THE HOUR OF THE HORNBILL: Time for Sarawakians to Act!

Sarawak and Sabah should not merely be two of the 13 states of Malaysia.

By Dr Kua Kia Soong, Director of SUARAM

“Sarawak, you splendid shield
Hung askew on the equator
What poems will you carve
On this shield, my braves?
Let your poetry resound
With the roar of the mighty Rajang
In tender, loving tongues
From seas, plains and mountains
Etching the story of struggles in a new age
Carving a splendid poem on our dear land….
(Adapted from Wu An)

In 1978, we traveled to Sarawak to see for ourselves the rich ethnic and biodiversity there – the beauty of the Rajang, its waters, bountiful forests and multi-ethnic indigenous peoples upstream. Although the disruptive effects of capitalism had begun to take effect, the devastation of the forest by the Bakun dam project was not yet evident. The Rajang was truly an awesome river, awesome in its expanse at Miri town and even more awesome upstream in the Upper Balui, where our shallow boat had to skirt the breath-taking rapids. Poets have written odes to the Rajang, and the indigenous peoples have been nurtured by this river and the surrounding forests for centuries.

The indigenous peoples had a sustainable lifestyle and they were certainly not “backward” as Dr Mahathir tried to impute they were in justifying the Bakun dam. The area has in fact produced many university graduates.

Certainly, we could see how their lives could be improved, such as proper tarred roads and better river transport to help the people market their produce. Micro hydroelectric power facilities or solar powered facilities to supply electricity to each longhouse would also be a tremendous boost to the indigenous peoples upstream. Better schools and clinics can help to lift the living standards of the local people tremendously instead of their having to travel miles to go to school and clinics.


Operation Ethnocide

My second trip to the Bakun area, in 1999, was a shockingly different experience, being part of the fact finding mission to study the effects of the displacement of more than 10,000 indigenous peoples comprising 15 different ethnic communities. The social disruption caused by uprooting these self-sufficient and independent indigenous people from their ancestral homes close to nature was traumatic in itself.  To add insult to injury, their resettlement to Sg Asap has meant continuing trauma and deterioration of once capable and spirited peoples. Seeing their wretched life at Sg Asap Resettlement Scheme, the word ‘Ethnocide’ comes to mind, summing up what ‘Operation Exodus’ was all about. The paltry compensation the indigenous peoples received was what the fact finding mission called “Broken promises, Damned Lives”.

The whole Bakun area, the size of Singapore Island had also been thoroughly logged, transforming the once beautiful Rajang into the biggest muddiest river in this part of the world, destroying the hunting and fishing grounds of the indigenous peoples. The recent 240km logjam on the Rajang can be said to be one of the worst environmental disasters in Malaysia in recent years.


Socially disruptive, economically dubious and environmentally disastrous

The decision to implement “Operation Exodus” by the Mahathir/Taib Administration was unforgivable when the Bakun project had been suspended in 1998 because of the financial crisis. It did not stop Ekran Bhd subcontracting another Ting Pek Khing company, Pacific Chemicals to harvest 1000 hectares of forest and extracting 79,000 cubic metres of timber from the Bakun area. In 1998, nearly RM1 billion of Malaysian tax payers’ money was paid out to these companies which had been involved in the project.

That is why concerned Malaysian NGOs have all along maintained that this Bakun HEP project is socially disruptive, economically dubious and environmentally disastrous.

The economic cost of the Bakun dam remains to be counted. We learned recently that Sime Darby has lost more than RM2 billion as a result of their involvement in the Bakun project. For a state where total demand for electricity is less than 1000MW, we have built a dam that produces 2400 MW. And they plan to build more. Energy experts will tell you that having such enormous amount of excess energy is not a boon but is wasteful.

Clearly, the contractors and vested interests have profited from this project, Malaysian tax payers have to pay, more forests will be raped and more indigenous people will be displaced from their ancestral homes. To take up the excess electricity, energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelters will be built and the developed countries will be too glad to offload their toxic industries away from their countries to Sarawak.


Banned in my own country!

The fact finding mission to Bakun was in 1999. Then in August 2007, when I arrived at Kuching Airport for an educational trip on behalf of the college that I headed, I found to my outrage that I had been banned from entering Sarawak, a part of my own country. After my persistent demands for an explanation, the immigration officer told me that it was for “anti-logging activities”.

Imagine that timber tycoons who rape Sarawak’s forests can become Tan Sris while concerned NGO activists who try to protect the forests and indigenous peoples of Sarawak are banned from a territory in their own country!

