Thursday, November 21, 2013

My tryst with a Penan & my questions for Datuk Torstein Sjotveit – Rama Ramanathan

NOVEMBER 20, 2013
Today, I met a Penan. I met him outside the Headquarters of the Malaysian Police in Bukit Aman, Kuala Lumpur.
This Penan’s 12 year old son and a teenager were arrested in Ulu Belaga a couple of weeks ago in Sarawak. The 2 boys had been detained by the police together with 8 adults because they, together with about 300 Penans, had blocked a road in a remote area in Sarawak, in Ulu Belaga.
The 300 Penan men, women and children are even now blocking the road with their small, sick, despairing bodies. They are doing this in order to achieve 3 goals: (1) delay construction of turbine-houses for the Murum dam until (2) prior agreements made with them are fulfilled and (3) they are reasonably compensated for all their troubles.
Today, in the Peninsula, at least on the West Coast, we have vast swathes of plantations and we have numerous industrial centres.
The facts of the case are hard to figure, and here lies the tragedy of Malaysia. Though the Peninsula and Sabah/Sarawak are separated by a huge expanse of the South China Sea We claim to be one nation. Yet, we are very cultures, and have different laws and systems of administration.
In the Peninsula, we know how to determine who owns what land. We think of land titles (‘geran’) and Sale and Purchase Agreements. We think of searches in land offices. We think of lawyers’ fees and we have clarity about when a transaction involving land is ‘completed.’
In the Peninsula, we know that over the past several decades the timber in vast expanses of ‘government owned’ jungle has been harvested. We know the land has then been converted into plantations, not least by FELDA settlers. And, in some cases, jungles have made way for dams. (Happily, we have no plans to create new dams in the Peninsula.)
In the Peninsula, we know that there are expanses of land which have been gazetted as national forests. We know that such land must not be used for purposes other than preservation, education and enjoyment. We know that we have to be ever vigilant against greedy people who subvert such restrictions.
In the Peninsula, we have a hazy notion that the rights of the indigenous peoples have been settled: we believe they are allowed to hunt and gather in the jungles and continue treating the jungles as their home for as long as they wish. Sadly, we don’t know how many indigenous people there are, how we keep track of their numbers, how they can assert their rights, etc. We just ‘trust and believe’ they are being treated justly.
In the Peninsula, we think the issues of indigenous peoples are settled. We don’t expect to see blockades or protests under the banner of Jakun, Negrito or Sakai or other indigenous peoples.
The indigenous peoples in the Peninsula were broken and repressed long before the age of cheap travel, tourism, internet.
Today, the world recognizes the ecological importance of jungles. Today, we have satellite images of the destruction of forests. Today, there is global interest in universal justice, etc. And today, we have tools and opportunities to act upon what we know.
The damage to the indigenous peoples in the Peninsula has been done, now we have to live with the consequences.
But now we are an enlightened people, eager not to repeat the errors of our past. So, we ask: what of Sabah and Sarawak today? Why are Penans blocking roads? Why are they coming to the police Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur? What are they trying to tell us? What can we do to help?
The dam concessionaire has begun flooding (‘impoundment’) because the barriers and floodgates of the Murum dam have been built, and it takes 18 months to collect enough water to power the turbines – which will be installed in structures being built at the end of the road being blocked.
The flooding has caused the Penans to lose the homes they lived in, to lose the rivers they fished in and to lose the lands they farmed on.
It’s hard for urban dwelling West Malaysians like me to fathom who speaks for the Penans and on what basis they claim legitimacy. It’s hard for us to fathom why the Penans waited so long to protest (surely it must have taken years to build the walls of the dam). It’s hard for us to know how they can prove their rights to the land.
What is not hard for us to fathom is the mix of despair and determination in the Penan I met today. This Penan was clutching at straws – I and several East and West Malaysian men and women are his straws.
What we see is a greedy King in Sarawak. This King has amassed immense personal wealth for himself and his family. This King is beyond the reach of even the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission. This King keeps the Umno-BN government in office in West Malaysia.
What we see is the Public Relations machinery of state-owned Sarawak Energy and its crony-contractors arrayed against devastated, semi-literate indigenous paupers.
What we see is a Federal government which admits in its 2014 budget that much work remains to be done to delineate the boundaries of Native Customary Rights land – in effect declaring we do not know who owns much of the land.
What we see is a Federal government which will not comply with the International Human Rights Covenant titled “ILO Convention No. 169 (1989): Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.” We know the decision not to comply coils out of the knowledge that compliance will diminish the opportunities for the rich to become richer.
The Penans have got my attention.
I appeal to Sarawak Energy, the state owned body which is the ultimate beneficiary of the dam, to reveal the agreements made with the natives prior to the impounding, and to tell the nation the status of the fulfilment of those agreements.
I appeal to Sarawak Energy – in particular to Datuk Torstein Dale Sjotveit, CEO – to confirm or deny allegations being circulated by persons claiming to represent the Penans. Here are 3 key allegations:
  1. Insufficient notice was given to the evicted to vacate their homes prior to commencement of the flooding.
  2. The homes prepared for the evicted in the new location are incomplete or inadequate.
  3. The new location prepared for the evicted does not have the promised amenities such as accessible schools and clinics.
I put the leaders of Malaysia on notice that citizens today expect all leaders to take seriously the plight of indigenous peoples – to recognize that they are not sacrifices but citizens. And, that their voices are the voices of the last remaining jungles on planet earth. - November 20, 2013.
Note: I've not been able to locate attested figures for the population ofPenans. It appears 200-300 may be living in the affected areas. Also, you may be interested to know that Bruno Manser spent several years with them in the 90's.
* Rama Ramanathan reads The Malaysian insider.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
~ The Malaysian Insider

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