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Of Negotiable Boundaries and Fixed Lines in Borneo: Practices and Views of the Border in the Apo Kayan Region of East Kalimantan

Lignes fixes et limites négociables à Bornéo : visions et pratiques des frontières à Apo Kayan, Kalimantan-Est
Cristina Eghenter
p. 133-150


Dans la région d’Apo Kayan, un haut plateau isolé de l’intérieur du Bornéo indonésien, à la frontière de Sarawak (Malaysia), frontières et limites, au fil du temps, furent utilisées, perçues, modifiées et imposées de diverses façons par les différents acteurs concernés. Cet article offre une description longitudinale des multiples aspects de la « frontière », qui prend en compte la complexité de ses connotations historiques, politiques, économiques et cognitives dans le contexte des pratiques et interactions trans-frontalières. Son approche combinée, ethnohistorique et cognitive, permet de démêler les contradictions inhérentes au concept de « frontière » : d’une part, une frontière est représentée par une ligne fixe et stricte qui borde et obvie ; d’autre part, elle peut être interprétée et pratiquée comme une limite ouverte et variable, une démarcation franchissable, selon les considérations économiques, sociales et culturelles en vigueur.

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1As one looks west from the village of Long Nawang, Apo Kayan, East Kalimantan, one can discern the higher contour of a mountain range that encloses the Apo Kayan plateau and stretches unevenly for over 100 km to the north into the Iwan River valley. Prominent peaks give way to low watersheds that can be easily crossed on foot. Beyond the mountainous contour of the watershed lies Sarawak, Malaysia, the land of the Baleh and Baluy (rivers), as local people call it. It is a topographical divide that marked the limit between the British dominated Sarawak of the Brookes and the territory controlled by the Dutch in Borneo. It is the same divide that, almost invariably, now indicates the international border between Eastern Malaysia and Indonesia.

2But how “natural” and fixed are the international border and mountainous divide from the point of view of local people? In what ways has the existence of a border influenced the lives of the inhabitants of Apo Kayan? How and when was the border enforced by colonial and Indonesian authorities, or local leadership?

3The rising academic interest in the notion of border and its connection with illegality and borderland (IIAS 2006), state building, trade, and consolidation of space (e.g., Tagliacozzo 2000, Bruneau 2001, Scott 1998), social networks and dynamics (Poline Bala 2002, Ardhana et al. 2004) has definitely confirmed the porous and open nature of borders for those living near them. For the states, too, as Bruneau (2001) put it, frontiers have variable geometries. Borders have become the locus of much intellectual debate (e.g., Scott 1998, Zanini 1997), yet “partial” views of border have so far emerged.

4This paper uses a case study from the region of Apo Kayan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia, to suggest a longitudinal and multi-faceted description of “border” that takes into account the complexity of its historical, political, economic, and cognitive connotations in the context of practices and interactions across the border. It looks at the ways in which relevant historical actors, i.e., local people and colonial and Indonesian authorities, have construed, used, ignored, or enforced the border over time.

5The combined ethnohistorical and cognitive approach of this study makes it possible to unravel the contradictions that are inherent in the concept of “border.” On the one hand, the representation of a border is a fixed and rigid line that restricts and prevents, and in this way it becomes a tool of political authority in the building of a state and embodies idealized status quo and immobility (see Scott 1998). On the other hand, the border can be experienced and construed as an open and variable boundary, a division that can be negotiated, a space that can be crossed, on the basis of prevalent economic, social, and cultural considerations.

6The story of the border in Apo Kayan highlights the contrast between the rigid interpretation of lines in political maps, the so-called “exclusive borders” mentioned by Wadley (2005: 2), and the practices and views of local people who may ignore or redraw borders following changing circumstances. Whereas in the political agenda of the Dutch and British colonial regimes and, later on, of the independent states of Indonesia and Sarawak, borders were marked by specific events to sanction their political permanency and impermeability (see Scott 1998), in the life of the inhabitants of Apo Kayan, the international border was cognized more pragmatically as a shifting line, a fuzzy hence negotiable line, that defined changing power relations and control of resources through inter- and intra-community disputes; a border that bounded the common territory but opened way to trade expeditions and migrations.

The region of Apo Kayan

7The Apo Kayan region of East Kalimantan is an isolated mountainous plateau near the border with Sarawak, at the headwaters of the Kayan River, one of two major rivers that cross East Kalimantan from west to east (see Fig. 1). The area is remote and of difficult access from the Indonesian side because of the dense tropical forest, rugged terrain, and dangerous rapids that make passage difficult. Small planes operated by the Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) are the only transport into Apo Kayan. From the Malaysian side, limited auto transportation is now available along a logging road that cuts deep into the forest and reaches the international border. A new road connects it to the village of Long Nawang and replaces traditional transportation by river and traditional foot paths.

