Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Spring-cleaning S'wak on Saturday

ANTIDOTE This Saturday's Bersih 3.0 rally will be a giant step forward in Malaysia's history.

An unprecedented number of communities all over the country -  including towns such as Kuching, Sibu and Miri in Sarawak that did not hold rallies on July 9 last year - will embrace this protest as their own.

NONEBersih's demands for clean elections has galvanised diverse communities seeking justice and political reform. One of these groups, the Orang Ulu natives of Baram, is campaigning to stop an impending environmental and social catastrophe in the form of the Baram Dam.

"We from the Save Rivers Network will be there at the (Bersih) protest site on the April 28. We will take the opportunity to protest against the Baram dam," promised Peter Kallang, the NGO’s steering committee chairperson.
The NGO campaigns to block the construction of 12 major hydroelectric dams in Sarawak.

These dams will, bizarrely, produce surplus power in a sparsely populated state that already enjoys a glut of electricity, thanks to the widely derided Bakun Dam.

NONEHuman rights campaigners point out that the family and friends of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud(right) stand to win the vulture's share of fat contracts for construction of the dams.

The new dams are forcing tens of thousands of natives from their homes, and are playing havoc with riverine ecosystems.

Opponents of the environmental vandalism of the Baram Dam, the Lynas rare earths refinery and the Bukit Koman gold mine, have found common ground with Bersih.

Without cleansing our putrid Election Commission and corrupted voting system, they argue, we cannot detoxify our environment.

"Despite the cost and inconvenience to travel from Baram to Miri, I am optimistic that many of the village residents affected by the Baram dam will make their way to attend Bersih 428," said See Chee How, a PKR state assembly representative and a leading native customary rights (NCR) lawyer.

"It's not just 'Bersih' for clean and fair elections - 428 is also about cleansing our environment. The damage that will be wrought by the Baram dam is a very relevant cause for the 428 rally."

SNONEee (left) told Malaysiakini the gigantic dam will be the single most important issue for the constituency of Baram in the coming general election.

"The electoral process in Baram, which is as unfair and dirty as it is elsewhere in Malaysia, favours BN," he said.

"But we are hopeful that the sentiment on issues surrounding the dam, such as corruption, wastage, oppression of the native communities, and lack of transparency and accountability, may also influence other electoral groupings, even though they may not be directly affected by the dam.
"We look forward to these different groups voting for our PKR candidate in Baram."

Life-or-death campaign

Save Rivers Network has run a lively campaign against the Baram dam which,, Kallang explained, would inundate the traditional land of the Baram dwellers and destroy the historical sites bearing their cultural identities and heritage.

"The dam would spell the end to the NCR land as it has always been: farmed land, pulau galau (communal forests)...from our road show I would safely say that at least 85-95 percent (of the communities we visited) are against the dam," he said.

The new local BN state assemblyperson, Dennis Ngau, has tried to downplay growing support for the campaign, even insisting that Penans had somehow been misled into signing a petition against the dam. He was following a well-worn tradition of denigrating the Penan, one of the poorest communities in Malaysia.

NONEKallang (right), a Kenyah community leader, was dismissive of such claims. The Penan protests, he said, were based on their own sound judgement. They had made the petition with full understanding of the impact the 'mega dam' would have on their lives, wiping out their land and property.

"Some of them have been to Batang Ai, and Bakun (two failed hydroelectric am resettlement schemes) and know the problems faced by those who were resettled. So (Ngau's) remark would simply be arrogant."
See argued that most of the Penan in areas to be flooded by the Baram dam would be keen to sign the petition, given the powerful traditional, cultural and customary ties that bind the Penan, their livelihoods, their land and forests.

"The Penan communities' readiness to file court cases to defend their land and forests (there are some 200 pending) are exemplary testimonies and role models for people like Ngau," See went on.

"But (Ngau) is fortunate enough to come from Long Bedian (and therefore won't be affected by the Baram dam). He lives in Miri most of the time. In any event, as a serving BN elected representative, he'd be unperturbed at the prospect of losing his traditional and cultural roots," See observed with a smile.

When I asked Kallang what real development, instead of the dam 'mega-project', meant to his community, he was unhesitant.

"Our community would like to see well-surfaced roads to each village, clean water supply, 24-hour electricity from micro-hydroelectric dams, modern telecommunications and information systems, clinics with doctors and nurses, more schools with easy access by roads, sewage and garbage disposal, a decent drainage system, an ambulance and firefighting service, new townships or Rural Growth Centres with government departments, shops and secondary schools, an airstrip and a regular air service."

In short, they are calling for better services and less corruption - in unison with the other demonstrators who will be out in enormous numbers this Saturday.

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at

~ Malaysiakini

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