When Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud first heard of an anonymous blog that attacked him and his family for alleged corruption, he laughed and brushed it aside like he would a pesky fly.
But the blog didn’t go away, and soon it sprouted a radio unit to reach more people in interior of the state where broadband is still a dream invention of the West.
And on Monday, Taib’s headache is bound to grow worse. Defenders of Sarawak’s indigenous communities and the Borneo rainforest have announced street protests in the United Kingdom and Canada against what they call his blatant corruption and deprivation of his people’s humanity.
Yes, the Sarawak Report blog and Radio Free Sarawak have turned out to be much more successful than its editor Clare Rewcastle Brown – the sister-in-law of former Bristish prime minister Gordon Brown – had hoped for.
She is now looking to achieve even greater impact and the quicker the better because state elections are due to be called anytime now. A window of opportunity has finally appeared for the downtrodden in the state. A massive journey still lies ahead but the first step must be paved by political transformation.
“BN have tried to give the impression that Taib, although he is old and highly discredited, will last forever. People need to discuss amongst themselves the fact that this is not true and that change is inevitable, so when and how do they want that to happen?” Clare said in the interview with Malaysia Chronicle.
Call her ambitious but she is fighting for the country of her birth. A British citizen, Clare has not forgotten she was born in Sarawak 51 years ago.
She is now fronting a crusade that many Sarawakians had wanted to begin but could never quite pull together. They and millions of other Malaysians and even people from other countries are now joining the battle for justice she began with her blog.
They have one common goal – to Save Sarawak. To stop the plunder of its natural resources, the pillage of its awesome rain forests, the rape of its unique tribes by loggers emboldened by decades of lax and greedy governanance by Taib and his team.
Far away in the federal capital in Putrajaya, Prime Minister Najib Razak looks on. Maybe he even clucks sympathetically with the Sarawakian people, but for sure, he lifts no finger to try and stop their hurt or heed their screams for help.
Malaysia Chronicle appends below Part One of the exclusive interview with Clare. Part Two will be published on Monday.
Chronicle: How many people in Sarawak, do you think listen to you? Are they mostly in the interior or towns? How effective is RFS in getting the message to the people?
Clare: It is always hard to judge the level of listeners, especially in this situation where we are broadcasting to remote communities, but we think we have many listeners and they are growing in numbers by the day.
Just as importantly we are listening to them.
Our aim is to provide an outlet where their concerns and what they say is treated as being interesting and important.
This isn’t just about what the Government wants to tell them it’s about what they want to tell the Government and others as well. Radio Free Sarawak is one platform where their voices can be heard.
Every day we make big efforts to get in touch with people from longhouses all over Sarawak and the stories they tell us about their land grab issues, their deprivation, their poverty and their lack of medical and other facilities, provide the real picture of what is happening to these previously silenced and suffering communities.
Through our radio show villagers can learn that their problems are not isolated and they share the same concerns and issues with other tribes in areas all over Sarawak.
These problems are largely caused by the corrupt way in which their country has been governed over the past decades.
Chronicle: With your main whistleblower, Boyert dead, is this a massive setback for Sarawak Report? How will you carry on? (Ross Boyert was Taib’s disaffected US aide who died in mysterious circumstances. The inquest into his death is still pending.)
Clare: If you mean in terms of information, no.
Ross gave us some information about some Taib family businesses in America, but the rest of our exposes were begun before we tracked down Ross and we have plenty of other sources of information.
On the other hand Ross was a decent and lovely man, who we came to see as a friend. He left a wife and daughter and on that level it has been a massive shock and a setback for everyone who knew and cared about the Boyerts.
Chronicle: Has anyone refused to be interviewed by Papa Orang Utan and why?
Clare: Of course! Most BN politicians run a mile from Papa Orang Utan, because they are not used to being interviewed by a free press or asked anything but flattering and obedient questions.
When politicians get away with such an easy ride for years and years they start to get slack and corrupt and they do things that they wouldn’t dare to do if they had thought there was a change of it being made public.
This means that a lot of BN politicians are afraid of being asked embarrassing questions about things they shouldn’t have done!4.How seriously have you damaged Taib? How well do you think Baru Bian will do?
All I have set out to do is to give people in Sarawak the information upon which they can make their own decisions. That is their democratic right and BN have attempted to deny them that right by controlling all the media. So if I have presented facts which have damaged Taib, then it is Taib who has damaged himself.
I think that Baru Bian and Wong Ho Leng are both excellent leaders of the opposition coalition and have strong track records as honest and capable men. If there was a free and fair election I think they would do extremely well.
Chronicle: Have you had any trouble with the British authorities because of RFS? Now that you have revealed yourselves, do you envisage any trouble from the authorities? OR will they be pushed to act by Taib?
Clare: I have not broken any law in the UK and envisage no problems whatsoever from the authorities here.
Thankfully we are a free and open society, where the press is allowed to flourish and to question and criticise politicians.
We know from experience that this makes our society stronger and it is the best check on political corruption.
It also makes each individual in our society safer and more valued by those politicians who need their votes.
It breaks my heart to see how people in Sarawak suffer from not being allowed these basic rights and freedoms of expression, even though they are written into their constitution and laws.
Chronicle: How long more are SR and RFS going to operate? Only till Taib goes or much longer?
Clare: If Taib goes and Sarawak gets an open government, then I think we will probably cave in the face of competition! There will be so many other newspapers and radio stations opening up to interest, entertain and inform the people.
Chronicle: What happens to Papa Orang Utan? Does this mean he will never see his family again? If Taib loses in the elections all is well, but if he does not?
Clare: Maybe this is a question you should put to Taib?
Of course Taib should not abuse his powers or do anything to threaten or harm people who legitimately question his actions or indeed criticise him.
Politicians should expect criticism, but I suspect that Taib fears that he cannot withstand it.
Chronicle: What next for RFS now that you have ‘revealed’ yourselves ahead of the upcoming Sarawak elections? Expand, or stay the same?
Clare: This is a question we ask ourselves as well. Don’t forget we are all volunteers…. anyone else out there who is willing to give up their time for no money?
Chronicle: You are now probably persona non-grata in Sarawak but the information on Taib and his companies will still reach you, via various sources. How else do you want the Sarawakian to help themselves and each other, and spread the message?
Clare: If I have managed to provoke a debate in Sarawak, then I will be very pleased. In the end people need to realise and accept that things never remain the same and that change will come.
BN have tried to give the impression that Taib, although he is old and highly discredited, will last forever. People need to discuss amongst themselves the fact that this is not true and that change is inevitable, so when and how do they want that to happen?
BN seem to have made no preparations for that change and Taib himself has said that no one in the party is capable to succeed him (maybe he deliberately appointed people who could not succeed him!).
People need to face up to the fact they are going to have to decide who can lead them into the future.
Chronicle: Tuai rumah (head of an Iban longhouse) usually tell the longhouse inhabitants how to vote. How are you going to change this voting culture, so that people vote according to their conscience and their own free will?
Clare: We will certainly be giving a platform on Radio Free Sarawak to experts and opposition figures, who will be explaining to people exactly what their rights are when it comes to voting.
We will be reminding voters that while it is not a crime to accept money that is freely given, it is a crime to sell your vote and it is even more of a crime for BN to try and buy your vote!
So if you do take money from BN then you had better vote for the opposition in order to avoid any such misunderstanding!