Battling over land rights in Batang Ai

By Deborah Loh (

FOOD on the table and a roof over one's head — these are key issues in almost any election in rural Malaysia. But in the Sarawak hinterland, it's a more emotional subject as food and shelter are derived from a hereditary source, the forest, which has been fought over by native communities and the state for decades.

As such, expect Native Customary Rights (NCR) to be a major issue in the coming Batang Ai state seat by-election on 7 April 2009. Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, whose Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) is fielding a candidate against the Barisan Nasional (BN), has already promised as much. The PKR candidate is Jawah Gerang, who will face the BN's Malcolm Mussen Lamoh.

Anwar has pledged to restore customary rights to land if the PR wins the state in the future. He's also promised higher oil royalties for the state, and to make an indigenous Dayak the next chief minister. All this if the PR takes over in the next state elections, which must be held by 2011.

The PR will want to test the efficacy of playing up the NCR issue in Batang Ai during the campaign period. Away from the political tsunami and "new politics" of equality that rocked the peninsula in March 2008, NCR is probably the opposition's strongest rallying cry in Sarawak.

Frontline issue

Anwar has called Sarawak and Sabah the "frontline" states in the PR's bid to wrest the federal government from the BN. But while NCR will become a political issue, it must not be forgotten that it ought to first and foremost be a human rights issue. Promises made for the sake of winning elections can all too easily eclipse the realities of how entrenched the exploitation of NCR lands is.

If the PR wants people to believe its promises for Batang Ai and the rest of the state, it should show how it plans to untangle the intricate network of state and business interests. This will be no easy task given the high stakes.


Read more at: