Sunday, September 05, 2010

A distant cry for help from the jungle

Sunday, September 5, 2010
Sim Kwang Yang

The year was 1993, and I was serving my third term as an opposition member of parliament (MP) of Bandar Kuching.

In the Malaysian context at the time, the core of an MP’s job was to service the constituency, by solving the little problems created by inefficient administration, like looking after blocked drains, neglected garbage collection, and attending to minor daily problems faced by the constituents. That was how politicians saw their roles in Malaysians’ daily lives.

But I had different ideas about politics. I believed that the duty of our Wakil Rakyat was to serve the whole nation, and in the context of Sarawak, to serve all the people in the state. Therefore, I devoted my energies throughout the 1990s to the contentious battle to protect the forests of my home state, Sarawak. It was a tough job, because nobody was interested in environmental protection, and the powerful timber interests made sure that we were denied access to the mass communication media.

I fought the lonely battle against the timber interests with the help of a few environmental groups and our news faced a constant blackout by local newspapers and news agencies. The general voting population in the towns were completely apathetic regarding the suffering people in the rural areas, who had little access to the urban-centric media organisations.

It was some time in 1993, that one day, the then MP of Petaling Jaya, Kua Kia Soong, walked up to me and demanded what I would do for the poor Penans in upper Baram. He had received numerous reports about the anti-logging blockades in that isolated part of Sarawak from many international NGOs. Young children had been killed by the security forces trying to evict the Penans from the anti-logging protest sites, and one young girl was reported to have been raped. I promised him I would look into the issue upon my return to Kuching from Parliament.

When I arrived in Kuching, I discussed the issue with my political assistant, See Chee How, who was then working at my office fulltime.

See Chee How has since qualified as a lawyer and he is one of the most active human rights defenders in Malaysia. He has now taken up over a hundred court cases against powerful plantation owners and loggers to fight for the rights of the Sarawak natives. He has been winning native customary land cases that have created Malaysian legal history through landmark decisions).

Arduous journey for worthy cause

After some discussion, Chee How travelled alone all the way to the upper Baram area, to conduct his own fact-finding mission. His journey took several weeks to complete and he had to travel on foot through the deep forest, as well as take longboats and long journeys over land, before he could meet the Penans personally and hold interviews with them. Fortunately, Chee How was a healthy and strong young man.

Chee How returned to Kuching and told me he had been stopped on his way back by the police at Marudi, and he was searched and questioned by the police personnel. But he did hide his photographic films so he was able to show me his photos.

After that, Chee How attempted to send the affected Penans to Miri town, to lodge police reports about deaths and the rape case at logging blockades and the suffering inflicted upon the villagers in upper Baram. Those efforts at bringing the Penans to the attention of the police were unsuccessful. The police even refused to record their police reports.

The issue of the Penans and logging in Sarawak had become so sensitive to the state Barisan Nasional leadership that minimal information about the Penan protests trickled out to the outside world. The newspapers in Sarawak were mostly owned by the timber interests in the state and so, there was a clampdown on what the Penans and other Sarawak natives were saying against the logging.

I refused to feel hopeless, because we were the only hope for the Penans and other groups to voice out their suffering, and apathy and cynicism were luxuries we could not afford. In ordinary life, even a dog being kicked has a right to howl in pain.

The Penans are the most disadvantaged members of our society. It is the duty of all Malaysians to hear their cry of pain, in our political system that favours the rich and powerful at the expense of the weak and dispossessed.

The other added obstacle in my path was the nature of racial politics that permeated civil society in Malaysia. Malaysians view all things political through the racial lens, and to ask them to see politics over and above their narrow racial considerations has always been a near impossible task.

Breaking through information blockade

I had always considered myself a Sarawakian first, and a Malaysian second, and being a Chinese was just a minor consideration, by accident of birth. In my mind, much of our political rhetoric is tinged by our racially based prejudices and these are not real political issues.

The persecution of the Penans is a universal crime against humanity. The Penans are equal citizens of our nation. Their suffering deserves our national attention, especially when they are the weakest and the most marginalised group among our citizens.

Since it was so difficult for the Penans to gain access to reporters in town, I decided to call for a press conference to bring the reporters and the Penans together.

The press conference was to be held in Kuching a few months later in 1994, and the representatives of the Penans were transported from the deep interior: from upper Baram to Kuching city. It was a logistical nightmare, but with the help of Chee How and his NGO friends from inside and outside Malaysia, we pulled off the trip.

Nearly twenty village leaders representing fifteen Penan settlements in the Baram area made the long trip to Kuching city. There, they made a police report on the rape of a Penan girl and the death of two Penans at logging blockades, and held a series of events to highlight to the world, the plight of the poor Penans. – Hornbill Unleashed

(Sim Kwang Yang was Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching, Sarawak from 1982 to 1995)

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