The headman of a Semai hamlet built a temporary shelter near his durian grove so he could spend the night there and perhaps catch the person who was stealing his fruit. But as he built the shelter, he made sure that everyone knew his plans. He wanted to be certain that the thief wouldn’t come, since of course they would both try to avoid any confrontation.
Much as the Semai try to avoid conflicts, however, sometimes disputes do arise in their society. When they do, the Semai will request the headman of the village to convene a bcaraa’, a conflict resolution proceeding that Clayton Robarchek described in a 1979 journal article, added this week as a PDF to the Archive of this website.
Just as the point of the shelter in the durian grove was to avoid rather than provoke a confrontation, the point of a bcaraa’ is to resolve a conflict, not to pass judgment on someone accused of breaking the rules. The peacefulness in their society depends both on avoiding conflicts as much as possible and on resolving them quickly and effectively when they do arise.
The bcaraa’ typically begins near dusk at the house of the headman, where people gather to socialize and begin to discuss the events that have produced the conflict. The proceedings open when one or more senior people in the village give long speeches about the importance of group interdependence and unity. They will remind the others of how much they depend on one another for food and assistance. They will stress the need for harmony within the group.
When the principals to the dispute speak, they do not confront one another directly, and no one presents evidence. The principals present their sides of the story, especially the reasons for their actions, as they try to win their arguments through effective presentations—much as lawyers in an American courtroom might do. The facts of the case are already well known to everyone.
Others will carry on the discussion, often not rebutting the well-crafted points made by earlier speakers but presenting their own points of view. Arguments that have already been clearly refuted may be presented again and again, depending on how much people need to talk out their feelings.
As long as people want to go on talking, the bcaraa’ continues, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. Ultimately, everyone is talked out, and no one has the urge to say anything more. The village has reached a consensus on what has happened and why. The headman concludes the bcaraa’, perhaps by imposing a modest fine against the person who is primarily responsible for the dispute, though he will often refund a portion of the fine right back to the individual paying it. The fine symbolizes the need to chastise the person who has been primarily responsible for the problem, while the refund indicates the continuing importance of the group in providing nurturance to the individual.
The headman will lecture the guilty individual—or frequently individuals, since more than one person may have caused the problem. Since the matter has been thoroughly discussed, the issue is settled. It cannot be raised again. The headman lectures the group one last time to re-emphasize that group unity and harmony have been preserved. If it is late at night, the people can simply roll up in their sarongs and go to sleep on the floor.
Robarchek follows his analysis of the bcaraa’ with a psycho-cultural explanation of why the procedure is important to the Semai. He concludes the article with a lengthy narration of one of the bcaraa’s that he witnessed, in order to give a detailed, first-hand sense of how one might go. His narration of the events leading up to the real bcaraa’ and his detailed narrative of the way it was handled highlight this fascinating discussion of effective conflict resolution practices in Semai society.