Imagining there are Garuda and Harimau


RECENTLY, I came across the wonderful thesis by Lidya Lestari Sitohang of Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, namely ‘Cross-border interaction in the context of border-regional development in Kalimantan’, completed in March 2022.

It vividly illustrates the lives of the border communities in the Krayan Highlands, providing unique insights into both formal and informal cross-border exchange.

Before the ‘Nusantara move’ (the plan to relocate Indonesia’s capital to East Kalimantan), Kalimantan had long been regarded as the frontier of Indonesia. The inland areas, mostly highlands that border Malaysia are probably the frontier of the frontier.

Embedded in the Heart of Borneo at an altitude of 760-1,200 metres and confined to mountain ranges, the Krayan highlands may be regarded as a borderland isolated from the other parts of Kalimantan. Unlike other places in Borneo, rivers here are unusable for regular transportation to the lowland due to extreme rapids.

Due to the terrain, the highlanders have limited access to other parts of Indonesia. Air transportation is the only way out. Long Bawan has several connecting flights to Nunukan, Tarakan, and Malinau. Obtaining the necessities of modern life from other Indonesian towns has been fiendish.

Interestingly, the only linkage to the outside world is via Ba Kelalan in Sarawak. Sarawak and Sabah are separated from North Kalimantan by the long-stretching Kayan Mentarang National Park, which encompasses huge blocks of pristine rainforests with a wealth of flora and fauna. The main channel that sees cross-border exchange is Long Bawan in the Krayan plateau. Note that ‘Krayan’ and ‘Kayan’ are not the same but refer to two different rivers.

The cross-border connection to Ba Kelalan actually opened up the door to the modern world. The road constructed since the 2000s completely transformed the life of the locals. Regularly, Krayan’s inhabitants purchase goods from Malaysia to meet their basic needs, including gasoline, sugars, cooking oils, etc. Sometimes, they also do petty jobs in Malaysia for extra income. Cross-border marriage is also common here, creating a broad kinship network among the border communities.

Another interesting element of the cross-border exchange is the export of Adan rice, a famous highland rice from Krayan. The rice has a unique texture and comes in white, red, and black varieties. The black Adan rice is probably the most well-known with its uniquely sweet fragrance and delicious taste. It is recognised and protected with a geographical indication in Indonesia, i.e., a sign used on products with specific qualities, characteristics, or reputations due to their place of origin.

Historically, the highlanders lived in a borderless world before the colonial age, speaking the same language and sharing the same culture.

Now, they are divided by borders, with different names given to communities residing on the different sides: Lundayeh in Sabah, Lun Bawang in Sarawak, and Dayak Lundayeh in Kalimantan. Changes and development are relatively slow and limited for those drawn into the Kalimantan territory compared to their counterparts in Sarawak.

In Sitohang’s masterpiece, she explored Kalimantan-Sarawak interactions in the context of border-region development. Especially, Sitohang carefully studied how the people in Krayan perceive the border in everyday life and how they interpret nationalism.

The border did change the highlands’ societies. What touched me most were the sad stories about those who came across the border to work in Malaysia. Sitohang reported that some Krayan people were ‘treated in an unpleasant way’ and ‘looked down upon’ by their families in Malaysia. They felt they were considered ‘inferior’ and ‘lower caste’.

This echoed the findings of another researcher, Matthew H. Amster, who did his research in the Kelabit Highlands in the 2000s, describing that the Krayan people were marginalised and demeaned as ‘outsiders’. To an extreme, Sitohang documented a case of potential human right violation: ‘we worked like slaves, we finished our job, but we were not paid for it.’

Just like everywhere else, entrepreneurship also grew wildly in Krayan. In his delightful paper published in 2021, Bart Klem reported stories about ‘brokers’ who took advantage of the differences across the border and made themselves a fortune. With their knowledge and networks on both sides, they could exploit the currency differences and make windfall profits through cross-border trade, turning Krayan into an ‘indigenous version of an informal special economic zone’ as described by Klem.

“Garuda di dadaku, Malaysia di perutku” – Sitohang put this phrase as the subtitle of her thesis. Garuda is the national emblem of Indonesia. This subtitle accurately describes the awkward position of Krayan’s inhabitants.

At first, I thought Harimau was a better word choice as a counterpart to Garuda. But then, I realised there is no concrete evidence of the tiger’s existence in Borneo. And well, Garuda is a mythical bird anyway. By drawing artificial borders, people created the fiction of countries and fabricated a sense of belonging to animals not even seen in Borneo. John Lennon asked to “imagine there’s no countries”, but ‘countries’ are just imaginations.

It is tempting to indulge ourselves like John Lennon in an ideal world without borders and all of us living in harmony as one community. However, it is hard to imagine the political structure, given the vast area we are talking about.

The existence of states, whether symbolised by a Garuda or a Harimau, is a result of both rational and moral considerations. While states provide a governing system to guarantee people a stable life, they also fulfil emotional needs by fostering a sense of attachment.

In reality, Krayan’s people have been demonstrating their remarkable national pride as Indonesians with the omnipresence of national flags and symbols, although culturally, they are closer to their Malaysian counterparts across the border.

Some may attempt to imagine how Borneo’s history would have gone differently had colonisation not happened to divide the island. Indigenous communities might have opportunities to flourish with natural resources available, but less likely we would see a unified powerful Bornean state due to the physical geographical constraints.

Speculatively, there might probably be more independent territories, borders, and possibly more conflicts, as seen elsewhere. Borneo has never been placed under a unified system of power except for a loose one during WW2 under the Japanese occupation.

Assessing the counterfactuals sensibly is quite challenging, considering the complexities of the what-ifs.

However, we may take bolder moves in exploring a more comprehensive governing system in the border regions, where states voluntarily and proactively collaborate to do more than the status quo. The current institutional design is a legacy of colonisation and does not necessarily fit the peoples’ nature better than other arrangements.

The Nusantara move (although it may not be materialised) may trigger a re-examination of collaboration between the Bornean territories. Be it Garuda or Harimau, after all, we are Homo sapiens who know better about cooperation for long-term interests, not to mention people who share the same language and culture.

Dr Goh Chun Sheng is a researcher at Sunway University and Harvard University. He is interested in exploringsustainable development in both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.