Fig. 1: Apo Kayan customary land

Fig. 1: Apo Kayan customary land
  • 1 Up to the nineteenth century, the revenues of the sultanate of Kutai, the oldest on the coast of Ea (...)

8Apo Kayan presently comprises four separate kecamatan, or administrative sub-districts: Kayan Selatan, with the head village of Long Ampung (as this sub-district was only very recently established, no population data are separately available); Kayan Hulu, with the head village of Long Nawang, has six villages and a population of ca 5,792 (including those now residing in Kayan Selatan); Kayan Hilir, with the head village of Data Dian, has only five villages for a total of ca 1,506 inhabitants; and Sungai Boh, with six villages and a population of 2,309 (Office of Statistics 2005). The area, however, is still recognized as one customary land, or wilayah adat, under the leadership of the customary chief, or kepala adat besar, residing in the village of Long Nawang. To some extent, the customary unity of this land represents the legacy of the Dutch administration. The Dutch had sanctioned the hegemony of the Kenyah Lepo’ Tau group that the sultan of Kutai had earlier recognized and invested with the responsibility to deter warfare and maintain unity among the groups in the area (Liman 1999, 2003).1

  • 2 The presence of Iban people in the picture of the border area is a relatively different phenomenon. (...)

9The inhabitants of the Apo Kayan are for the most part Kenyah people. One village, Data Dian, is the only remaining Kayan Uma Lekan village in Apo Kayan. Punan Aput people live in two villages at the upper reaches of the Kayan I’ut River. The ethnic composition of the villages on the Malaysian side close to the border offers a similar picture, the result of the common history of this region of the interior of Borneo. Several villages on the Baluy River are inhabited by sub-groups of Kayan people that originated from Apo Kayan. Right across the border, there is a Kenyah village of Badeng people, Long Musang, that had split from Long Betao in Apo Kayan. On the Baluy River, one finds Kayan and some Kenyah villages. Punan groups have also straddled the border area, establishing settlements alternatively on the Iwan River in Apo Kayan and on the tributaries of the Baluy in Sarawak.2

Cognition(s) of the border

10Before taking a temporal or longitudinal view of practices and events along the international border between Malaysia and Indonesia in Apo Kayan, it is important to highlight mental images and cognitions about “borders” as they emerge from ethnographic documentation and cognitive studies.

Lines, spaces, and maps

11The demarcation of borders and boundaries is at the core of map making, which, in itself, is an important part of a state-making enterprise. In a modern nation-state, shifting and permeable frontiers are substituted by fixed boundaries (Carsten 1998, Bruneau 2001). Territorial maps have political importance. Maps contribute to a simplified visualization of the space and increase its “legibility” and control. They create geometric, well-ordered spaces in a manner that is analogous to city planning (see Scott 1998: 55).

12Maps depend on the visual, precise marking of borders, and the latter cannot by definition reveal fuzziness or uncertainty. Maps thus often convey an inappropriate sense of definitive and permanent segregation of the land. Insofar as they are removed from the everyday field of experience, the perceptual landscape of which they are representations, maps often end up concealing the dynamism and complexity of reality. Their stance is anti-historical (Gatmaytan 1998).

13However, the sense of borders and space, and the use of this space, are in general more open and flexible than their symbolic representations, lines and maps, would allow. In this contradiction between representation and experience, between political symbols, on the one hand, and attitudes and practices, on the other, lies the idea of “border,” transposing claims of permanency and fixity over perceptions of flexibility and fuzziness.

14In the region of Apo Kayan, as in other areas of the interior, rivers and mountains have been used to mark and claim traditional territories. These “natural” and visual components define the outer space. Rivers and mountains represent physical instances that shape the sense and knowledge of the territory. As they were essential part of the process of learning and using that space, they also serve as memory devices (Bloch 1991, Eghenter 1999). But these natural cues are not used as fixed lines enclosing and separating spaces. In traditional contexts, aural cues, i.e., telling or narrating one’s claims are just as important as visual cues in acknowledging claims to land and other natural resources (Eghenter 2000). The ability to name places such as mountains and rivers is often taken as definitive evidence in land disputes given the impossibility of walking to and physically marking a border. Descriptions of the space provide tales of claims and ownership by those who have lived in that space, and learned about its outer limits. Silence, i.e., the inability to name or narrate the natural boundaries that define one’s land, is equivalent to illegitimate claims, or claims that are void because there is no memory of the land.

15The marking of a boundary as a line is unusual. Stone monuments erected in the highlands, mostly found in the Krayan area, to the north of Apo Kayan (Karina Arifin & Sellato 2003), might be interpreted as symbols of the extension of authority of the leader. As such, they represented power posts rather than fixed spaces. Intrinsically, they had limited permanency. Cement blocks plotting the imaginary line of an international border, like in Apo Kayan, are also posts or points in space, they can be practically and easily lifted and moved, but they embody the fixed line already traced on a formal map. Ideologically, they are unmovable.

