BALINGIAN Sarawak PKR expressed the hope that two major issues - the Press Metal aluminium smelting plant and the land-grabbing issue in Balingian - could help swing some of the Iban and Melanau votes from Barisan Nasional to Pakatan Rakyat in the Balingian by-election.
“We know we are the underdog. It is not easy to win in Balingian which is one of the strongest BN constituencies. But in politics nothing is impossible,” said state PKR chief Baru Bian.
In the by-election, Pakatan Rakyat-PKR candidate businessman Abdul Jalil bin Bujang is facing BN-PBB’s Yussibnosh Balo, a former Dalat district officer. Polling is on March 29, 2014.
Baru, who is Ba’Kelalan assemblyperson, believed that the smelting plant could help swing the votes to the opposition after the voters realised that the BN had been hiding the “truth” about the plant and its side-effects to the people who live nearby.
“It is a health hazard, and the people are living in fear of being inflicted by some kind of lung cancer. They claimed that every month there are people going to hospital, who are being diagnosed with cancer.
“They are very concerned,” said Baru at a news conference.
He said that the opposition had raised the issue in the state legislative assembly in May 2011 about a “mysterious illness” that affected 27 families of Rumah Bansan longhouse at Sungai Bedengan and scores of families from five other longhouses which are about 300 metres from the plant.
According to the claims by the residents they have been suffering from itchiness, skin diseases, breathing difficulties, headaches, coughing and all sorts of health problems since the aluminium smelting plant became operational in September 2009.
They said that the environment was also suffering. All the fish in nearby rivers and in ponds had disappeared; padi and fruit trees could not bear fruits and their vegetables could not grow.
On top of this, the people complained about the air having a stinging smell and the rain water they collected and used for drinking water was turning black, they said.
Accusing the government of neglecting the health of the people, Baru said: “The opposition had asked the government to investigate the claims.
“Sadly, until today, the government has not carried out any investigation. The question everybody is asking is why?” he said, pointing out that the government must have something to hide regarding the effects of the plant.
“It is very sad and we are going to the ground during the campaign to find out more about the side-effects of the plant,” he said.
Press Metal, which is an international company, has about an 80 percent stake in the plant in Mukah through Sarawak Press Metal. It is capable of producing 300,000 tonnes of aluminium extrusions.
Baru said that the other important issue that PKR is highlighting is land-grabbing which is allegedly very common in Balingian.
“A number of Tuai rumah (longhouse chiefs) told us about their land being taken away by companies. They complained and they protested, but nobody listened to them.
“Now they want us to help them to file their cases in court,” said Baru, who is a lawyer specialising in native customary rights land cases.
“Land-grabbing is very serious in Balingian not only among the Ibans, but also among the Melanau community. The Melanaus have lost virtually all their NCR land to companies,” he said.
The other hot election issues include water problems, the non-fulfilled promise of a secondary school, the dilapidated SK Kampung Tellian, roads and bridges, and the lack of employment opportunities.
On PKR’s campaign, Baru said so far the reception by the people was beyond expectations, knowing the history of the constituency which is the strongest of all BN constituencies.
The constituency had been won by former chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud during the last three elections.
But Taib’s majorities continued to decrease from 7,391 in 2001 to 5,726 in 2006 and to 5,154 in 2011.
“Taib’s declining majorities are very encouraging to the opposition. It shows there is hope for a change.
“Although we do not expect to change the government by winning the seat, we are telling the people to give us an additional voice in the state legislative assembly,” he said.
If elected, Abdul Jalil would be an effective voice in the state assembly unlike the previous elected representatives who were more concerned in developing only Mukah, but had neglected the people of Balingian and Kuala Balingian.
“It is misplaced development. Certainly BN has failed the people of Balingian,” Baru added.