Author’s note: This writing was one of two submissions in August 2003 by keith harmon snow that were both published in the Spring of 2005 in the huge Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature: . See also the entry on Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni of Ogoni, Nigeria. keith harmon snow, May 23, 2005.


Manser, Bruno (1954-2000) and the Penan of Sarawak

Born into a devout Protestant family in Basel, Switzerland, Bruno Manser was one of the foremost global campaigners for the indigenous Penan nomads of Sarawak, Malaysia, until his suspicious disappearance in Sarawak, on or around 25 May 2000. With a worldview centered on communal harmony and the veneration of nature, Manser was a firm believer and active practitioner of non-violent civil disobedience. Gaining wide fame and attention in Europe, Manser and the non-profit, Swiss-Based Bruno Manser Fonds (in English, the Bruno Manser Foundation) campaigned fiercely and relentlessly for two decades to stop the decimation of tropical forests, to defend and institutionalize the rights of indigenous peoples to autonomy and self-determination, and to document egregious violations of basic human rights.

Manser was primarily focused on saving the indigenous Penan and their communal forests on the island of Borneo, and in this pursuit he was a formidable self-taught ethnographer, ethnobotanist, artist, writer, linguist, craftsman and photographer. His informal medical studies insured his self-treatment and recovery from a lethal bite of a red-tailed pit viper while living in remote Penan territories in 1989.

One of three boys and two girls born to a factory worker, Manser’s parents wanted him to become a doctor. Surrounded and nourished by the tempered wilderness of the Swiss Alps, Manser early on challenged the epistemological dictates of “civilization.” An independent thinker from the start, at nineteen years-old Manser spent three months in a Lucerne prison for conscientious objection to Switzerland’s compulsory military service. While he was known to be aware of the Gandhian philosophy of Satyagraha, the extent of Manser’s familiarity with the non-violent ideologies of Tolstoy, Thoreau or Martin Luther King is less certain.

Leaving prison in 1973, Manser lived for twelve years as a cowherd in a secluded Swiss alp, where he laid bricks, carved leather and kept bees. He wove, dyed and cut his own clothes and shoes. Mountaineering and technical climbing were regular pursuits. Foreshadowing later solo wilderness expeditions in Malaysia, Mexico, Congo (Zaire) and Alaska, Manser ventured alone into the Swiss mountains for long periods.

In 1984 Manser traveled with an English spelunking expedition to explore the Gunung Mulu National Park in Borneo. Afterward he traveled deep into the interior of Sarawak to find and live with the Penan. “In my search to understand the deep essence of our humanity,” Manser said, “there grew in me the desire to learn from a people who still live close to their source. At Swiss libraries I found almost nothing about the Penan of Sarawak, and so I said ‘I want to go there’” (Personal communication, 1993).

From 1984 to 1989 Manser lived intimately with the Penan, mastering the Penan language, documenting the ethnology of the Penan and their natural environment. Manser adopted the Penan way of life absolutely, dressing in a loincloth, hunting with a blowpipe and bow and arrows, eating primates and snakes and the staple sago palm of the Penan diet. Manser’s respect and sensitivity for the Penan gained him an unprecedented status in the egalitarian and non-hieracrchical community of the last several hundred nomadic Penan.

Bruno Manser’s total immersion in the Penan lifestyle became a source of much derision, humor and ridicule in the West, and his experience was often dismissed as “pure Hollywood” foolishness. “They called me ‘white Tarzan,’ ‘medical school drop-out,’ ‘short-time hero’; they even said I had taken two Penan wives,” said Manser (Personal Communication, 1993).

To those who investigated or knew his story, Bruno Manser was venerated. He was known and respected by Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian leaders, whom he often met with, at home and abroad. Manser’s non-violent protests (especially prolonged public fasts) drew the attention of Switzerland’s churches: catholic and protestant leaders in Switzerland regularly dedicated services to Manser. An exemplary citizen, respected for his efforts to mitigate Penan suffering, Manser grew in stature, often portrayed as a moral beacon for religious stories, themes and dedications; for church services and celebrations (esp. Confirmation); and for protracted rites where Bruno Manser was chosen as the focus of prolonged meditations. After his disappearance, the veneration of Bruno Manser increased significantly: school and church groups frequently request(ed) information from BMF.

Absent any judicial recourse to the unrestricted logging that was increasingly devastating the remaining indigenous forests of Borneo, the Penan in the early-1980s instituted non-violent blockades of logging operations, blockades that continued over subsequent decades. While their plight was mostly ignored and marginalized, the Penan persisted in attempting to further their indigenous rights to autonomy and self-determination through international forums, local actions and the efforts of Penan leaders both resident and exiled.

Bruno Manser’s role in Penan blockades is uncertain. Living amongst the Penan from 1984 to 1990, a fugitive remaining in Malaysia without a visa, Manser catapulted the Penan story onto the world stage. He did not participate in logging blockades but the Malaysian and Sarawakian government nonetheless blamed him for Penan actions. In 1990 he left the Penan to campaign in Europe, Japan and North America to stop the logging of Penan territories. Manser correctly perceived that the economic policies of the already industrialized nations would determine the future of indigenous people like the Penan.

In December 1992 Manser led a 20-day hunger strike in front of Marubeni Corporation headquarters in downtown Tokyo, Japan. In 1993 Manser led a 60-day fast, supported by 40 hunger-strikers, in front of the Swiss Parliament. In 1996, Manser and Jacques Christinet hung huge banners on the auxiliary cable of the Swiss Kleinmatterhorn aerial cable car, a risky action for which Manser was criticized by some supporters. There were countless lesser actions, meetings with Parliament’s and corporate executives, and appearances at international conferences and before the United Nations. By 2000, Bruno Manser Fonds raised over $10,000 to establish a mobile dental clinic for the Penan but the Malaysian government refused to cooperate and rejected the project. In 2000, Manser privately confirmed that success in Sarawak had been “less than zero” (Personal communication). He was deeply saddened.

