On Feb 23, Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud flew in by helicopter to make campaign promises in the small, dusty town of Long Lama in Baram. Taib and his retinue were taken by surprise by a crowd of 70 Baram dam opponents on the street, within view and earshot of Taib's hustings.
The Dayak protesters, from throughout Baram, carried banners demanding the return of their Native Customary Rights (NCR) land, enshrined under traditional law or adat, as well as under state and federal laws. These rebellious scenes would have been unthinkable before BN's poll setbacks of 2008 and 2011, when BN and Taib enforced a culture of fear in Sarawak.
The only time Taib was threatened, since his imperious ascent to power in 1981, was during the Ming Court affair in 1987. The state election that year was hardly a clash of ideologies. It was a contest between Taib and Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak, (PBDS), a rival camp of the Dayak elite, with both sides vying to extract wealth from Sarawak's lucrative forests and land.
The pronouncements that natives are "squatters" on their own NCR land, made by Taib's cousins Fatimah Abdul Rahman and her sister Norlia, which was audaciously captured on tape by NGO Global Witness, will be damaging to the BN.
The ill-advised statement, "you know, they're very, very poor... when leaders come they look at leaders like they're kings, and they always expect some handouts and things like that", has spread on social media (with nearly 700,000 YouTube views within two days). These insults will also play widely on Radio Free Sarawak (RFS), an anti-Taib shortwave station that broadcasts from London and reaches every corner of Sarawak.
Taib's ministers have railed against the spread of RFS, threatening to jam broadcasts, but have demonstrated impotence when faced with free-flowing information. Meanwhile, BN components are also bogged down by endless infighting.
Umno's bizarre prohibition on non-Muslims using the word ‘Allah' will also affect support for the Sarawak BN among the Christian majority in the state. Sarawak BN has boasted that the issue has been resolved, yet Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is forced to keep reiterating the ban - in defiance of a court order - to try to prop up Umno's sagging Muslim Malay vote bank.
Dissent over dams
The dispossession of enormous tracts of NCR land, exemplified by Taib's plan to dam 12 huge rivers, has incensed the rural population. Resentment has percolated through Facebook and blogs.
Tens of thousands of young Dayaks working in Johor, Singapore and the Klang Valley, with smartphone access to websites like Malaysiakini and Sarawak Report, have also brought dissent home to the longhouses.
Communities threatened by mega-dams have set up partnerships, such as the Save Rivers Network Sarawak. Activists have travelled the length of the state, visiting resettlement ghettoes in dam sites such as Batang Ai and Bakun. They have seen for themselves the destitute, landless populations being coerced to pay for electricity and decrepit housing, and they have returned home to spread the news.
Taib's ministers have shown alarm at the potential for a rural revolt. James Masing from Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) told the news agency AFP on Feb 8 that "it is not a firm plan to build 12 dams. I don't think we will need that. We will only need four of them."
But Taib brooks no dissent in his cabinet. Masing was forced to back pedal only hours later. At a press conference, Masing harangued the AFP journalist, saying he had been quoted out of context.
Masing ranted that it was "shameful when someone from a foreign media don't understand English that well". Masing's contortions were published in the pro-Taib Borneo Post newspaper under an irony-deficient headline, 'Twisted facts outrageous'.
William Mawan, president of the BN component Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP), which stands to lose the Baram parliamentary seat, has begged Taib to rectify the flaws in the Bakun relocation programme, before forging ahead with the Baram dam.
Taib, in turn, blamed the federal government for the sufferings of the natives dispossessed of their land in Bakun, according to Peter Kallang, the leader of Save Rivers. Kallang notes that the social and environmental impact assessments (SEIA) for the Baram dam have never been made public. In an ominous precedent, work on the Murum dam, upriver from Bakun, began even before the Murum SEIA was completed.
"(Baram MP Jacob Dungau) Sagan told the people not to worry about the proposal for the Baram dam because it is ‘not yet confirmed'. But other politicians from the BN government have said that the dam will be built by 2014," Kallang said.
Former senator Idris Buang, a board member of Sarawak Energy, told Dateline, a news show on Australian television channel SBS, that the Baram dam is a fait accompli: "It has to go on. As I said, the need to have all these dams that we planned for overrides any other thing, you know, in the interest of the greater good of Sarawakians."
Pakatan prospects limited
Despite BN's struggles, prospects for a Pakatan breakthrough in rural Sarawak are limited. PKR is a relative newcomer, and its branches remain shaky. Logistics provide BN a distinct advantage, since BN campaigners use civil service staff and transportation unabashedly. Rural voters have been indoctrinated for 50 years that changing the government is no more a possibility than changing one's apai indai, or parents. They have been warned to fear the paternalistic BN, and to equate party with government, in the manner of other closed, poorly educated societies such as Laos.
BN has taken advantage of the ethnic differences among the Dayaks, Malays and Chinese - although these are less rabid than in the peninsula - and among the Dayaks. These animosities have surfaced even within Pakatan, particularly among BN supporters who have defected. But to Pakatan's credit, its leaders have pushed for multiculturalism.
PKR has not overtly promoted Dayakism, the cynical route taken by PBDS in 1987. PKR has instead provided a viable alternative that can attract rural votes, thanks in large part to its leaders' seminal defence of NCR landowners. PKR lawyers have helped more than 100 Dayak communities file NCR claims against the BN government.
State PKR head Baru Bian is confident of increasing the number of Pakatan MPs from two (Kuching and Sibu) to between 11 and 13. Seven of these seats, in urban centres and with decent Internet penetration, are expected to fall to the DAP. The promising rural seats for Pakatan include Baram, Saratok, Lawas, Limbang, Mas Gading, Hulu Rejang and Sri Aman. But as astute political observers have pointed out, elections come and go: there will be other elections ahead. Pakatan's greatest contribution has been to build a two-party system that allows rural, marginalised voters to express dissent, without resorting to ethnocentric tub-thumping. This promising legacy will outlive any government, BN or Pakatan.