Tribal roots, religion and politics hold back Dayak unity

Buni ak Japah (left) and Nande from Central Kalimantan after visiting the Oath Stone in Keningau earlier.

KOTA KINABALU: A pan-Borneo movement to unite all Dayak people under one umbrella faces various challenges, among them tribal affinity, political alignments, and the growing influence of ‘imported’ religions.

So far, the movement has gained traction with the establishment of an office of the Borneo Dayak Forum International for a permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.

There has been an increase in awareness and participation from the various Dayak groups all over Borneo. With three countries involved, namely Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam, nationality has not been a hindrance to the rise of the pan-Borneo Dayak movement.

However, in Sarawak and Sabah, the Dayak have identified with their tribes.

Buni Ak Japah, a Dayak in Sarawak was introduced to the pan-Borneo movement in 2016. He said the problem in Sarawak was the strong desire among the Dayak to affiliate themselves with their own tribes instead of the collective identity as Dayak.

“I think it is because we have been trained that way, even brainwashed, to identify ourselves according to our ethnic group. It is a classic divide and rule ideology. It seems that the government is worried if we are united.

“However, I don’t think they can stop this movement. The wheels are already in motion. You can see that the people are beginning to get stronger spiritually,” she said.

Buni said she was envious of those in Kalimantan who have embraced their identity as Dayak people.

When she and other Sarawakians went there for a Gawai celebration, they were not allowed to identify themselves as Iban or Bidayuh, but as Dayak.

While the movement is getting stronger, politics has been a hindrance.

In Sabah, the movement is frequently associated with political parties, particularly the local opposition party STAR (Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku), whose president and founder, Jeffrey Kitingan, is also president of BDF

“Before I got myself involved actively in this movement, I did not know there are Dayak in Sabah. I didn’t know the Kadazandusun and Murut people are also Dayak,” said Buni.

Nande, a Dayak from Central Kalimantan, says Dayak unity is not a problem in Kalimantan any longer. The Indonesian government even set up a special council, Majlis Agama Kaharingan Indonesia, to safeguard traditional Dayak religious practices, recognised equally with other religions in the country.

However, the threat came from ‘imported’ religions which she feared would spell the end of traditional beliefs, and with it, the Dayak way of life, in Central Kalimantan.

“In Sabah and Sarawak as well as West Kalimantan, they do not have this problem because their traditional beliefs are still strong and observed. I hope that the same thing will happen in Central Kalimantan because otherwise, I fear we will lose our culture and the real Dayak way of life,” she said.