Keeping the Spirit of Bruno Manser Alive

Journalist Ruedi Suter sheds light on the mysterious circumstances surrounding the strange disappearance of Bruno Manser, who highlighted the plight of Sarawak’s Penan people.

Ruedi Suter.

In 2004, Swiss indigenous-rights activist Bruno Manser hiked to his favourite peak, Batu Lawi. Despite having completed the climb several times during his years with the nomadic Penan, he disappeared into thin air. He had been championing the Penan’s fight against the deforestation of their ancestral land.

Bruno’s uncanny story is told in great detail by Ruedi Suter in Rainforest Hero: The Life and Death of Bruno Manser, a German bestseller that has finally been translated into English through the joint effort of publishers SIRD (Malaysia) and Bergli (Switzerland). I meet the author and Johanna Michel, a representative of the Bruno Manser Foundation, during the Nusantara Forum, jointly organised by Gerakbudaya and Penang Institute, in November last year.

“I travelled with Bruno’s brother Erik to Sarawak to follow Bruno’s last traces in the jungle, and that’s how I met the Penan for the first time,” says Suter, a tall fellow with a calm and soothing voice and an indistinguishable central European moustache. “I had a very good feeling from the beginning. I understood immediately why Bruno – who was a pacifist and didn’t even want to do military service – had chosen to join these non-aggressive people. The Penan spokesmen with whom I’m working together again on this book tour are still fantastic. I think that if I were the one to walk out of the woods and into these busy Malaysian towns, I would go crazy. But they are good speakers: they know how to defend themselves in peaceful and meaningful ways, thanks to the help of Bruno and the Manser Foundation.”

Suter’s book, Rainforest Hero, is a captivating read that explains Bruno’s unique lifechanging choices. “It was published in German shortly after Bruno’s disappearance and became a bestseller only because of his fascinating story,” explains Suter, who doesn’t want to take any credit for his engrossing writing style. But it took a decade to find the funds and then realise the English translation. “I wanted people in the Englishspeaking world to be able to read this story,” says Suter.

Before meeting Bruno, the Swiss journalist had already written a lot about indigenous peoples and deforestation issues. “Bruno’s story interested me because we were both from Basel,” he says. In 1996 Bruno returned to Switzerland after six years in the forest, and little did Suter know that a decade after that first encounter he would be chasing Bruno’s last trail in the shadow of Batu Lawi’s twin peaks. “Bruno came home only to visit his sick father,” explains Suter. “He had found his ideal world in Penan-Land. Switzerland is one of the richest and better organised countries in the world, but Bruno understood that it would have ended in disaster if we had continued to develop that way. Most of the materials employed to build Swiss wealth come from those peoples who, like the Penan, were not rewarded for the sacking of their main sources of livelihood.”

Penan elders.

Suter clarifies that he wrote the book without any financial help from the Bruno Manser Foundation. “I never wanted to write a book about him, but when we met, it felt natural to start saving notes and memories of such an amazing character in my laptop. His life was dangerous, and I thought he could have disappeared any day… as eventually happened. As soon as I had secured some funding, I went back to my early notes and expanded the research into the book.”

With Bruno gone, the homonymous foundation still fights for change. “Bruno Manser had met another Swiss guy in Sarawak, Roger Graf. He helped start the Manser Foundation and build the efficient structure that Bruno found upon returning to Switzerland,” explains Suter. Thanks to Graf ’s work, Bruno already had the buttress to bring these issues to the media in the US and Europe. “He was a very simple man, and many liked his honesty. He did crazy things, like fly over the residence of (then Sarawak Chief Minister) Taib Mahmud, hunger strikes, parachuting himself into a crowded stadium during 1992’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro… he wanted to show the world that the Penan were real, and their existence was in danger,” remembers Suter.

The Foundation Lives On

The foundation was taken over by historian Lucas Straumann. The objective today is to chart Penan land with interactive maps that show the ancestral heritage in order to demonstrate the tribe’s land rights. I ask Michel to better explain this task. “Only about 10% of primary Sarawak rainforest remains today, and Penan land is the most intact patch. We wish to preserve it and transform it into the Penan Peace Park,” she says. “We are trying to help the Penan legally by doing community mapping, in other words, providing the GPS technology necessary to document important places of their cultural heritage.”

This way, Michel explains, it would be possible to demonstrate that the Malaysian Land Right Act does not respect the fact that the Penan have dwelled in the region well before the inclusion of Sarawak in 1963. “We ask them to list all the names of rivers, mountains, villages and other relevant things to their culture and past, so that we can trace the origins of those names back in time to earlier generations. The Penan’s is the last prime rainforest standing in Sarawak, and we must do something to keep it alive,” she says.

Suter adds that “Bruno was simply the loudspeaker for the Penan. Without him, they would not have been able to reach out to the media. Similar pressures on indigenous people happen everywhere in the world, from the Amazons to the Congo, from Siberia to Canada. This situation generates two main behaviours: in each group, the elders want to preserve the traditions and the young want to follow the alluring ways of civilisation. We must leave them the freedom of choice.”

I ask Suter, however, what he thinks of the negative publicity that Bruno attracted, especially the infamous National Geographic photo depicting the Penan mother and child whom Bruno had allegedly left behind in the forest. “I cannot say with whom Bruno slept,” says Suter, “but I tried to investigate this area of his life in my book. It’s true: there was a single mother with a child, and he helped her a lot. But I can’t tell you if they slept together or not… it could be. Bruno had many girlfriends in Switzerland, too. What I am definitely sure is that he had no children, because if he had, I believe he would have behaved very differently.”

To Suter, bad publicity is irrelevant, because Bruno was truly a symbol of change, someone able to put a lot of pressure on the Swiss government. “People were divided between those who respected him and those who thought he was a lunatic. But even today, his story resonates within university halls,” says Suter. “I’d like to believe that mine is not only a book about Bruno, but about our destructive society, our generation… the story of the last 50 years, and what is going wrong around the world.”

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at His Asian metal punk memoir, Banana Punk Rawk Trails, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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