Letter from The Editor

It seems that revealing cannibalism and head-hunting is a throwback to the `unashamed cultural prejudice of the Victorian era'
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The Independent Online
Richard Lloyd Parry's revelation of head-hunting and cannibalism by Dayak tribesmen earlier this week was a great scoop - what he rightly described as "an ethnic war of scarcely imaginable savagery, fought according to ancient principles of black magic, between inhabitants of the world's fourth largest nation''. His explanation of the political and economic reasons for the conflict, covered up by the Indonesian government, was impeccable. How strange, then, that in yesterday's Letters column Richard finds himself accused by two campaigners, Stephen Cory of Survival International and Frances Carr of the Campaign for Ecological Justice in Indonesia, of being reactionary and unconsciously racist, and of stereotyping and misrepresenting the Dayaks.

So they didn't indulge in cannibalism and head-hunting of the Madurese, then? Well yes, they did, but it seems that revealing the fact is a throw- back to the ``unashamed cultural prejudice of the Victorian era'' and ``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 ...'' (Cory). Though head-hunting is shocking, Carr adds, ``The Dayaks are a peaceful people who are struggling to survive in their tribal lands ...''

Where do we start? No reader of this paper can be unaware of the foul and brutal behaviour of the Indonesian regime, or of the reasons for the conflict - partly because Lloyd Parry himself has been reporting them. Yes, Westerners can also behave like sadistic tribal killers - witness the reports from Algeria recently. Yes, archaeological evidence suggests that early Britons also indulged in cannibalism - as did Europeans and Russians during the great traumas of this century. All these facts have featured in the paper during the spring.

But - Hell's teeth - none of that can be used as a reason to downplay an outbreak of head-hunting and human heart-eating (or ``cultural practices'' as I should apparently call them). This is mad stuff - political correctness carried far beyond satire. Where once ignorant Europeans thought tribal peoples little better than monkeys, some breast-beating campaigners are now close to an inverted error, thinking of surviving indigenous peoples as ecological angels, more virtuous than fallen, corrupt or "civilised" peoples. There is such a thing as progress. And it does involve giving up cannibalism, in Borneo just as in Surrey.

Finally, thoughts on two front-page pictures. When I saw Wednesday's paper, I thought some malign picture desk operative had decided to smear William Hague, favourite to take over the Tory leadership. After much rumour-mongering around Westminster, Hague (as we report today) has said publicly he is not gay. But in our picture, the MP, who manages to be boyish and bald simultaneously, is clearly shown wearing bright scarlet lipstick. So, smear? No: I am assured it was ``something that happens in the printing''. Then, the following day, we spent part of the evening agonising over a picture of Sean McNally, the Belfast thief who has just had his leg amputated after a republican ``kneecapping''. The picture was, frankly, hard to look at. But it told a brutal truth about what is still regarded on this side of the water as a rather tedious, second-order story - ``just another kneecapping ... just another punishment beating''. In the end, I decided the sewn-up meat of McNally's leg was simply too much for a main front-page picture. So we reduced it. Unfortunately, in the cropping of the picture, most of the wound disappeared, leaving simply a dejected-looking man in a chair. That's the explanation.

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