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One of the last pictures around May 21st: Human rights activist Bruno Manser

Rain forest protector Bruno Manser missing

The Swiss Diplomatic Corps has started an official search for the rain forest protector


Since May 2000 Bruno Manser is missing. This human rights activist wanted to visit his friends, the Penan forest nomads in the Sarawak, who are surrounded by logging companies, the army and the police. It seems he never arrived. Search parties have had no luck. Now the Swiss Diplomatic Corps has stepped in. Manser could have been arrested, had an accident or could have been murdered.

What has happened to Bruno Manser? The family, the Bruno-Manser-Fonds (BMF) and all the close friends of this rain forest protector from Basel are and have been very worried during the last few months. The above question has still not been answered. What are the known facts? The 47 year old human rights activist disappeared on the island of Borneo in the Malaysian province of Sarawak. In spring this year he wanted to reach the Penan forest nomads surrounded by loggers, army and police, via Indonesian Kalimantan over jungle paths. That was the last anybody heard of and from him.

Bruno Manser spent six years with the last of the nomadic living Penan, from 1984 -1990, learnt their language, their knowledge and their survival tactics as hunters and collectors, has written about them and made drawnings of them. This white man became one of them and was given the name "Laki Penan", the "Penan Man".

High prestige amongst the nomadic Penan

This Swiss Penan had high prestige amongst the nomadic Penan. He did as they do, moved around the jungle naked, knew the animals and the fruit of the jungle, used the blow pipe to hunt and realised as one of the first people to do so, that organised protest was necessary to protect the vital basis of survival of the Penan from the growing noise of motor saws and bulldozers gradually coming closer.

Slowly these until then unknown people where hearded and cut off by logging roads constructed by the logging companies under the blessing of the government. Through non-violent actions and uncomfortable pin-pricks these original inhabitants protested against the techonological progress of civilised destruction and attracted, toward the late 1980s, Western interest in the Sarawak.

For the endangered Penan and later worldwide Bruno Manser became a symbol for the protest against the unscrupulous destruction of Sarawak's rain forests. He also started becoming an antagonistic nuisance in the eyes of Sarawak's Chief Minister Taib Mahmud. On 15th February 2000, just before he left, Bruno Manser told OnlineReports:"Through his logging licence policies Taib Mahmud is personally responsible for nearly the whole area of the rain forests of the Sarawak becoming one big field of destruction in the matter of one generation."

Declared as "enemy of the state"

In 1990 rainforest protector Bruno Manser had to flee the Penan - his "second family" - and the country. Malaysia had declared this Swiss as "enemy of the state no. 1" and sent out special units looking for him.

But Manser didn't give up. The Bruno-Manser-Fonds was founded in Basel and an office set up with the help of many sponsors. Through the work led by its secretaries Roger Graf and later John Kuenzli it became a recognised center of activities and information dealing in rain forest issues. Manser himself contributed to raising consciousness in the Swiss media for climate and rain forest issues through his calm and convincing manner. This stubborn man - his forbearers came from the Appenzell - often pushed himself over his physical and psychological limits. In 1993 he did a 60 day hunger strike in front of the Bundeshaus in Bern to raise consciousness in the Federal Council and among Swiss consumers for the necessity of a compulsory declaration of all woods and an import embargo of tropical woods. This strike was supported by 37 organisations and political parties, the parlament of the town of Basel and many well known persons and later created quite a stir. But Switzerland to this day still has no compulsory declaration.

Bruno Manser tried to fight against the lightning fast destruction of the rain forests and held many lectures in Switzerland and abroad, made contact to NGOs, the EU, UNO, governments, unmasked offenders and participated in other activities, for ex. in the programme "Fuenf vor Zwoelf" where he let himself drop 800 meters along the teleferique cable down the Small Matterhorn. But these small successes were too little too slow for this man who always felt in direct contact to the Penan.

"I am tired but I can't stop"

He suffered. Already in May 1998 he said: "As long as logging goes on in Sarawak and as long as the bulldozers continue their destruction our activities will not have achieved anything. I am tired but I can't stop until all the Malaysian promises have been kept, namely the right of self-determination for the Penan and the protection of their environment in a biosphere reservation promised in 1987."

