World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Brunei Darussalam : Dusun, Murut, Kedayan, Iban, Tutong, Penan


The indigenous minority tribal groups in Brunei are the same as in the neighbouring Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Dusun constitute about 6.3% per cent of the population, and Murut around 6 per cent. Traditionally animistic, though many have converted to Islam and Christianity, they are also traditionally migrating swidden cultivators and collectors of jungle products residing in the forested interior of the country.

The Kedayan are Malay-speaking and Muslim agriculturalists. Despite their language and religious affiliations with the ethnic Malay majority, Kedayan are regarded by Bruneians as closer in status to the animist, interior tribal groups because of a number of similar cultural practices.

Iban, formerly known also as Sea Dayaks, are roughly 4.7 per cent of the population, live mostly along the border with Sarawak (see Malaysia). They are considered to have entered Brunei from Sarawak during the reign of the famous "white Rajahs" of the Brooke family, and it is probably for this reason that they are not considered by Brunei authorities and its Constitution as Bumiputera. Traditionally involved in head-hunting and living in longhouses, they have more recently become labourers and are becoming more urbanised.

The Penan are perhaps less than 300 individuals in Brunei and are forest dwellers who traditionally followed a nomadic way of life. They traditionally harvested and used blowpipes with poison-tipped darts to hunt animals. Most now live in permanent settlements and engage in year-round farming.

Historical context

At its height during the 15th and 17th centuries the Brunei Empire extended to the entire island of Borneo and north into the Philippines. During its decline and the rising influences of European colonial powers in the region, Brunei was to gradually lose most of its territories until by 1888 Brunei was but a shadow of its former self, territorially divided into two slivers of land in the northeast section of the island of Borneo, and became a protectorate of the British Government.

The various indigenous peoples of Brunei thus are indistinguishable from or share close links with other neighbouring indigenous populations of Borneo. As is the case of other countries sharing with it the island - Indonesia and Malaysia - Brunei considers the indigenous populations as Bumiputera, 'Sons of the Soil', except for the Iban and Penan.

While indigenous peoples (except for Iban and Penan) are officially in a privilege position since as Bumiputera they may own land, have access to certain types of employment (including in the Royal Brunei Armed Forces and Brunei Shell Petroleum) and benefit from other types of affirmative action programmes, there is pressure to embrace Islam for those who continue to practice animism or are Christians. In the 1970s, mass conversions to Islam were reported among the indigenous groups, after pressure from the state.

Current issues

The government of Brunei continues to ban many religious activities of non-Muslim groups, including those of indigenous peoples, while at the same time permitting or assisting those of Islamic authorities. The latter for example organise what are known as dakwah or proselytizing activities which include incentives to indigenous peoples in rural areas such as financial aid, new homes, water pumps, etc. There is thus great pressure for indigenous peoples to convert from animism and ancestor worship to Islam, though a smaller proportion continues to convert to Christianity.

Indigenous peoples are additionally encouraged to move away from many aspects of their cultures and languages: while there is no active attempt to suppress the private use of indigenous languages, the Government of Brunei's languages policy and legislation, which provides for the exclusive official use of Malay and in some cases English, all but ensures that the number of speakers of indigenous languages continues to fall. Increasing urbanisation is also seeing traditional economic activities and lifestyles being relegated to the sideways.

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