Confused Punan Bah, Penan, Punan Busang, Kajang?

In Sarawak Punan (or Punan Bah) people is often confused with the world’s last nomadic tribe Penan. How and when this confusion started is rather unknown – but it could be traced back to the period of Borneo colonization by Europeans. Naive observers of Sarawak ethnicity should be warned that the term ‘Punan’ and ‘Penan” is being used interchangeably by the Kayan and Kenyah particularly among those living in the upper Belaga, Linau, Balui and Baram rivers area  when referring to the “Penans”. They understood the differences and similarities between the two tribes which many Sarawak ethnic observers often struggling to grasp and understand. The Punan in Sarawak is also unrelated to the so called Punan in Kalimantan.

Punan (also known as Punan Bah) 
Many of Borneo ethnic / tribe observers got caught up with this confusion. This is expected and understood by the local communities. In fact, the diversity of Borneo ethnic is mind boggling to say the least. Perusing through the available literature’s specifically those before the 1970s, one will discover that many of the peoples described then never really existed for example the ‘Klemantan’ and ‘Punan Lisum’. Even the locals claimed have no knowledge and never knew of the existent of these peoples.

The name ‘Punan’ found in the literatures of this era denote tribes inhabiting Borneo that were unknown to outsiders particularly westerners. Chris Lovell’s Why the Punan are ‘complex’ and Carl Hoffman’s The Punan : hunters and gatherers of Borneo are some of the examples of how westerners struggling to grasp the complexity of Borneo ethnicity.

It was through the extensive works done by Danish anthropologist’s Ida Nicolaisen that westerners begin to aware of who these many “Punans” are. Ida works tell us that people known as the Vuhangs and the so called Punans found in Lusong Laku, Linau and Baram were wrongly classified as Punan by writers before her. These peoples are now officially recognized as Penans – a distinct, unrelated tribe to the Punan (or Punan Bah) altogether.

What distinguish Punan from the Penan and other so called Punan?
Local experts on Sarawak ethnicity such Kelvin Egay (2003) and Jayl Langub (1983) identified (1) language, (2) history, (3) customs and (4) geographical location as some of the distinguishable features between Punan and the Penan. These features also distinguished the Punans from the other so called Punans in Sarawak for example the Punan Busang and Aehong.

In term of language affinity, Punan language is considered “close” but not identical to that of the Sekapan and Kejaman – but mutually intelligible. On the other hand, Penan language is closely related to Kenyah especially the Sembob dialect (Jerome Rousseau, 1976). Kenyah – is a language completely different, unintelligible to neither the Punan nor the Sekapans, Kejaman and Lahanan.

As mentioned before, much of the confusion between Punan and Penan is attributed to indiscriminate usage of the name by early scholars. These scholars, perhaps,  overwhelmed by the complexity of Borneo tribes – often resorted to classify yet to be known indigenes of Borneo as Punan (Jerome Rousseau, 1990).

Punan and Kajang
Ida Nicolaisen said this subject need to be studied more thoroughly. But the Punans believe “Kajang” is a Sekapan concept of the people in their “imaginary” kingdom which they claimed to include the Punan, Lahanan and Kejaman tribes. How did the Sekapan come out with such imaginary Kajang kingdom is remained a mystery.

However today, the Punan accepted the name ‘Kajang’  purely for a political purpose. It is seen as a the only political grouping that could be used to neutralize Kayan’s political domination over them particularly after Sarawak’s gaining it independent in 1969. Rodney Needham rightly dismissed ‘Kajang’ as utter nonsense. In fact the so called Kajang peoples today do not share any common language, culture and history.

Where are the Punans to be found?
Punan is a settled and agriculturalist community. Their population is concentrated only in two Divisions of Sarawak – i.e, Bintulu Division (9th Division) and Kapit Division (7th Division).  In Bintulu Division – Punan people can be found at Pandan (Punan Pedan), Jelalong river (Punan Jelalong) and Kakus river. In Kapit Division Punan traditional heartland – their longhouses can be found along the mighty Rejang river stretching from Merit to lower Belaga areas. These longhouses which is accessible only via river transportation include;

  • Punan Bah longhouse
  • Punan Sama longhouse and
  • Punan Biau (split up and now there are 3 new longhouses).

However there are small numbers – not more than 100 of Punan – originally from Kakus, Bintulu have emigrated to Baram and Brunei in the late 1960s. It’s difficult to trace them now as they have been fully assimilated into the local communities where they lived. In Baram for example they have been fully assimilated into the Berawan communities.

What are Punans daily lives like?
The rural, longhouse dwelling Punan is still largely a swidden agriculturalist. Many still practising swidden farming with rice as major crop and supplemented with other non-cash crops. They also planted cash crop such as rubber and pepper to supplement their income. However the new, younger generations who enjoyed better education mostly found their ways into the public and private sector employment. It is estimated to be almost 20 percent of Punan population today have migrated to urban areas such as Bintulu, Kapit, Sibu, Kuching and as far as Kuala Lumpur.

What are Punans beliefs?
Many Punan especially those found along the Rejang river still hold on to their traditional religion called Bungan and other forms of ancient worship. Those found in Bintulu Division such such as Punan Pedan, Punan Jelalong and Punan Kakus are mostly Christians belonging either to Roman Catholics or Borneo Evangelical Church (SIB) denominations. A small number not more than 100 of Punan have also been converted to Islam through or as a result of inter-marriages with Muslim peoples.

How many Punan are there in Malaysia?
This is pretty difficult to ascertain – basically because the official population statistics published by the government, group the Punan into various groups – either the Orang Ulu or the non-Muslim Bumiputera (Bumiputera lain-lain). In the Orang Ulu group there are more than seven different ethnics – including the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit and more. Under the non-Muslim Bumiputera is even larger as they group all the non-Muslim Bumiputera population in the whole of Malaysia including those found in Sabah.

If ones were attempting to know the exact number of Punan population in Malaysia it would be best to do own census. Spending months digging into these official statistical data is a futile attempt at best. Punan National Association unofficial figures put the Punan population slightly above 5,000 people. In Punan traditional heartland in Belaga there are three major Punan settlements or longhouses – they are the Punan Sama, Punan Biau and Punan Bah which total population exceeded 3000 people – ie,. more than half their total population. The rest of the population found in Bintulu Division.

What are the Punan needs?
This is a contentious issue and often politically sensitive to the ruling parties or those associated with them. The Chief Minister often said “no one not a single ethnic in Sarawak should be left behind”. But looking at available data, employment records etc, reveal a glaring pattern of inequality. Poverty is remained a big problems among Punan. Thousands of hectares of Punan NCR lands have been taken for land developments with little or no compensation.

Education is another area where the Punan still lagging and needed help. As in 2007 there were estimated to be slightly more 30 Punans have completed tertiary education. This is still very low as compare to other communities.

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