16The idea that a boundary might retain its element of fuzziness can be related to the strategies of use and enforcement of the territory, and the resources within, on the part of mobile people. Casimir and Rao (1992: 10-13) distinguish between two strategies: spatial boundary defense, or perimeter defense, and social boundary defense. In the first case, we usually have a situation of dense and predictable resources. The sense of territoriality grows weaker the further away from the center. In a social boundary defense strategy, instead, resources are usually unpredictable and scarce, and access is regulated more through the social group than through the territory itself. The latter strategy can be applied to the circumstances of the people living in Apo Kayan. There is a general sense of “their territory,” but this does not mean that the area is rigidly bounded along clear-cut lines. A permanent and fixed border implicit in the drawing of maps and the creation of a state may turn out to create cognitive dissonance in this context, and could be misleading with regard to local perceptions and practices.

Borders and boundaries

17An example of field activities in the interior of East Kalimantan can help us to better understand how local people have construed and enforced borders in traditional circumstances. In 1996-98, the WWF-Indonesia Kayan Mentarang project implemented a participatory community mapping program aimed at documenting the nature of forest-tenure boundaries and indigenous ways to organize space and use natural resources. The program was conceived in the context of promoting nature conservation and sustainable forest management in the area of the Kayan Mentarang National Park (Eghenter 2000).

18During the activities of drawing maps with the communities, the perceptions of the limits of one’s own territory emerged clearly, as well as the reality of disputes between groups and villages over parts of the territory. However, these limits are not usually construed as finite and clear lines. Similarly, territorial disputes are often left unresolved as long as there are no immediate claims over important resources. Boundaries are enforced more like open and flexible social spaces. Access may be restricted, but the action usually reflects the discretionary use of the space regulated by the social group rather than the rigid interpretation of a divided physical space. When chasing wild pigs, for example, hunters from one community would sometimes cross the boundary into the territory of another community until they succeed in catching the prey. In other cases, the simple act of asking the customary leader of the neighboring village for permission to exploit resources in their forest is enough to guarantee the legitimacy of crossing the village boundary.

19After the completion of the exercise of community mapping, in some cases maps triggered some unintended consequences with regard to perceptions and attitudes towards boundaries. Boundaries between villages and customary lands that used to be experienced as fuzzy spaces became fixed lines. A few disputes broke out over the enforcement of territorial boundaries and the control of space. The lines on the maps that were produced with the communities were perceived as powerful, exclusive symbols of spatial division. The clearly-drawn boundaries that were central to map-making were advocated as exclusive borders that limit access and exclude others. There were complaints voiced by some communities that hunters and dogs from a neighboring village had ignored the line on the map and infringed upon their territory. In a few cases, the communities felt entitled to ask for compensation (usually the hunted pigs). Some complained that WWF, by producing the maps, had created a situation with new, and different, rules over the use of resources in the territory.

20These examples highlight the cognitive dissonance between line and space. They show the power of a precise demarcation on a map, which may influence perceptions, and practices, of what are normally fuzzy and negotiable boundaries to be used and crossed. At a cognitive level, the international border drawn on a map is a line not dissimilar from the boundary between villages or customary lands which the mapping exercise contributed to fix. It is construed and experienced as a space more than a line (see Zanini 1997: xiv). It assumes the connotation of a space-in-between, a shifting boundary that social, political, and economic activities or events tend to shape, enforce, ignore, or change, as the practices across the border in Apo Kayan clearly show us.

Practices across the border

21The common history and socio-cultural context of the region at the headwaters of the Baluy River in Sarawak and the Kayan River in Indonesia can help us understand why the inhabitants of Apo Kayan have not considered the border a divisive political line and, instead, frequently crossed it to settle in Malaysia. The physical isolation of Apo Kayan from the Indonesian lowlands, and the differences in the Malaysian and Indonesian political and economic regimes, can also explain why it was, at times, convenient for people in Indonesia to cross the border and work in Malaysia, or vice versa (Eghenter 2005, Lumenta & Ooi 2005).

Migrations and movements

22The watershed that separates the Kayan River from the Baluy River is relatively low and easy to cross at several points. This geographical characteristic has made it one of the natural passages (with the Krayan plateau in the north) between the eastern and western parts of the island throughout history.

