Bagatan community pledge full cooperation for klirieng conservation project if demands met

Dialogue participants pose for a group photo.

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By Calvin Jemarang

BINTULU, May 31: The Pejarai Bagatan community in and near Pejarai River have informed the authorities that they will give their full cooperation to salvage three klirieng (burial poles) at the bottom of the river if their list of demands are met.

They told the authorities during a dialogue held at Tatau District Office on May 24. It was the second dialogue with the local communities in Tatau District this month.

The Sarawak Museum Department is trying to salvage the klirieng submerged at the bottom of the Pejarai River. It is an urgent project due to the impending monsoon season. The department as the guardian of the artefacts has the options of either seeking the locals’ cooperation or invoking the recently enacted Sarawak Heritage Ordinance.

The authority is trying to enlist the full cooperation of the Bagatan living in the area, and the Tatau Punan communities downriver, who are the owners of the artefacts.

A few months earlier, the Sarawak Museum Department had located the three klirieng at the bottom of the Pejarai River in the vicinity of Maskin River. The Maskin River was historically controlled by the Tatau Punan until the early nineteenth century. The burial poles are believed to be at least a few hundred years’ old.

However, after two consecutive dialogues, the Sarawak Museum Department had yet to get the full cooperation of the Bagatan who are spread across eight longhouses. During the recent dialogue, the Bagatan’s demands were articulated by one of their headmans, Kanyan Abok of Rumah Kanyan, not their newly appointed Penghulu, Sekaya Tolang, who was not present at the dialogue.

According to Kanyan, he can guarantee the government, the full cooperation Bagatan communities, if their list of demands are agreed to.

He said the collective demands which had been agreed upon during a meeting held at Rumah Kanyan on May 14, 2022 are as follows:

  • Pemali (emplasik menoa) of RM500 per door (with 164 doors); and
  • Miscellaneous expenses to perform Christian prayers at RM2,000 per longhouse (eight longhouses).

Overall, this would cost RM98,000.

Penghulu Sanok Magai, who leads the Tatau District Special Committee on Heritage Conservation, a facilitating committee under Tatau District Office, was visibly disappointed by the way and how the Bagatan were pressing their demands.

The Bagatan communities readily admitted the burial poles are not theirs, but nonetheless, held firm in denying the Tatau Punan’s request to perform the necessary rituals to appease their ancestors’ spirits near the klirieng site or in the Pejarai River. It is within their rights, furthermore, no one had objected to such ritual being performed before. They had been involved in the conservation of burial poles in Bah River, Pila River and Tatau River.

“If they want to perform their Bungan ritual, they can do that elsewhere. This is because the Bagatan in the Pejarai River are all Christian,” Kanyan said.

The Bagatan in the Pejarai River area had over the last few decades embraced Christianity, mainly under the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) denomination. Meanwhile, the Tatau Punans mostly are Christians under the Roman Catholic and BEM denominations.

To avoid further hampering and delaying the urgent project, Sanok and headwoman Ado Bilong representing the Tatau Punan relented to the Bagatans’ unflinching stand. According to Sanok, they will perform the necessary ritual at Rumah Ado, several kilometers away, downriver from the klirieng site.

“What is important is for the klirieng to be salvaged,” said Ado who is considered the rightful owner of the klirieng.

“I don’t have the money and resource to preserve these klirieng and that is why I’m so happy for the Museum Department’s effort,” she said.

Sanok said engaging in unnecessary arguments is useless and would defeat the conservation effort.

Among the senior government officers attending the dialogue were anthropologist Dr Elena Gregoria Chai Chin Fern from the Ministry of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts, Administrative Officer (Operations) Dr Ipoi Datan from Council for Native Customs and Traditions (MAIS), and Sarawak Museum Conservation Department Curator Nicholas Daby Henry Atie.

Also present were officers from various local government agencies, Daniel Juk Wan and Mohammad Sedek from the Land and Survey Department and a representative from Bintulu Development Authority.

Meanwhile, Chai who is one of the experts involved in the project and who is also spearheading the project, promised the Bagatan headmen present to bring up the demands of the Bagatan community to the State authorities and discuss it with them.

Sanok (right) submitting the oral history of the Tatau Punan to Chai for the Ministry of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts during the dialogue session.

Earlier, Nicholas Daby who is also the head of the Sarawak Museum Conservation Department had said that the department did not have a policy of compensating communities they engage in any conservation efforts previously.

Ipoi, a former Director of Sarawak Museum, told those present that the department had engaged with numerous communities, from the Kelabit and Lun Bawang in the northern part of the State to the Melikin people in the south and were always welcome with openness.

He also related his experiences working with Lun Bawang, Kelabit, and Punan communities. He said, when they tried to preserve a megalith in the Bario Highlands, they only went to see the local headmen. In the Rejang, at Punan Ba village, they were only required to observe the Punan people’s taboo for a few days.

“That is a fair demand. It is a custom. Thereafter, we were free to do our works on the klirieng in the Bah and Pila rivers.”

“In many cases, local communities were fully cooperative and had not hindered us from doing our conservation works.”

Trying to persuade the Bagatan community, Dr Ipoi said: “This is a very important conservation work.”

“These klirieng at Pejarai River had been at the bottom of the river for many years. These prized heritage of ours urgently needs to be removed from the river.”

He pleaded with the Pejarai Bagatan to give their full support to the Museum Department’s effort.

Meanwhile, Tatau District Officer, Jabang Juntan who is the patron of the Tatau District Heritage Conservation committee urged the local communities throughout the District to give their full cooperation to the Museum Department and Chai who is also studying the klirieng customs among the Punan.

The klirieng at Pejarai, located near a small stream called Maskin River are believed to be linked to the clan of Saghek, a paramount chief of Tatau Punan from the 17th century.

Among Saghek’s living descendants are the Kakus Punan headwoman, Ado Bilong, Kakus assemblyman and Minister in the Premier of Sarawak’s Department, Datuk John Sikie Tayai, and Penghulu Sanok Magai. The Maskin River klirieng project was mooted by John Sikie and would later expand to include all burial poles in the Tatau River basin.

Historical records in the Sarawak Gazette 1912 and 1915 suggested, the Bagatan communities at Pejarai today moved into the area in the second decade of the 20th century. The first settlers were descendants of a Bagatan band then known as Beketan Malong, because they were bonded to Malong, a Tatau Punan chief in the late 18th century.

About two generations later, a man named Beluchok tried to redeem his people. He persuaded Malong’s grandson, Penghulu Nyipa Lidom (a penghulu from 1883 to 1909) to let them settle in the Upper Pejarai. However, Nyipa did not allow them to break away from their bondage. However, Nyipa died unexpectedly at Punan Ba village in 1909.

Beluchok then tried again. He succeeded in coaxing Penghulu Taji, a Tatau Punan community leader who succeeded Nyipa to allow them to move to Pejarai River (today become Penyarai). The Beluchok group initially were told to choose an area between Lana and Sangan River to live, by the Resident at Bintulu.

However, they adamant in selecting Pejarai, upstream from the Punan under Taji at the mouth of Pejarai River. They moved into the area in 1915, according to the monthly report filed by Bintulu Resident, Francis Farrington Boult on June 16, 1915.

According to Chai and Nicholas Daby, work to retrieve the submerged klirieng will be done the soonest possible.

“We hope to complete the conservation works before the monsoon season arrives,” Chai said. — DayakDaily