A coalition of 27 human rights NGOs has written a letter to Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, urging him to help hundreds of Penan who they said have been shut in by armed police for more than a week.

After nearly two months of the Penan people's protest against the RM4 billion Murum hydroelectric project, which will flood and destroy their homes and food sources, police have now blocked off all aid coming from lawyers, human rights groups, medical and, media personnel, the coalition of international and local NGOS said.

NONE"We are extremely concerned with the decision made by Sarawak authorities to isolate, intimidate and threaten the Penan families, all of whom are seeking to defend their ancestral lands, their culture, and the survival of their way of life as a people," the NGOs said in a statement.

The letter, which was also copied to the Sarawak chief minister, the inspector-general of police, and the home minister, sought, among other things, to explain the NGOs' understanding of the situation that led to the face-off.

Penan excluded from all decision-making

It said that about 1,500 Penan were left with no choice but to carry out blockades from September to prevent the impoundment of the completed Murum Dam, as they have not received fair compensation. 

The representatives of the community have also been excluded from all critical decision-making processes during the planning and construction of the dam.

The NGOs also said the social and environmental impact assessment studies as well as the full plans for the resettlement of those affected were not made available to the community.

The fully state-owned company spearheading the dam project, Sarawak Energy Bhd (SEB), in a statement last month accused the NGOs of confusing the situation.

NONESEB chief executive Torstein Dale Sjøtveit (right) defended the Murum Dam as a development that would bring jobs to Sarawakians and raise the Penan from the poverty that they were living under. 

Murum is just one of many dams planned under the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE), which aims to multiply Borneo's cheap power supply by nearly 20-fold to draw in power-guzzling industries such as aluminum smelters and other factories.

"Sarawak's competitive advantage in hydropower has been identified as the best and fastest strategy to propel the desired development and also reaches the people in the interior, who are in dire need of better infrastructure, amenities and facilities, " Torstein said in the statement.

The company reiterated that under its Resettlement Action Planfor the nearly 1,500 Penan displaced by Murum Dam, each household would be compensated with items worth more than RM600,000.

However, a number of Penan community leaders and NGOs said they do not trust the promises made by SEB.

NONESave Rivers chairperson Peter Kallang and other NGO leaders held a press conference in KL this week,raising protest that SEB had only really agreed to pay RM4,000 plus RM800 a month for four years to each household. The rest of its pledges would be subject to a review in the future. 

Human rights activist Kua Kia Soong pointed out that similar proposals were heard previously for the Bakum Dam project many years ago but the jobs promised the displaced indigenous communities never materialised. 

When the costs of these mega projects escalate, Kua said, promises to the victims were often the first thing to be broken.

Among the international NGOs that signed the letter sent to Najib are the Bruno Manser Foundation (Switzerland), Cordillera Peoples Alliance (Philippines), Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (Pakistan), Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food (Sierra Leone), Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (Movement of Dam Affected People) of Brazil and Human Rights Watch.

~ Malaysiakini