Thursday, June 20, 2013

NRC battles – Civil servants risk contempt of court

By Keruah Usit
ANTIDOTE Civil servants in Sarawak are being compelled by their political masters to risk contempt of court when summoned as witnesses in native customary rights (NCR) land cases.

PKR electoral candidate for Hulu Rajang Abun Sui Anyit, and DAP Piasau state assemblyperson Alan Ling Sie Kiong, told Malaysiakini that Joseph Belayong Punan, the Baram District Officer, failed to attend a court hearing last week, in an NCR case filed by members of the Berawan community of Long Terawan, Mulu.

"Mr Joseph Belayong stated in his letter (to the court) he is still waiting endorsement from the State Secretary to attend the court trial as a witness." said Abun Sui, lawyer for the Long Terawan plaintiffs.

"In my opinion, the District Officer's record of cooperation in the administration of surveys of NCR land is poor," he went on. "I believe he is on political instructions from the Taib family."

According to Ling, another lawyer, "our judiciary was insulted by the executive branch. The sovereignty of the executive, legislative and judiciary (branches) no longer exists in Sarawak.

"It is an insult to the judiciary that somebody from the executive is having the upper hand in the affairs of the judiciary."

The defendant in the Long Terawan lawsuit is the Land and Surveys department, Miri.

The case is in arbitration for a compensation claim over land taken from the Berawan by the Sarawak government, to build an airstrip and road, serving a hotel affiliated with the Mulu National Park.

Rob the poor, feed the rich

The state administration, headed by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, took over local natives' land to allow Taib's sister Roziah, and her husband Robert Geneid, to control the so-called Royal Mulu Resort, now in the process of being re-branded as a Marriott property.

Taib is named on record as a shareholder in the hotel development.

The resort has allowed wealthy tourists like Prince Albert of Monaco to visit the caves and karst formations of Mulu, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Joseph Belayong is also the election official named as a defendant in a petition filed by PKR candidate Roland Engan to annul the recent Baram parliamentary election result.

The district officer did not respond to a request for comments, as he was said to be attending a meeting in Bintulu.

"I've checked with my comrades in Kuching and learnt that this is not the first time such lame excuses were given to court," Ling said.

"It has become the norm that state government servants succumb to pressure, and are even forced to risk consequences of contempt of court."

He added that practicalities dictate that government servants dare not disregard administrative orders from the executive, but rather defy the law.

 Defying the Charter charge

"This is ridiculous...(the state government) might as well amend the law or the constitution to prohibit the public from suing any authorities, that will save us all the trouble," he said acerbically.

The judicial system, he pointed out , is meant "to protect the masses, not the selected species hiding behind people in power."

Divisional civil service heads, or Residents, have sacked ketua kaum or village heads, or docked their pay, when conscientious chiefs have opposed NCR land takeovers by private oil palm corporations and timber companies owned by family members of BN ministers. Officials in the land and surveys department, police, district offices, forestry department and even the health and education departments have been rebuked by NCR defenders for siding with loggers and oil palm planters.

During the 13th general election campaign, state civil service also played a vital logistical role in disseminating BN's electoral message, arranging transport for BN campaigners in vast rural constituencies, offering electoral "sweeteners" to induce voters to choose the ruling coalition's candidates, and delivering threats of a freeze on development in seats lost by the BN.

Barisan Nasional state land development minister, James Masing, was not content. He demanded silent submission to the BN  from civil servants.

Headmaster wagging finger

According to June 16 report in a local daily, he berated them, and teachers in particular, for expressing dissatisfaction with the BN during the GE13 campaign.

"You cannot do this publicly unless you are members of  political parties," Masing had reportedly said.

"My advice to government officers, including teachers, is to follow instructions of the government of the day.

"As long as you are on (the) government's payroll, you can't go against the government."

Yong Ing Thung, secretary general of the Sarawak Teachers' Union, representing some 24,000 members, said Masing's remarks were uncalled for.

"As teachers, we are colour blind because we teach and treat our students equally, irrespective of colour, ethnic group, race or which political party the parents are affiliated to."
It is indisputable that civil servants take an oath to carry out the policies of the government of the day.

But in the grand scheme of things, respect for the government entails respect for the judicial arm of the government, and the legislative arm too.

Moreover, civil servants owe an even greater loyalty to the welfare of their fellow Sarawakians, and to their conscience - an idea that is anathema to their cabinet ministers.

"There is a saying: ‘Be you ever so high, the law is above you'. Simply, in Sarawak's context, the ruling BN government is above all," Ling said.

Most civil servants in Sarawak are aware of the current government's shameful record of seizing poor rural communities' NCR land.

These civil servants are coming under growing pressure: if they obey their political masters, some risk contempt of court - and all of them risk the contempt of the rest of society.

~ Malaysiakini

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