ANTIDOTE The first-term Sarawak state assembly representative for Telang Usan in Baram, Dennis Ngau, has spread ripples of disbelief and laughter in the social media following his remarks on the rape of Penan women and schoolgirls.

Ngau made his remarks in response to a PKR accusation that Women, Family and Community Development Minister Rohani Abdul Karim, had misled a regional forum by making a verifiably incorrect claim. The minister had said that the recommendations of her ministry's Task Force Report, on sexual violence by loggers in Baram, had already been carried out. 

NONERohani (left)said this at the Seventh Meeting of the Asean Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, which was held in Kuala Lumpur from July 22 to 24.

Dennis Ngau rode to the minister's rescue, but stumbled. "I did not read the Task Force Report, but I'm sure the government took it seriously and at times may have to adjust to suit the local environment," he was quoted as saying by the Borneo Post

Instead of saving the minister, Ngau appears to have trampled her underfoot. His verbal slapstick has drawn even greater attention to the minister's controversial claim.

Sarawak PKR vice-chairperson and state assemblyperson for Batu Lintang See Chee How had on July 23 challenged the minister for trying to paper over the scandal surrounding the loggers' sexual assaults. 

NONE"I am disappointed with the minister as she did not speak the truth at the international forum," See, a human rights lawyer, told the press.

"I regret the minister was misguided and wrongly advised into making an embarrassing statement that most of the recommendations listed in the National Task Force Report were executed," he went on.

"Someone commented that BN ministers lie to the Malaysian public on a daily basis. They do. But misleading an international or regional audience is serious."

Task Force's shocking findings

Loggers in Baram have raped girls as young as 10 years old. These crimes were uncovered by a federal Cabinet Task Force in September 2009. 

The ministry's Task Force was unanimous in the finding that "sexual abuse of Penan girls and women by outsiders dealing with the Penan, including logging company employees and traders, had indeed taken place." Their brief visit, over four days, documented eight cases of sexual abuse.

According to the Task Force, the roots of this sexual violence included poverty, isolation, excessive dependency on logging companies for transportation to clinics and schools, mistrust of the authorities among the Penan and prejudice towards the Penan. 

NONEThe Task Force had recommended far-reaching improvements in transportation of schoolchildren, infrastructure, birth and citizenship registration, healthcare and education, and in the self-determination of the Penan.

These findings were then broadened in July 2010 by another investigation by the Penan Support Group, a coalition of NGOs. The PSG uncovered seven new instances of sexual violence, and tied these in with the wider socio-economic deprivation of rural communities. 

Logging companies offer powerful support and generous donations to the ruling political elite. They own newspapers, infrastructure and even politicians.

‘No further action' by government


Five years later, the Penan face exactly the same challenges, and are as vulnerable as ever to sexual abuse. Not a single rapist has been brought to justice: the police blame a lack of funds for their failure.

"The complaints lodged with the police on sexual assault against Penan women have been classified as ‘NFA' (no further action)," See said.

"Until today, there has not been any arrangement done to ferry Penan children to their boarding schools and back to their settlements."

Penan settlements in Baram Tengah have had to rely on a single four-wheel-drive vehicle, purchased for them by the Selangor and Penang state governments, to have access to distant schools and hospitals.

NONESee (left) noted that the Sarawak government had gone as far as sponsoring a women's empowerment workshop in Baram, conducted by a local NGO, Sarawak Women for Women Society. But, he added, there was no additional effort put into the health services, national registration and pre-school classes in Baram, as recommended by the Task Force.

"However, I welcome the commitment by the federal minister to visit the Penan community in Sarawak to review the implementation of the recommendations made in the report, and I hope she will make full and frank disclosure of her report later," he said.

See was more direct in calling Dennis Ngau's outburst "the confession and proof of a failed assemblyman" in a social media remark.

"This is the single most important cabinet report affecting the people of Ngau's constituency, he didn't bother to read (it) but quickly jumped up to defend the mediocre minister, and is making it worse for her now," See observed.

Ngau had told the Borneo Post that the BN government had engaged with the Penan in dialogues and meetings "to make them understand why they must accept development".

He also appeared to doubt the findings of rape by the ministry's Task Force, telling the Borneo Post that "the Penan that I met and asked even denied that such thing [sic] even occurred".

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 atkeruah_usit@yahoo.com

~ Malaysiakini