The first time I traveled to Borneo was near the end of 1989. The Berlin Wall had recently fallen and the economics of Southeast Asia were booming. The towns of Sarawak, an oil-rich state of East Malaysia, were experiencing rapid economic growth - due to both the oil company and an expanding logging industry. Rural-urban migration was draining indigenous people from the longhouses of the interior and swelling the populations of coastal towns. Traveling at that time to the Kelabit Highland - a remote interior plateau located in the northeastern corner of Sarawak along the Indonesian border - was to enter a place negatively impacted by outmigration. As young people moved to towns, especially the town of Miri where the majority of Kelabit now live, they seemed to be taking with them much of the vitality and energy of their home communities. A common Kelabit phrase to describe this state of affairs was da 'at ali, a kind of 'bad' silence or lack of activity, something that the elders I met lamented.
Given what I saw on this initial trip, I assumed, somewhat incorrectly, that in the coming years few youth would remain or return to their home communities after completing their schooling in town, and that the longhouse communities of this part of central Borneo would continue to decline. I formulated a research project aimed at exploring the relationship between those who remained in the rural homelands and the growing population of Kelabit living in Miri and other towns, with the aim of looking at changing expressions of ethnic identity and the ongoing relationships between urban migrants and their rural counterparts. What I had failed to account for at the time was how proximity to the border of Indonesia, with its weaker economy, and mobility of people from the other side of this permeable jungle frontier, would also factor quite significantly into this situation. I had also not though about the implications of doing fieldwork along an international frontier and the kinds of practical and ethical issues this would raise. [excerpt]
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Amster, Matthew H. "Borderland Tactics: Cross-Border Marriage in the Highlands of Borneo." Borderlands: Ethnographic Approaches to Security, Power and Identity (University Press of America, 2010), 93-107.
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