The rain forests had deeply become a part of him. He visited American and African jungles and stayed there for weeks. Undercover he managed to get through to the Sarawak several times to see his friends again who were expecting him. Every time he yet again witnessed the lightning fast destruction of their precious environment mainly by the logging companies Samling Co, Rimbunan Hijau Sdn. Bhd. and by the W.T.K. Company: uprooted original inhabitants, new roads, cleared landscapes, eroded mountains, lifeless rivers, exstinct plants and animals. Manser knew time was running out for the Penan and the forest.

Middle 1998 he decided to risk everything. Starting diplomatically, he offered Chief Minister Taib Mahmud his cooperation in founding the biosphere reservation and to forgive him for having broken Malaysian immigration laws. No reaction. All following endeavours to achieve communications with Mahmud were equally unsuccessful.

Manser then learnt to parachute in record time. He planed to deliver a lamb, "Gumperli", out of the air as a symbol of reconciliation to the Chief Minister on the Hara Ray peace day festival at the end of the Ramadan month in Kuching. The Malaysian Consulate in Geneva put pressure on the airline companies not to transport the lamb hereby this endeavour was also hindered. Manser then jumped with the animal on 6th April 1998 over the UNO in Geneva in his desperation to draw attention to the situation in Sarawak.

Turns above the Taib residence in a motorised glider

Once again no reaction from Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. In March 1999 the customs officers in Kuching let a small, athletic businessman enter wearing his father's business suit, carrying a briefcase and wearing a badly knotted tie. On March 29th 1999 Bruno Manser flew a couple of highly publicized turns above the Taib residence in a motorised glider in honour of the return of the pilgrims from Mecca. Intentionally landing next to the residence he let himself be arrested after which he was immediately transported to Kuala Lumpur and later deported to Switzerland. His humourous, risky and naiv goal to convince Chiefminister Taib Mahmud of the necessity of protecting the rain forest was once again unsuccessful.

Manser left for Borneo on the 15th February 2000 fearing that the last remains of the Penan forest would be sacrificed to the logging industry. BMF secretary John Kuenzli and a Swedish film team joined him in Indonesian Kalimantan. This film team had already shot the film "Tong Tana" with him and now wanted to film him on his way through the jungle to Sarawak. They then left and John Kuenzli and Manser carried on alone. By the time Kuenzli had to leave Manser was still writing postcards to his friends as usual. This time he wrote about 400 cards.

"Bruno was feeling well", a friend said

Bruno Manser then entrusted himself to a Swiss who knew his way around the territory. The trip took two very tiring weeks. First by boat, then heavily burdened on foot over unpathed territory in virgin forest and over precarious mountain sides. Manser slept in a hammok, his friend slept on the ground. It rained every day. When the two of them passed their last night together near the border they were totally exhausted. On May 18th Bruno Manser gave his returning countryman a letter for his lifepartner in which he wrote about diarrhoea and a broken rib. His friend was the last European to see him. "When we parted Bruno was feeling well. He seemed strong to me", said his companion to

According to BMF secretary John Kuenzli, Bruno Manser must have passed the forested border to Sarawak on 22nd May with the help of a local guide. Last contact to him was in a town called Bareo. Here he wrote a letter to his girl- friend while hiding in a bush near the town. He was very tired and was waiting for darkness before continuing along the logging roads. Kuenzli believes this letter was brought to the post office in Bareo by some unknown person. It reached Switzerland with Malaysian stamps on it but no post office stamp.

Since then the BMF office in Basel has been trying to make contact with Manser through all means available, i.e. trusted contacts and other often malfunctioning means of communication to find out where he is. All without any success. The Penan had also sent out groups searching discretely for him in the forest, in the cleared areas and around the source of the Limbang river which he had originally been heading toward. Two men were found who said they had guided him for two weeks on Sarawak territory in the jungle.

Relatives and friends are worried

In autumn the pressure grew in the BMF office. Worried relatives and friends demanded that the Diplomatic Corps and the public be informed that Bruno Manser is missing. The office hesitated because such an announcement would involve the Malaysian security forces. Because of this continuing insecurity fortune tellers, dream readers and others were asked for advice. All agree Bruno Manser still seems to be alive. This has also been confirmed by the Penan necromancers.

