When a group of about 15 Malay men visited the Batek village of Kampung Ki Ying, the women quickly fled into the forest. Though it was only days before the 2013 national election in Malaysia, the women feared that such groups of visitors sometimes were only intent on attacking and raping. This time, the visitors were representatives of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. They were seeking votes. They handed out bags of food and announced that the following day, a high-ranking politician from their party would visit the village.

Barisan logoThe next morning, a large number of motor vehicles adorned with the blue flags of the Barisan Nasional party arrived and the visitors set up chairs in the village hall so the highly-ranked politician could give his speech. The Barisan supporters, wearing shirts sporting the Barisan logo, set up the flags of the party around the village and especially in the village hall—to establish a suitable environment for the visiting luminary.

The dignitaries sat at the front of the hall—a Muslim imam from a nearby Malay village, the politician, the village headman, and a village elder. After introductory remarks by a local politician, the Batek headman rose to speak. A charismatic figure in his own right, instead of uttering the usual face-saving platitudes that people are supposed to make on occasions such as that, the headman expressed disappointment about the lack of development in the village.

The politician was visibly irritated at what had been said, despite the fact that the headman had spoken politely. He tried to deliver his prepared speech anyway by telling his listeners how their lives had been improved by the government, and he asked for the votes of the Batek villagers. The headman replied that 5,000 rubber trees, promised to the village five years before, had never come. No one in the village would vote for Barisan until the rubber trees had been delivered.

The stubbornness and unforgiving attitude of the headman enraged the politician. He hollered at his followers that they were all leaving—immediately. Everyone quickly fled from the hall, the visitors to their motor vehicles, the Batek back into their homes. They ignored the lunch boxes that had been brought by the visitors—the residents suspected that they might have been filled with poisoned food anyway.

The two visiting anthropologists recording this incident, Ivan Tacey and Diana Riboli, went with their Batek hosts. They were stopped briefly by a couple Malay police officers, but then were allowed to accompany the headman back to his home. He asked his visitors to immediately leave the village and return to Kaula Lumpur—he feared for their safety. While they were on the road back to the capital, he called to tell them that after they had left, he had fled his home and sought refuge in the forest. Shortly after he had fled, three policemen had visited the village looking for him.

Fearing reprisals from the Malays, most of the other villagers also left. They divided into three separate groups and sought temporary refuge at camps in the forest that were located next to cave entrances. The Batek kept calling the authors until days after the election, until after the Barisan party had been returned to power, when they felt safe enough to return back to their village. The authors then also felt it was safe to return to Kampung Ki Ying.

Tacey and Riboli, in a remarkably engaging article about Batek anti-violence, use the story to illustrate their points about the development of the Batek approaches to maintaining peacefulness in their communities. They argue that the Batek, like the other aboriginal Orang Asli societies in Malaysia, are subject to what they call “structural violence,” consisting of discrimination, marginalization, poverty, poor health conditions, abuses, and lack of basic human and legal rights.

These current conditions have combined, in the minds of the Batek, with the folk memories of extreme persecution and slavery at the hands of the Malays over the ages, abuses which continued into the 20th century when whole communities were destroyed. This fear of Malay terrorism promotes their very strong fear of outsiders—especially of the Muslim Malays. Their justifiable fears still foster one of their strategies for self-protection and anti-violence—hiding out in the forest, especially near the entrances to caves.

Caves had provided sanctuaries from large-scale violence 50 years ago, during the British war against the Communist Insurgency, and they might do so again. Further, the Batek view caves as being filled with mostly hostile non-human beings. But when faced with extreme emergency situations, such as this incident when they angered the politician and feared his reprisals, they apparently were able to reverse their conceptions of the beings dwelling in the caves from possible persecutors into potential protectors.

In any case, instead of arguing that the Batek avoid violence due to ethical or religious reasons, the authors point out that they are simply pragmatic. The Malays are far more numerous than they are—to openly resist them would be suicidal. Despite at times fantasizing about violence, the authors conclude, “their fundamental ethical principles, which represent important components of their cultural identity, are indeed ‘anti-violent’ in nature (p.210).”

This important article, the opening piece in a special issue of the Journal of Aggression, Conflict, and Peace Research devoted to “Hunter-Gatherer Aggression and Peace,” includes a very detailed explanation of the background and development of what the authors refer to as “anti-violence.” They define it as an active and strategic approach to counteracting violence.

The authors make it clear that the two different Batek groups—Tacey and Riboli explain the differences between the Batek Dè’ and the Batek Tanum—are still subject to “countless acts of violence and terror (p. 204).” The dramatic episode that they personally witnessed was clearly just a mild version of the ones the villagers contend with.

The authors carefully review a variety of factors that arguably contribute to peacefulness in the Batek society, such as their social sanctions prohibiting aggression, their placing values on individual freedom and personal autonomy, and their ways of instilling their values into their children.

Tacey and Riboli mention the explanations for the peacefulness of different hunter-gatherer societies posited by scholars, but the thrust of this article is to analyze the Malaysian social and political conditions in which the Batek live. The authors provide a fascinating focus on the quite effective strategies used by the Batek for surviving in the face of Malay structural violence.

Tacey, Ivan and Diana Riboli. 2014. “Violence, Fear and Anti-violence: The Batek of Peninsular Malaysia.” Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research 6(4): 203-215