Orang Ulu of Sarawak

Alternative names: Natives, Dayaks, various tribal names: Iban (Sea Dayaks), Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kayan, Kedayan, Murat, Punan, Bisayah, Kalabit
Location: throughout Sarawak
Population: 540,000 (1980)
%of population: 44% of Sarawak population
Religion: indigenous animist beliefs, Christian
Language: various Dayak languages

The Orang Ulu “peoples of the interior” is a name used by most of the native Dayak ethnic groups of Sarawak to describe themselves. Numerically they are the largest grouping in Sarawak, in 1980 accounting for 540,000 or 44% of the population. Other ethnic groups are Malays (22%), Melanau (6%) and Chinese (29%). The Dayaks are a diverse group, with many different tribes and sub-tribes, and are part of the much larger Dayak community of the island of Borneo, three-quarters of which is the Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan.

Iban, or Sea Dayaks, are the largest single group, which in 1980 had a population of 368,000. They do not consider themselves to be Orang Ulu although they have many affinities with interior peoples. There are many smaller groups who live in the forests, often only accessible from the rivers which are the main lines of communication. These groups include the Bidayuh (105,000), the Kenyah (15,500), Kayan (13,400), Kedayan (10,700), Murat (9,500), Punan (5,600), Bisayah (3,800) Kalabit (3,700) and some smaller groups. Most Dayak in Sarawak practise shifting cultivation (swiden), others such as the nomadic Punan rely on hunting and gathering. The Olang Ulu live in villages based around communal longhouses beside the rivers. Regulation of land use and resources in addition to personal and religious matters is governed by adat — customary law.

Sarawak joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, after a century of colonial rule by the Brooke family (the “white rajas”) and as a British colonial possession from 1946. During the Brooke period customary native tenureship and rights over the land were recognized along with government and private ownership but restrictions on native tenure were introduced and land laws were continually refined and consolidated with the intention of restricting shifting cultivation which was considered wasteful. After the British took over, the 1948 land classification ordinance placed land in one of five categories, which along with later legislation, made all land the property of the crown and attempted to register all land. Much land in the Seventh and Fourth divisions in the interior has yet to be surveyed or adjudicated. While the categories of Native Area Land, Native Customary Land and Interior Area Land appeared to protect indigenous rights, titles to these lands can be changed or extinguished under some circumstances. Given that most Orang Ulu live in remote areas and are not literate, customary rights can be removed without their knowledge.

The major threat to Orang Ulu land and way of life comes from large-scale economic development in the form of timber logging and hydro-electric dams. Sarawak is the largest state in the Malaysian federation, containing 38% of the land area, and is also the state richest in natural resources. Tropical rainforest covers 75% of the state and its exploitation produces profits for logging contractors and revenue for the state. Between 1963 and 1985 about 30% of Sarawak’s total forest area was logged by companies, who frequently pay chiefs to allow them to log on traditional lands.

Opposition to logging has come from many communities, including the Kenyah, Kayan and Iban peoples in the Fourth division, but most notably from the hunting and gathering Punan people, who from March 1987 have erected blockades across strategic roads and rivers in the forests. Pleas by Punan people to the Malaysian Prime Minister and the establishment of a special committee to investigate their grievances appeared to have no effect and in October 1987, as part of a sweeping government crackdown on dissidents throughout Malaysia, resulted in the arrests of 42 Orang Ulu, including an indigenous Kayan organizer of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Malaysian Friends of the Earth) who was arrested under the Internal Security Act although released two months later. In November the Sarawak government passed a new law making all interference with logging a criminal offence punishable by fines and imprisonment. Many Orang Ulu have consequently faced court cases. By this stage environmental groups and others had co-ordinated a worldwide protest against logging, including the European Parliament, which unanimously passed a resolution to suspend the import of tropical hardwoods from Malaysia. Despite the new law, blockades continued through 1988 and 1989, perhaps most significantly in August 1989 when nine Iban communities in the Bintulu division set up a blockade to protect their communal land. As the largest native community the Iban have potential political strength.

Another threat comes from hydro-electric projects. The Batang Ai Dam, completed in 1985, led to the flooding of 21,000 acres of land and the resettlement of 3,000 Iban who, as a result, were forced to give up shifting cultivation for settled farming. During the construction of the dam some 1,500 Iban were employed but after its completion most were retrenched and no other employment prospects are available. An even greater threat is that of the Bakun Hydro Project in the Seventh division which is planned to be South-East Asia’s largest dam and will generate power mainly for the Malay peninsula. Perhaps 5,000 Orang Ulu will be displaced, mainly from the Kenyah and Kenyah Badang and Kayan groups.

There is an Iban political party among the three main political parties (the other two predominantly represent Malays and Chinese). The natives of Sarawak are especially protected under Article 161A of the federal constitution and their special status is equivalent to that of the Malays of peninsula Malaysia. However, in practice within Sarawak, the Orang Ulu are a marginalized group and generally treated as inferior by the other communities.

(See also Orang Asli of the Malayan Peninsula)