Such arbitrary practices are symptomatic of a banana republic in which a tyrant can rule with impunity. Clearly, the Sarawak state government has abused the 18 point agreement to suit their own interests instead of the interests of Sarawakians. From a state rich in oil and timber, Sarawak has been stripped bare. While we read about the fabulous wealth of Taib and his family spread all over the world, the poverty level is lowest in Sabah and Sarawak.

This is unacceptable for two states that are so rich in natural resources. Sarawak gets only 5% of the oil royalties; the rest goes to the federal government, while most of the profits from timber go to the state government.


Rape and Plunder

As a result, the state strongly promotes logging.

Logging companies work on thousands of acres of forest that traditionally belong to the indigenous peoples such as the Kayan, Kenyah, and Penan. It has been estimated that 90 per cent of the virgin jungle in Sarawak has been logged in the past 40 years alone. Sarawak’s 2010 production was 10 million cubic metres; the state exported nearly 4 million cubic metres of logs worth RM2 billion. (Star, 16.2.2011)

Measure that against the recent report in December last year when 1000 Penans at Lusong Laku near Miri were totally cut off because the iron bridge that had been used by the logging company there had been replaced by a rickety wooden one when they left before the impounding of the Bakun dam and this had collapsed.

The logging industry has destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Sarawak, especially the indigenous peoples. To add insult to injury, the recent expose of the rape of Penan girls and women by personnel in the logging camps has created indignation among concerned peoples all over the world. SUARAM was part of the fact finding mission which went to investigate this scandal. They confirmed these reports of rape and harassment of Penan girls and women and called for respect for the rights of the indigenous peoples and for the police to investigate all these cases, justice and adequate compensation for all the victims.

We can only imagine the dread and anxiety among the indigenous peoples all these years of harassment by personnel of these timber companies and the apathy of the police. One of the reasons given for the police apathy was the lack of resources to investigate these cases.


Still colonized by the West

When Sarawak first joined the federation, under the First Malaysia Plan, she got 10.5% of total development allocation. As one of the poorest territory in Malaysia, the development allocation for Sarawak instead of growing has fallen to 6.7% of total allocation under the Ninth Malaysia Plan. Under the Fifth and Sixth Malaysia Plans, the allocation for Sarawak was only 5.2% and 5.3% respectively.

At the end of the NEP, 36% of Iban, 33% of Melanau and 25.8% of Bidayuh households were still poor. (Berma, M in “The Bumiputera Policy: Dynamics and Dilemma”, ed. Richard Mason & Ariffin Omar, USM 2003)

And everywhere you travel in Sabah and Sarawak, you will see that West Malaysian companies have also bought up vast tracts of land in East Malaysia. As a West Malaysian, I feel a terrible shame that our government and business interests have treated Sarawak and Sabah like colonies in the federation since 1963.


600 schools in critical condition, mostly in E. Malaysia

Only a few days ago, the Education Minister said that 600 schools were in a critical condition, most of these in Sarawak and Sabah and they are thinking of privatizing these schools.

This is absolutely scandalous considering the government is about to buy six patrol boats for the navy for RM6 billion. When the government announced this recently they said we can afford these patrol vessels. Now, you don’t need RM1 million to build a new school, which means that for six patrol vessels we could build at least 6000 brand new schools in the whole country. Do you know that Chinese or Tamil schools in the country have decreased in number since Independence in 1957 even though our population has doubled since then?


‘Malaysian Federation of Malaya, Sarawak & Sabah’

The peoples of Sarawak deserve a government that respects basic human rights and cares about the welfare and holistic development of the people and environment. The people want a just solution to the encroachment into Native Customary Land by developers, plantation and logging companies and titles to their land.

Taib Mahmud and his associates in the Barisan Nasional have plundered Sarawak long enough. It is time for Sarawakians to take their destiny into their own hands and work toward their own self-determination and the progress of their resource rich and beautiful land. It is time to reclaim your rights and interests intended by the 18-point agreement when Sarawak joined the “Malaysian Federation of Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah”. This is what the federation should have been called – Sarawak and Sabah should not merely be two of the 13 states of Malaysia.


Seize the moment!

Today, as we celebrate the historic victories of the peoples over dictatorship and tyranny in Tunisia, Egypt and more countries to come, let us not just listen to the wind of change but seize the moment and do what has to be done at the next Sarawak State elections. We know that UMNO holds power in the country only at the pleasure of the voters in Sabah and Sarawak, so do what has to be done. We wish Sarawakians success in their struggle for self-determination.

I leave you this song from the Chilean democratic movement in 1973, written by Victor Jara:

“Winds of the people speak to me
Winds of the people carry me –
They scatter my heart
And blow through my throat –

So the poet will go on singing
As long as my spirit breathes,
Down the roads of the people
Both now and forever…”