Letter: Barbaric treatment of Dayak tribes

Click to follow
Sir: It is regrettable for tribal peoples that your report "The return of the cannibals" (9, 10 June) echoes an attitude better left to the unashamed cultural prejudice of the Victorian era. Its publication in a quality newspaper potentially undermines years of work by tribes and their supporters to persuade the world that tribals are no more "savage" or "primitive" than the rest of us, and that our unhappiness with their cultural practices should no longer be an excuse for the theft of their land and resources.

No country in the world treats its tribal peoples worse than Indonesia, whose army has killed at least 45,000 in West Papua (Irian Jaya) alone. As well as imprisonment, torture and killings, Indonesia's other main attack on the tribes is its notorious "transmigration" project, planned as one of the largest displacements of population in human history. This involves shipping hundreds of thousands of Indonesians from the overcrowded centre into the "remote" outer islands, with the result that the indigenous tribes suffer waves of invasion by colonists who treat them with racist contempt.

To be fair, The Independent's "cannibal" report does mention the influxes of settlers into Indonesian Borneo, but not until the reader has endured a litany of brutal killings, the eating of colonists' hearts and so forth.

We are not excusing this behaviour - the Dayak tribes have clearly been pushed beyond breaking point and have resorted to violence in retaliation for the treatment they have been subjected to. Once they have killed their enemies, they have chopped off the heads of several, and eaten the hearts of a few (according to our information, less than a dozen). This is how they traditionally treated their enemies' bodies. It is appalling and barbaric, but is it any more so than the way in which the Indonesian state treats its minorities? Stereotypes such as the Dayaks' "superficial modernisation" masking a belief in "spirits" and "ancient and merciless traditions of head-hunting, cannibalism and witchcraft" are reactionary and have no place in your newspaper.

The same issue of The Independent (9 June) includes a report about Italian soldiers torturing young Somalis in 1993, wiring them up with electrodes on their testicles, throwing them against razor wire "for the amusement" of their captors and so on. Tribal people may sometimes behave like savages - particularly when they feel mortally threatened. But so do the rest of us. By equating "ancient" tribal beliefs with inhuman brutality, which is the overriding message of your report, the article unconsciously supports Indonesian racism about tribal peoples.


Director General

Survival International

London WC1