Chronology of an eccentric eco-warrior

Birds are the indicator of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.

— Roger Tory Peterson, American naturalist

I have written the last episode of the fascinating life of iconic Swiss environmentalist Bruno Manser.

It’s completely different from the highly-exaggerated film “Paradise War” which mis-portrayed Bruno as an arrogant and angry environmentalist.

On the contrary, Manser was a pacifist who walked in the path of Mahatma Ghandi until he fell in love!

When I first interviewed him 35 years, Bruno told me, “Let me say that I am a pieceful (sic) person. I don’t say ‘I am a Christian’ I just say I try to follow the words of Jesus. I don’t look up to any human being, except Him (Jesus). I try to follow the principle. To die before you kill … I am not afraid to die.”

A product of the ‘Hippie Age’, Manser did not believe in war and that is why he refused to enlist in the Swiss national service and was jailed for three months.

This was when he had an “out of body” experience where his spirit flew all over the city before returning to his physical body.

Manser “disappeared” after his last mission to scale Sarawak’s 6,000-ft high Batu Lawi peak — the Holy Shrine of the nomadic Penan.

Was this one of Bruno’s lifelong games of chance or just playing the hide-and-seek lie he did with the police?

Author Ruedi Suter in “Rainforest Hero” wrote, “Was Bruno murdered? Or he suffered an accident? Or is he being held captive? Or has he committed suicide?”

Manser was a fugitive with a US$50,000 (now RM206,000) reward on his head when we first met on November 14, 1986.

Despite trying to persuade the simple cowherd-turned environmentalist that he was flirting with danger, he felt that this was his sacred mission.

In July 1989, I went to Basel and convinced Manser’s family to bring their son home.

Six months later in March 1990, he left Sarawak with the help of several Swiss colleagues, posing as a tourist as he slipped past the police and immigration authorities in Kuching.

On his return to Switzerland, he formed the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) NGO with a Swiss accountant friend Roger Graf.

From an innocent “flower child”, Manser, 36, had blossomed into an eco-warrior who travelled the world to promote the Penan cause celebre.

In June 1992 Manser parachuted into a crowded soccer stadium during the Earth Summit Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Six months later in December, he led a 22-day hunger strike in front of Marubeni Corporation headquarters in Tokyo.

His focus changed on March 1, 1993 when Manser fell in love for the first time with a married Swiss nurse Petra Bolic.

But his two-year relationship with Petra broke up when she returned to her family.

Bruno was devastated.

Ruedi said, “Manser, the fighter was deeply wounded. Her parting shot was worse than a fatal bullet.

“Here on the bridge over the Aare at Olten, on the morning of November, Bruno considered suicide. Yes, he later admitted to Petra … he considered jumping into the icy Aare, waiting until his heavy clothes were saturated, then sinking unresistingly to the riverbed and drifting like sediment into the Rhine and North Sea.”

At the last minute he changed his mind.

In 1995, the traumatic separation with Petra led Bruno to seek solace in Swiss ‘special needs’ psychiatrist Charlotte Belet, a mother of two teenage boys.

Belet herself had led a traumatic life — her first husband had died in a car crash and second after committing suicide.

To clear his mind, Manser decided to explore the forests of Congo in Africa where he was appalled to find corruption in the logging industry was far worse than he had even seen.

On his return, he began taking greater risks as if to challenge fate!
In 1996, he went on a death-defying stunt with Jacques Christinet, hurtling down a 2.7km-long funicular cable line in a make-shift cart at 140-km per hour!

He began taking greater risks and at one stage broke an ankle which needed hospitalisation for weeks.

When Manser refused to listen to reason, Bruno Manser Fund secretary Roger Graf decided to leave BMF and was succeeded by John Kunzli.

Graf said, “I was completely fed up. Bruno forgot himself and his mission. This is something unbelievably childish about him.”

In his “last hurrah”, Bruno called me from Kalimantan to say he was sneaking into Sarawak for the last time.

Manser and Kunzli had crossed over from Kalimantan to Bario.
It was here that he wrote his last letter to Charlotte promising to come home after his final escapade.

But it was not to be!

I was told Manser fell and his foster father of Along Sega with whom he had made an appointment to meet at the mountain complex, found his body and buried it at a secret place!

But his grave which is entombed in the rocky foothills of Batu Lawi will never be found because Along died in the mid-2000s. One thing we can be sure of is that Bruno can now be with Along and “Amen” — the God of Peace, for eternity!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.