[Letter to the Editor] Sarawak borderlands: More than meets the eye

The Lun Bawang community in Ba’Kelalan. Photo credit: Linda Lumayag

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Sarawak has always been a popular destination for both domestic and international tourists for many reasons. In most cases, they come to Sarawak to experience hands-on the unique and diverse culture and multi-ethnic character, its ancient rainforests, scenic mountain trails, hundreds of rivers and streams, the longhouse, headhunting practices of the past, and the list goes on.

But one thing that might interest others is knowing that Sarawak has tens of trails and exits to cross the other side of what was once called ‘Borneo’. Sarawak is nestled in one of the largest rainforests in the world, and around it are the ‘border’ communities of Sabah, Kalimantan in Indonesia, and Brunei Darussalam.

The political history of Sarawak speaks of dynamic, uninterrupted social interactions in border communities even as new political divisions and maps have been drawn due to the formation of Malaysia as a nation-state.

Appreciating border interactions acknowledges that no political remapping or redrawing of political maps around the issue of territorial sovereignty restrains people’s social and cultural connections. It means that historical and social ties involving extended families remain central in their cultural world, although territorial redrawing may also transform relationships and social meanings.

The modern-day mapping of territories consequent to political delineation, independence struggle, or post-colonial administration has produced a relationship where communities are required to comply with the new border regulations, like applying for a border pass before they are allowed to cross the border.

So, what does a border in Sarawak look like, and what makes it an interesting place to visit? Ideally, there is an ‘official’ border where the Customs, Immigration, Quarantine, and Security (CIQS) complex is installed.

In Sarawak, there are four identified exits with CIQS. This is a busy channel since varied activities are observed: traders with their goods, tourist vehicles for visits and educational tours, or private vehicles for medical and hospital services.

Another type of border is where there is no CIQS, and border crossing is strictly limited. There are layers of security outposts manned by Immigration personnel and army soldiers. One requirement is the Pas Lintas Batas (PLB), although, after the pandemic, this PLB is strictly issued to local border residents only.

But there is another type of border where no security outposts are installed, and it is popularly known as ‘jalan tikus’ (rat trail) by outsiders. Residents know the physical terrain as if it had been inscribed on the palm of their hands and use these trails to and from their farm or fruit orchard.

In its physical form, a landmark is erected to remind any passerby which country owns which land, like this marker I took during my recent visit to the Ba’Kelalan highlands.

Ba’Kelalan-Long Midang border. Photo credit: Linda Lumayag

It is about 4km from Kampung Buduk Nur. It is connected to Kalimantan via a logging road. There are layers of security that Malaysia and Indonesia have installed. From the Sarawak side, the first outpost is manned by the Department of Immigration from the Lawas Division, and immigration personnel come on a monthly shift.

The second outpost is composed of combined army soldiers from Indonesia and Malaysia, and this is where an identification card and PLB pass are shown to the security personnel.

The nearest trading town close to the Sarawak-Kalimantan border is Longbawan. Trading has always been a regular economic activity which ranges from frozen chicken, dry goods, and drinks to construction materials.

However, subsidised goods such as gas, cooking oil, rice, and sugar cannot cross to Longbawan as these are meant for Malaysian consumption. The border pass, however, limits the physical movement of border passers within the 30km radius, so, then, local trading is no longer conducted in earlier identified town areas; instead, goods are sent to particular areas for pick-up.

Border roads are challenging to negotiate. Roads exist not primarily for trading or border crossing, but people follow what they call ‘timber’ or ‘logging’ roads.

Logging road in Puneng’Kelalan, on the way to the border. Photo credit: Linda Lumayag

In other border communities in Serian or Miri division, people use the oil palm roads constructed privately by plantation companies operating in these areas. Border crossers may decide to walk, which is tiring when it rains or when the blistering sun is up or use private vehicles.

However, the usual travel to the border is interesting when one is feted to the beautiful landscape of the high mountain ranges on the horizon, the padi land in the foreground, and a cluster of few houses on the hills.

The ‘busy-ness’ of the borderlands reflects border communities’ social and cultural life. It is a ‘social pulse’, i.e., the extent to which border communities across the territorial maps interact and share rituals, beliefs, signs and symbols across the national divide.

Marriage, weddings, funerals, and festivities are shared cultural rituals, hence maintaining social ties. So, border mobility has its own rhythm dictated by these cultural norms and practices. For instance, when a cross-border wedding occurs, a ‘rombongan’ is organised, consisting of a cluster of families. Or during Gawai Dayak, which is also an occasion to visit family members, relatives, and friends across both border communities.

It is interesting that borderlands vary from one community to another because they are occupied by distinct ethnic communities traditionally living in those areas. In the highlands of Ba’Kelalan are the Lun Bawang, Bario the Kelabit, while in Lundu, the Iban, Mongkos the Bidayuh, and down south of Sarawak, Biawak both Iban and Bidayuh.

Borderlands can also be a source of contention, especially when crimes and syndicates could conveniently operate, leading to border residents becoming victims. The drug menace is affecting the tranquillity and security in certain border communities.

In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the goings-on in border communities in ways that crossing requires paperwork, mental preparation, and perceived fear of virus infection.

Dr Linda Lumayag is a research fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies.

This is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of DayakDaily. Letters to the Editor may be lightly edited for clarity.