23According to Kenyah oral history, Kenyah groups trace their origin to the upper Baram River, Sarawak, from where they reached Apo Da'a, the historic homeland at the headwaters of the Iwan River. They then dispersed in successive waves to Apo Kayan and other areas in Indonesian territory (e.g., Liman 1999, 2003, Eghenter 1999, 2003, Van Walchren 1907, Roodenburg 1935). Kayanic groups like the Ga’ai and Kayan had also come from northern Sarawak, from the Baram basin and Usun Apau, upper Baluy, respectively (Okushima 1999).

24In 1911, the first Dutch military post was established in Apo Kayan (Black 1985: 284). The area remained under direct Dutch rule until 1942. During that period, movements and resettlements continued in Apo Kayan, but limited to the Dutch-controlled territory.

  • 3 The Indonesian state instituted a price-control system for essential goods in areas like Apo Kayan, (...)

25After Independence, the international border established in the colonial period by the Dutch and the British was maintained. With time, however, the different situation between the two countries contributed to an uneven economic situation that encouraged movements and travel across the border from Indonesia to Sarawak (Lumenta & Ooi 2005). This has continued until now. Notwithstanding the institution of measures by the Indonesian government in an effort to ease the economic pressure in the interior,3 small groups and entire communities have continued to migrate, although less frequently, well into the 1980s. The majority of the villages of Apo Kayan resettled in the East Kalimantan lowlands, but there have been occasional moves across the border into Sarawak, where strong economic development attracted Indonesians. The last resettlement took place in 1992, when a group of Kenyah split and moved to Sarawak (Eghenter 1999).

Economy(-ies) across the border

26The area in Apo Kayan along the border with Malaysia can be seen as a space used and appropriated by local people for specific activities, like the collection of forest products, logging, and hunting. Activities took place with uneven frequency and intensity. Some of these activities were limited in spatial range to the local collection of natural resources; others involved long-distance travel to trading places. In accounts of various civil servants of the Brooke regime, we find frequent references to trading expeditions by people from the Kayan and Mahakam rivers across the border to Fort Belaga and other bazaar towns in Sarawak, where they sold forest products to local Malay and Chinese traders (Chew 1990, Rousseau 1990, Lumenta & Ooi 2005). Travel to Sarawak was the easiest option for the Apo Kayan people to avoid possible attacks by belligerent groups of Kenyah in the Pujungan area. Many of the early large expeditions to Sarawak were political or peace-making missions as well as commercial enterprises (Whittier 1973: 131).

  • 4 During their presence in the area, the Dutch had established a transport system whereby people were (...)

27The volume of exchange with Sarawak generally increased after Independence and the collapse of the cargo system established and maintained by the Dutch (Whittier 1973, Eghenter 1999).4 Whereas forest products were exchanged for other goods in the first part of the twentieth century, labor force later became the major commodity and reason for continued travels across the border to Sarawak (Whittier 1973).

Forest products

28In Apo Kayan, local collectors of forest products have been trading with Iban people from Sarawak in exchange for fabric and gongs. Occasional Malay traders would also come from Sarawak to Apo Kayan to sell their goods. It is important to note that these practices of exploitation did neither eliminate nor prevent headhunting raids by groups of either side of the border. In this regard, the border region was also a space occasionally segregated by violence.

29It was not until the late 1910s, however, that the presence of Iban collectors started to cause concern among the local Kenyah population over the exploitation of getah merah, or gutta percha, a natural latex produced by several species of the genera Palaquium and Payena, and the most valuable forest product on the market at that time. Iban people from Sarawak did not limit themselves to buying the product from local collectors but had become very active collectors themselves in the forests of Apo Kayan. In this, they were officially encouraged by the Brooke raj to wander into new territories and collect resin, camphor, and other products, as a way to generate higher revenues for Sarawak (Pringle 1970).

30A similar situation of intense cross-border practices of exploitation occurred in the late 1990s, until very recently. Forest-product collectors have been coming from other islands of the Indonesian archipelago to Apo Kayan to collect gaharu, the trade name for the fragrant resinous wood from infected trees of the genus Aquilaria. Notwithstanding the growing concern of local residents over the invasion of their customary territory by outsiders (Eghenter 2005), collectors have set up operations with the help of Chinese traders in Samarinda and Tanjung Selor. Lately, they have been taking their “illegal” expeditions in search of gaharu from the Iwan valley deeper into the forest across the border of Sarawak (Eghenter 2006).

31Both forest products have (or had) a very high economic value on the global market. The pioneeristic behavior and aggressive tactics displayed by the collectors, who disregarded political borders, is an indication of how economic interests, whether sponsored by an official regime (the Brooke raj) or private entrepreneurs (gaharu traders), could overcome political and social considerations, and ignore international borders.