Academics, newspapers and officials widely criticized and derided Manser, although the U.S. press ignored the Bruno Manser and Penan story altogether. Malaysian officials were hardened by Manser’s presence in Sarawak. Some environmental groups blamed Manser for inflaming the Malaysian government. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed blamed Manser for disrupting law and order. In a personal letter to Manser, Mahathir wrote:


As a Swiss living in the laps of luxury with the world’s highest standard of living, it is the height of arrogance for you to advocate that the Penans live on maggots and monkeys in their miserable huts, subjected to all kinds of diseases (Mahathir, 3 March 1992).


Mahathir responded to Penan blockades with the designation of Biosphere Reserves for the Penan (subsequently logged illegally). Dr. Mahathir in 1987 invoked Malaysia’s State Security Act to jail critics of the regime. The Act was also used to neutralize the Penan campaign: at the time of this writing, over 1,200 people had been arrested for challenging the logging; up to 1,500 Malaysian soldiers and police had stormed barricades, beat and arrested people; bulldozers had leveled nomadic camps; and the Sarawak government tolerated criminal gangs hired by logging firms to intimidate the indigenous people.

The government of Sarawak’s Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud responded with military operations targeting Manser. Through his embarrassing investigations and reports, Manser gained the wrath of many timber companies. He evaded Malaysian security on numerous occasions to visit the Penan. Soldiers in Malaysia hunted him, and he was captured by soldiers, and escaped under gunfire, twice. Declared “enemy of the state number one,” a $50,000 word-of-mouth bounty was rumored and widely believed to have been placed on Manser’s head: the source of the bounty remains unconfirmed.

Manser’s expedition to document the effects of logging and war on the Ituri pygmies in the rainforest of Congo (Zaire) in 1995 occurred amidst widespread political upheaval and terror. Manser returned to Switzerland with a massive body of moving ethnographic photographs later shown at expositions around Europe. His efforts to defend the Penan never ceased.

In 1999 Manser entered Sarawak illegally, and was arrested and deported after landing a motorized glider on the property of Sarawak’s Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, where a group of Penan leaders, never welcome, were waiting to get a meeting with the Chief Minister. On 22 May 2000, on what became his last mission to Sarawak to meet with Penan friends besieged by logging, Bruno Manser disappeared without a trace on or after 25 May 2000. He was last seen by a Penan friend within two days walk from the village of Bario, Sarawak, not far from the base of Batu Lawi, the venerated limestone spire. Within a year, the pristine forest where Manser disappeared was logged.

Throughout his life Manser quietly rejected the dogmatism of religion, especially his native Christianity. In contradistinction, Manser found his personal beliefs confirmed in alignment with aspects of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and animism that he considered noble and sacred. Manser’s spiritual coherence with nature was born in his youthful and mostly solitary explorations of the alpine environment; his coherence with animism was keenly furthered through his deep association with the Penan. Manser believed in following one’s dreams, no matter the impediments or implications. With a very poignant understanding of the commonality of hopes and fears of human beings, Manser lived life in respect of all beings, and in respect of the unseen world, which he considered the base of all life.

In the Penan cosmology, Manser was known as lakei Penan – Penan man – signifying the respect the Penan held for their adopted brother. Manser’s drawings and stories collected during his stay with the Penan are richly elaborated with tales of animal and nature spirits, and the concomitant superstitions and taboos. Manser documented oral histories from Penan elders and recorded and translated their interpretations of self, tribe and nature.

Manser’s documentation of the Penan way was intimate and unprecedented. Sense of place is paramount in the Penan cosmology, where the geomorphology is intimately known and all natural objects (trees, rivers, animals, etc.) have creation stories or fables associated with them. Penan social and gender roles attest to a deeply spiritual and respectful cosmology absent of hierarchy. Manser’s intimacy with, and acceptance by, the Penan enabled him to transcend the arrogance and ethnocentricity that characterize and inform (detrimentally) much anthropological research. He was painstaking in his efforts to accurately interpret the metaphysical and practical symbology of the Penan. Manser claimed that in his six years with the Penan he never witnessed an argument or expression of violence of any kind. Manser often spoke of the peace and violence of the forest, and the joys and sorrows of the Penan way.

In January 2002, hundreds of Penan gathered for a private commemoration of Manser with the ritual tawai ceremony (“think fondly of someone or something that is not here”). With taboos against speaking the names of the dead, the Penan will forever address Manser as lakei tawang (“man who has become lost”) and lakei e’h metat (“man who has disappeared”).


Keith Harmon Snow, journalist (Williamsburg, Massachusetts)


Further Reading


Davis, Wade, Ian Mackenzie and Shane Kennedy. Nomads of the Dawn: The Penan of the Borneo Rainforest. Pomegranate Books, 1995.  


Manser, Bruno. Voices from the Rainforest: Testimonies of a Threatened People. Basel, Switzerland: Bruno Manser Fonds & INSAN, 1996.


Manser, Bruno. Tong Tana: Journal on Rainforests, Indigenous Rights and the Timber Trade. Basel, Switzerland: Bruno Manser Fonds.


High Stakes: the Need to Control Transnational Logging Companies, a Malaysian Case Study. World Rainforest Movement (Uruguay) and Forests Monitor Ltd. (U.K.), 1998.


Snow, Keith Harmon. “Bruno Manser: Man Who Has Disappeared.” Kyoto Journal 53 (March 2003).


See also: Penan Hunter-Gatherers.


1848 words