There is no more concrete information. A demand, written by the Limbang nomads on Malaysian territory and sent in July to the Chief Minister could be a clue. What of the unexpected road block by the Penan on August 11th near Long Kevok? There hadn't been such an activity since the 1980s. Is the Swiss "Laki Penan" behind this new wave of protest? Has Bruno Manser gone into hiding intentionally?

In September there were rumours amongst the Penan, that Manser was in the area. It was not the only one - Manser had been shot by the army at the road block in Long Kevok. - was another. And: The body of an European had been found in the forest. But the parachute teacher and good friend of Manser's flew on the 21st October into the Bario region where Bruno Manser had last been seen. All those asked said that they knew nothing about him.

Several options

On 10th November there was a crisis meeting held at the BMF office in Basel. Manser's mother, his sisters and brothers, his lifepartner and a few other close friends were invited. John Kuenzli informed them of the latest but little news there was. Nothing had really changed and as before anything was possible:

• Bruno Manser could be hiding to make himself available to the Penan during their last protest efforts and to help make the world aware of what was going on in the Sarawak. Known as a lone fighter, someone who sometimes threw the worries of his friends into the wind and who often took great risks, this possibility is not all that unlikely. What is different this time is that none of his family or close friends have heard from him. That has never happened before. Irrespective of the situtations he found himself in in the past he always managed to get some message through to them. His mother told OnlineReports: "No, no, he has never been gone so long without sending some signs of his still being alive." His brothers and sisters and friends confirm this experience. Therefore they are scared something really bad has happened.

• Bruno Manser is lying sick or hurt in the home of some nomadic family. Rock falls are a common occurance in the jungle of the Sarawak, as are many other dangers such as malaria, infections, snake bites and all other kinds of accidents. This is the reason even the Penan rarely go alone through the jungle, something that Manser had to do repetedly to reach them. On the other hand, the fact that none of the Penan searching for him found him speaks against this possibility. He is an experienced bush trekker and survival expert, has an iron determination and is in good physical condition. He can move well on the land and thanks to his hunting and collecting skills will very unlikely experience hunger.

• Bruno Manser is in prison. Because he was moving along known logging roads in a territory under great military and police surveillance an imprisonment must be taken into account. If so, the possibility that this is being kept strictly secret to avoid any intenational attention is quite realistic.

• Bruno Manser wants to stay invisible and has asked some of the around 9000 Penan (of which around 300 still live as nomads) to keep him hidden. This version is supported by the sudden escalation of protest manifestations after some years of relative peace in the region. Roger Graf's sound knowledge of the Penan as a people who are not secretive speaks against it. If Manser were in hiding somewhere some information would definitely have seeped through by now.

• Bruno Manser is dead. The jungle he aimed for is dangerous, there is no doubt about that. Additionally to all the many natural dangers, the possibility of murder must be taken into account as well. He is still a wanted man with a bounty price waiting for anyone bringing him in. Especially the army and police stationed in the area could be very interested in the death of this uncomfortable Swiss. The enraged loggers and their clients are another great danger and would gladly make use of the first opportunity to present itself to get rid of this hated activist, say those who know the circumstances well.

Swiss diplomats involved

Now Swiss diplomats are trying to find out what has happened to Bruno Manser. The Bruno-Manser-Fonds has - as OnlineReports informed already on 18th November - asked the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (EDA) for their help. First discrete investigations are already, they say, underway via the Swiss Consulate in Kuala Lumpur and the Swiss Honorary Consulate in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. If no concrete results are forthcoming then Switzerland will have to report Bruno Manser to Malaysia officially as a missing person.

Then everybody will know - Chiefminister Tahib Mahmud included - that Bruno Manser, dead or alive, is in the country. All the police stations and all public places will carry a photo of him. Wanted person posters of the "enemy of the state no. 1", of a man who is fighting for the rights of those with the least rights in the province of Sarawak. They who in despair watch their basis of existence being destroyed - the Penan.

MANSER MISSED / FIRST NEWS (in german language)
BACKGROUND 1 (in german language)
BACKGROUND 2 (in german language)
(in german language)
(in german language)

20th November 2000

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© by Peter Knechtli