just turn this paradise into wasteful consumption … it hurts."

Disaffected by decades of destruction, increasingly cornered, the Penan in 1987 blocked logging roads in a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Flimsy barricades of sticks and rattans were backed by hundreds of people, from elders to babies. Counting on international public opinion to stop the logging, there was instead a near total whiteout in the western press. Troops—up to 1,500 soldiers—have stormed barricades, beaten and arrested people, bulldozed nomadic camps. Tear gas killed one four-year-old child.

Bruno was an adventurer, a poet, an ethnographer, a nomad, an artist, a lover of life, a speaker of truth to power. To his detractors—ever ready 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." Bruno shrugged off the personal attacks, seeing fear behind them as he struck at the heart of injustice. He never shrugged off the logging.

Bruno was loved. Like all who tasted the veracity of Bruno’s heart, the Penan are devastated by his death. In January 2002, hundreds of Penan gathered to commemorate their laki Penan through the ritual tawai—a ceremony that translates to "think fondly of someone or something that is not there." With taboos against speaking the names of the dead, the Penan now address their missing brother as laki tawang—"man who has become lost"—and e’h matat—"man who has disappeared."

Bruno was also hated. He was the living, breathing personification of western arrogance and meddling into the "rights" of elite Asians to pillage the earth. Bruno 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.

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 in 1992. He changed my life. With Yoichi Kuroda, the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network and the Sarawak Campaign Committee, Bruno for weeks held a hunger strike at Marubeni Corporation headquarters. 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. 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 at the table for the Penan.

Marubeni, Mitsubishi, Samling, Sumitomo, C. Itoh, Weyerhauser, Maxxam, Stone Container: these stateless zaibatsu churn whole forests into waste, with impunity, as investigations of the timber industry show. Japanese experts oversee all stages of extractive industries, but Marubeni executives deny all responsibility for human rights atrocities. 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 all major newspapers in Sarawak.

Defense of the earth and the rights of indigenous people were the pillars of my ten-year friendship with Bruno. 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.

"My last year’s trip to Ituri was a shock," Bruno wrote me on October 20, 1996. "I realize that just acting with joy, anger and conviction will help visions become facts. The struggle continues." Bruno chose his words as he chose battles: on November 10, 1995, Nigerian playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa had been hung for demanding the 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 attempts to hang him, Ken Saro-Wiwa breathed his last words: "The struggle continues."

Tactics used against the indigenous people are a global phenomenon: polite assurances of equitability; infinite promises made and broken; silent deceptions; confiscation of property; paramilitary brutality, torture and prolonged detention without charge or trial; repressive legislation promulgated to defeat the truth and defend the lies; and murder. These are the forces Bruno challenged—clueless of how to do it, making plenty of mistakes—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," Dr. Mahathir Mohamad 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 2001, Bruno himself admitted, "Success is less than zero." Machines have initiated an ecological unraveling. Rivers are polluted. Sacred burial grounds are desecrated. Penan girls have been raped; one Penan leader died from a bayonet in the stomach; locals have been "disappeared." Penan forced into government settlements suffer hunger, illiteracy, 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. Testifying 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 disappearing 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: roadblocks 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 led Bruno to wild stunts and dangerous publicity actions like hanging from towers and parachuting from planes and hunger-striking for months. Without an immediate and total moratorium on logging operations in Sarawak, Bruno’s life work will stand as testimony of beauty that once was—sadly, an indictment of crimes against humanity. More people, more voices, urgent action are needed: the bulldozers seem set on taking the very last tree. The Penan are our brothers and sisters. Indeed, our very existence may depend on their wisdom. Offering them both bridges and shields to a mutually equitable future, the indigenous people are our teachers.

Why did Bruno do it? Bruno found, in truth, nothing better to do with his life. He exercised choice, and he chose to walk that old, beaten path of compassion and hope. Goethe wrote about this choice in Faust and 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.

I will never forget the day I stood with Bruno in Tokyo as he contemplated an action of civil disobedience. People swarmed all around us. In his bag was a climbing harness and ropes, and I think Bruno’s soul must have left his body, because no words reached him. He was like a samurai in mental preparation for seppuku—ritual disembowelment—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, and he slept.

In the end, I believe, Bruno would ask forgiveness for his detractors, and 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 action for the rights and freedoms of the Penan—and all indigenous people—just as he would seek this for any logger or soldier, for Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, for anyone whose basic 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 …

To find out more about Bruno Manser and the Bruno Manser Fund, visit Bruno Manser Fonds: <>.