Piwai expeditions

32Another category of cross-border activities that need to be considered here concerns the trips to Malaysia to look for work and trade, locally known as piwai, in Kayan language, or peselai, a Kenyah modified term of the Iban term bejalai. These trips across the border have been, for the most part, one way, i.e., from Indonesia to Malaysia. Since the 1950s, the advantageous economic situation in Malaysia has further encouraged the phenomenon. Large-scale logging and state-directed schemes of industrialized agriculture have created excellent job opportunities for seasonal and temporary laborers from Indonesia (Whittier 1973, Lumenta & Ooi 2005, Eghenter 1999).

33Various reasons motivated local Kenyah and Kayan people to go on a trip to Malaysia. Traditionally, participation in a piwai expedition marked the transition from childhood to adulthood. From an economic point of view, there were far more opportunities for jobs in Malaysia than in Indonesia. In particular, the distance was shorter, salaries higher than for similar jobs in the Indonesian lowlands, and the currency exchange extremely favorable. The trip had the double purpose of looking for work and purchase goods unavailable in Apo Kayan. Moreover, the land across the border was seen as a familiar land inhabited by people who spoke the same language and shared similar cultural traits. People were also attracted by the tales of adventures and experiences related by their friends and family. To this day, travel excitement and pleasure remain important elements in the decision of young people to go to Malaysia, at least once in their lifetime (see Carsten 1998).

34Community leaders on the Sarawak side would help their kin and friends who were coming from Apo Kayan. Most people found work in oil palm estates, in logging camps, in the stone quarries on the Baram River (Whittier 1973), or did other manual labor for Malay and Chinese families. They stayed an average of two years in Malaysia, working and saving money before returning to Apo Kayan. Among the most common goods purchased in Sarawak were salt, kerosene, cloth, iron to make machetes, metal storage cases, and cooking pots. More recently, people have been bringing back sewing machines, pressure lamps, gold and money, chainsaws, and tape recorders.

35Economic patterns have been changing over the last few years, and the economy in this land at the border is moving towards a more integrated pattern of practices and engagements, fueled by local and companies’ business interests, both in Indonesia and Sarawak. However, going on a piwai expedition, which had guaranteed the economic survival of Apo Kayan right after Independence, remains an important feature of life in this region.

36Cultural and historical elements further reinforce the perception of the area along the border in the Apo Kayan region as a common social space, a geo-cultural land of the Kenyah and Kayan people. Informants recounting their experience on a peselai or piwai expedition to Sarawak hardly ever refer to it as Sarawak. Rather, they talk about going to the Baluy or the Baram, the two major rivers in Sarawak on the other side of the watershed. Similarly, narrations of the origins of the Kenyah and Kayan people mention the land of Telang Usan, or the Baram River. These are not names of different countries, but names of different river valleys often settled by people of the same ethnic group (see Whittier 1973). This insight highlights the notion that the international border at Apo Kayan is not experienced as a permanent political division.

37Although travelers were supposed to have an official letter or pass to enter Malaysia from Indonesia, they often did not have one. This situation, however, did not cause bureaucratic entanglements in this land of ancient family and ethnic connections. Community leaders on the Sarawak side would offer to help their kin and friends, as illustrated in the following episode. When a group of travelers arrived in the Baram from Apo Kayan, the local Kenyah leader met with the district officer to report their arrival and explain why they did not have a border pass. He called the migrants the “children” who had come from Apo Kayan, hence symbolically underlying the strong bond between the people. He argued that the administrative authorities should not prevent them from coming because they all once were living in one longhouse: half of that longhouse is now living on the Baram River and half of it in Apo Kayan. The longhouse is an obvious metaphor for the unity of the Kenyah people who used to live together in one land. “Why,” asked the leader, “would the administration request that they possess a travel permit? It is not possible that we, one family, would fight among each other. We have not met in a long time and we are happy that we can finally be together again.”

Cross-border exploitation

38The rapid exploitation of the rich forests of Sarawak has already pushed the frontier of timber extraction against the upper reaches of the rivers flowing from the mountains in the heart of Borneo. The situation has opened up new opportunities for the people of Apo Kayan, who can now trade and buy the necessary goods at the logging camp across the border more conveniently (at a lower cost and with less travel time) than by going to Malinau or Samarinda by plane. The situation has also convinced the Indonesian administration of the need to approve the building of a road across the border between Sarawak and Indonesia.

39Ironically, the latter initiative seems to revert the situation to the times of colonial domination, when official passages existed between the two territories to allow for the economic development of the area. The decision also marks a definite transformation in the political attitude of the Indonesian state towards Malaysia since the period of Confrontation. The economic advantages of open arrangements and cross-border cooperation now prevail over strict political criteria of separation and restriction of access.

Enforcement of the border

40The enforcement of borders may be met with compliance among the people if based on a deep sense of division and established legitimacy. But those in a position of power can also resort to coercion in order to enforce and control the border.

41The notion of border enforcement can be seen as one aspect of the attempt by the state “to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion” (Scott 1998: 2). Borders that are absolute and exclusive lines can communicate limits clearly (see Wadley 2005) and, in this respect, help make the state and territory more orderly, and more manipulable. As mentioned in the previous section, however, practices across the border in the Apo Kayan area often ignored the existence of a border.

42Tagliacozzo mentions that a border-making enterprise separating Dutch and British possessions in Southeast Asia took place in the years between 1870 and 1910 (Tagliacozzo 2000: 70). As part of this effort, borders started to become realities on the ground with armed forces, police units, and frontier posts. No such permanent (and expensive) mechanisms of control and enforcement were displayed along the international border in Apo Kayan, which was officially designated in 1891 (Maxwell & Gibson 1924: 215-217). Only in 1995, a clearing was made and stone markers were set in the ground at fixed intervals along the border by the coordinated efforts of an Indonesian and Malaysian military operation. The markers, however, have not prevented old practices. Moreover, markers are no more visible to travelers than other natural signs. They remain powerful indicators only on military maps.

43While the border might not have been permanently enforced, a divided space was maintained through meaningful events and specific policies that, both directly and indirectly, revealed the existence of an exclusive line. This was a major concern of the colonial and national administrations, but not exclusively. In exerting some of their rights, access to natural resources and migration being the most important, local people also used—and, in so doing, legitimized—the existence of a political border. In the next section, I will briefly highlight some of the border-reinforcing events in the history of the Apo Kayan international border.

The colonial administration

  • 5 Among the main reasons for this last political expansion on the part of the Dutch was the need to p (...)
  • 6 It is important to note that, in the initial administrative designation by the Dutch, Apo Kayan inc (...)

44The history of the international border in Apo Kayan is a relatively short one. It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that the Dutch started to revert their “policy of near-neglect” (Black 1985: 287) and take control of the outer islands.5 They believed that there was no need to “conquer” the interior of East Kalimantan, part of the residency of South and East Borneo, or Zuider- en Oosterafdeeling van Borneo, because of the pacific nature of the Kenyah people (Anonymous 1929-1931). A first major scientific expedition to the upper Mahakam and Apo Kayan was organized by A.W. Nieuwenhuis in 1900. It took place after a party of Iban from Sarawak raided the upper Mahakam. The Dutch feared that the attack had taken place with the connivance of Charles Brooke (Black 1985: 287) and might lead to further attempts on the part of the Brookes to destabilize the territory of the interior. Subsequently, more explorative expeditions by military personnel to the far interior were organized (e.g., Fischer & Gramberg 1910). The first contingent of Dutch officers was posted in the Apo Kayan in 1911.6 Although based in Long Nawang, and not at the border, it was the first time that the Dutch established a presence near the border area and imposed direct rule over the local population. The Apo Kayan was declared a sub-district, or onderafdeeling, in 1925.

45The Dutch made a policy of regulating migrations and fixing settlement patterns (King 1993). The policy was clearly part of an effort to increase control over these territories at a time when the colonial administration was imposing taxation and planning the economic development of the area. It was also dictated by the strategic interest to keep the territory near the border inhabited to deter possible expansionistic threats from Sarawak.

  • 7 Some of the controleurs were convinced that part of the people of the lower Apo Kayan would eventua (...)

46The Dutch administration worked at two levels. At one level, they regulated migrations by granting local communities permission on where and when to move within Apo Kayan and, only occasionally, to areas outside Apo Kayan. At another level, they tried to devise new agricultural schemes, like irrigated rice cultivation, that could support permanent settlements (Sierevelt 1927). However, it was the military that was more determined to put a halt to migrations and resettlements (Anonymous 1926). Civil officers, instead, often maintained a more pragmatic and favorable approach towards local communities’ migration plans7 (Sierevelt 1927).

  • 8 Dayak leaders gathered in Kapit to put an end to hostile confrontation and warfare that had plagued (...)

47An enlightening episode in the history of enforcement of the border was the dispute, and subsequent new policies, brought about by the increasing number of Iban collectors of gutta percha who wandered in Dutch-controlled territory and exploited the forests of Kenyah communities at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the early 1920s, the Dutch administration asked for the collaboration of the government of Sarawak to stop Iban raids into Apo Kayan and prevent unsustainable collection of getah merah. The presence of Iban collectors in the region had already caused conflicts with the local population, including headhunting episodes (Sierevelt 1927, Pringle 1970). The solutions advanced by the Dutch administration, and supported by the local Kenyah customary chiefs, included issuing travel permits to Iban who wanted to enter the Dutch territory as well as to Kenyah inhabitants of the border area; restricting access across the border into Apo Kayan to three main routes; and requesting that Iban collectors report to Kenyah leaders and ask for their permission before undertaking collecting activities in Apo Kayan. At the peace conference in Kapit,8 in 1924, it was decided that Iban collectors could continue to come to the Dutch territory provided that they used sustainable harvesting methods. Dutch officials regarded trading relations as a means to improve the political relations between neighboring ethnic groups. Kenyah people themselves did not disapprove of the presence of Iban as long as they respected the primacy of local claims over natural resources.

48In many ways, the episode reveals the opposing interests, and practices, of the colonial administration regarding the border. On the one hand, the importance of keeping exclusive political boundaries that would clearly demarcate, and separate, the Dutch domain from the British domain. On the other hand, the importance of a flexible boundary that would encourage trading activities and free commerce, as in the everyday practices of local people. The episode also shows how local leadership and colonial agendas could sometimes coincide in the pursuit of a temporary seclusion of spaces for the control of valuable resources.

The “Konfrontasi”

49The Confrontation (or Konfrontasi) with Malaysia (1963-67) was another political event that gave new visibility to the often forgotten border of Apo Kayan and revived the political division. The area at the border between East Kalimantan and Sarawak was used as the country security frontier from where (small) military incursions were conducted by the Indonesian army deep into the jungle of Sarawak in support of the Tentara Nasional Kalimantan Utara (Mackie 1974). Such incursions never involved a high number of individuals and rarely inflicted devastating blows to the British Army, including the raid on Long Jawe in Sarawak. Nevertheless, to some extent, military activities managed to disrupt traditional collecting and trading expeditions. For example, there were fewer recorded trading trips to Sarawak employing the official passages used by the troops to cross the border. Moreover, several inhabitants were enlisted in the Army as scouts or fighters, and to procure food and transport rice for the Army from the villages of the interior.

The Indonesian administration and the migrations in the 1970s-1980s

50After the end of Confrontation, the international border at Apo Kayan returned to relative political and administrative neglect, in the same way that it was during the initial period of Independence, between 1945 and 1960.

51In the 1970s, alternating and contradictory programs seemed to characterize official policy for the borderland. On the one hand, relocation and resettlement indicated the intent to vacate the area at the border, and thus nullify the border. On the other hand, plans backed up by the military for building a road and transmigration sites illustrated a very different interest of strengthening control and security along the border.

52Although the plan of a road did not materialize, policies officially discouraging the communities of the interior from migrating prevailed. The rationale was the fear that the entire area along the border with Sarawak would remain empty and thus vulnerable to incursions of enemy troops. A border pass system was instituted, but only occasionally enforced (Whittier 1973). There continued to be no border control or immigration posts, and local inhabitants continued to go to Sarawak to work or for supplies. There were policies regulating the number of people who would be allowed over the border at any time (i.e., 16 adult men), but the local administration did not actively enforce them. According to Rudes (1965), there were more than 1,500 people from Apo Kayan in Sarawak in 1956. Sub-district officials themselves were making regular trips to Sarawak, some of them staying a year or longer before returning to Apo Kayan. The kind of non-enforcement of policies and lax attitude that have characterized border control on the part of the Indonesian administration can be traced to this day.

53The awareness of a political border that divided Indonesia from Malaysia was revived in symbolic terms at the time of the migrations out of Apo Kayan in the 1970s and 1980s (Eghenter 1999). In its efforts to discourage migrants of Apo Kayan from moving to Sarawak, the Indonesian government recruited local leaders or other influential members of Kenyah communities who resided in the lowlands. Would-be migrants were reminded of their Indonesian citizenship and asked to acknowledge that the border that they had so often crossed and ignored marked a political and social divide. The following small incident better illustrates the kind of rhetoric used. In 1982, some people in Data Dian were determined to move to Malaysia. The Indonesian government was clearly concerned about the possibility that such a large community in the border region could move to Malaysia, and it sent representatives to try to dissuade the migrants. But the words of the officials failed to reach the hearts of the people of the village. At that point, they asked a respected elder of the community to address the people gathered for the public meeting and convey the message of the government. The elder talked passionately of the importance for the Kayan people of staying together. He warned the youth of the uncertainties and risks of life in Malaysia. He compared moving to Malaysia to choosing a new mother and father: They had no way of knowing whether they would be treated well and with care. He reminded them of the fate of another Kenyah group that had moved from Apo Kayan to Malaysia but after a few years was stripped of all the rights to use the land that they had cultivated. The rights to a new citizenship were not readily available to those who had crossed the border.


54Practices across the border between Malaysia and Indonesia in Apo Kayan over time reveal a complexity and diversity of interactions in which the border might be ignored, contested, crossed, or, on the contrary, enforced to restrict movements. The presence of the border offered the people of Apo Kayan the possibility to escape policies that they could not accept (internal trans-migration), exclude outsiders (Iban people), or pursue economic welfare (work in Malaysia).

55In discussing the notion of borders and boundaries on the island of Langkawi (Malaysia), Carsten concludes that “international borders between nation-states and boundaries between persons are not necessarily entirely different sorts of phenomena” (Carsten 1998: 217). The case of Apo Kayan shows that, from a local point of view, an international border might be experienced as the same as a local territorial boundary, a negotiable, and usable, social space-in-between.

56Different perspectives on the border are not to be imputed to a distinction between the views and agendas of local inhabitants versus those of the state, or the antagonism between the interests of colonial authorities and those of the local leadership. Differences and multiple practices often co-existed or, I would argue, arose in relation to specific political, social, and economic interests of the various actors involved. Where-as the political agenda of two states in the making might draw the border as part of claiming state’s space and putting it under control (Scott 1998), economic considerations might, at times, impose the need for flexible and open spaces. The political agenda relies on maps that force the visualization of the space with borders that demarcate and, more importantly, separate different areas of territorial jurisdiction. Lines are fixed, clear, and exclusive. In the context of economic activities and everyday experience, instead, borders might mark shifting divisions of the territory where negotiations of space take place over resources and social rights.

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1 Up to the nineteenth century, the revenues of the sultanate of Kutai, the oldest on the coast of East Kalimantan, mainly came from the taxes levied on forest products transported down the Mahakam River. The sultanate acted as a middleman in the forest-product trade. The interior Dayak peoples actually collected the forest products and the Kutai sultanate supplied them with basic goods that they needed, especially salt. The forest products were then sold for cash mainly to Bugis traders who, at that time, controlled the southern part of the Makassar Straits. In spite of its trade relations with the Bugis, the Kutai sultanate was not immune from attacks by the Sulu. The capital of Kutai was relocated in the 1600s at Tenggarong, about 30 miles up the Mahakam River from Samarinda. By doing so, the sultans were able to prevent the Sulu pirates from taking over their kingdom, as had happened to many small kingdoms in the northern part of East Kalimantan.

2 The presence of Iban people in the picture of the border area is a relatively different phenomenon. It did not have the connotation of settlement—the border area is not recognized as “Iban area”—but that of both belligerence (raids against the Kenyah and raids by the Kenyah against the Iban) and convenience (trade between the Kenyah and the Iban).

3 The Indonesian state instituted a price-control system for essential goods in areas like Apo Kayan, where the difficulties and cost of transportation limited the supply of consumer goods available, and where prices for necessary goods, such as gasoline or salt, were much higher than in the lowlands.

4 During their presence in the area, the Dutch had established a transport system whereby people were recruited as rowers from the villages in Apo Kayan on a rotational basis to go downriver to Tanjung Selor and bring supplies back for the Dutch contingent in Apo Kayan. On these occasions, local people often sold forest products in Tanjung Selor and bought goods for themselves. A small retribution was paid to the rowers.

5 Among the main reasons for this last political expansion on the part of the Dutch was the need to protect their possessions against intervention by other colonial powers, in this case the Brookes of Sarawak, and to control and expand the potential revenues from the exploitation of natural resources, including forest products (Black 1985: 282).

6 It is important to note that, in the initial administrative designation by the Dutch, Apo Kayan included a larger territory of the interior of East Kalimantan than the geographical region described in this paper.

7 Some of the controleurs were convinced that part of the people of the lower Apo Kayan would eventually have to migrate to the lower Kayan, and the people of the upper part of Apo Kayan to the Mahakam because of the scarcity of agricultural land. They also saw the strategic advantage of certain moves downriver, or recognized the historical legitimacy of requests to move back to locations from where the same people had moved in the past.

8 Dayak leaders gathered in Kapit to put an end to hostile confrontation and warfare that had plagued relations among groups in the interior of Borneo. The peace conference was sponsored by the Brookes’ administration and attended by representatives of the Dutch Resident of South-East Borneo.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Apo Kayan customary land
Fichier image/png, 15k
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Référence papier

Cristina Eghenter, « Of Negotiable Boundaries and Fixed Lines in Borneo: Practices and Views of the Border in the Apo Kayan Region of East Kalimantan », Moussons, 11 | 2007, 133-150.

Référence électronique

Cristina Eghenter, « Of Negotiable Boundaries and Fixed Lines in Borneo: Practices and Views of the Border in the Apo Kayan Region of East Kalimantan », Moussons [En ligne], 11 | 2007, mis en ligne le 06 décembre 2012, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/moussons.1794

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Cristina Eghenter

Cristina Eghenter (PhD in anthropology, Rutgers University) is currently Coordinator of Community Empowerment for WWF-Indonesia. For over ten years, she has been working and researching in the interior of East Kalimantan, and has published on issues of migrations, community management of natural resources, history, adat, cognition and traditional knowledge.

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