At the weekend Taib Mahmud bemoaned that the recent ‘spotlight of publicity’ on Sarawak has created negative perceptions of his government.
So, clearly he wants no further light shone on the disgraceful treatment of the Penan at the Murum Dam site.
The tribe are still holding out in protest against his authoritarian command to start filling the dam before compensation has been agreed or even the government’s own promises fulfilled.
However, one team of observers has just made the tortuous 9 hour journey to see the beleaguered community, who are maintaining their blockade at the site, despite a heavy and menacing armed police presence and the arrest of one of their leaders last week.
They report that the community is suffering, women and children alike, in the harsh conditions of their makeshift camp at the road side, but that their spirit in the face of a powerful injustice is strong:
“Their demands are simple and profound: Treat us like human beings. Respect our rights to our land and our culture. You have no right to take our land from us. The money you offer us is very small and it does not compensate us for what you are taking away” [American NGO worker)
Now the latest news is that the local Belaga police are currently dispatching a further 43 members of the Public Order Riot police, up to the site with the expressed intention of arresting a further 40 people.
They will charge these peaceful protestors, who have been thrown out of their home and forced to see their longhouse pulled down and burnt, with the same public order offence as their leader, that of trespass.
No mention that this dam itself represents the most monstrous, uninvited trespass on the ancient homelands of these neglected indigenous people!
So, if Taib’s forces do arrest more of the Murum Penan at gunpoint and force them into police jails, he will just have to accept there will be more unwelcome publicity and this incident will join a lasting record of his misdeeds.
Rather, we suggest that he should call off these menacing police forces. He should stop bullying and start negotiating with genuine compassion, if he want the global media spotlights to go away.
Because, nothing his minions write in his family-owned Sarawak Tribune can overcome the bad publicity he has created for himself by actions such as Murum.
The Penan have survived centuries as one of Asia’s last jungle dwellers and the elderly dictator has made no secret of the fact that he thinks of them as primitive throw-backs, who should be cleared from the jungle, which he has eagerly cut down.
Yet so little benefit has come to the Penan from the so-called ‘progress’ through logging and plantations that it is little surprise these communities choose to disagree.
While Taib and his family have cashed in billions, these communities have been offered zero government support while their lands have disappeared, according to Sarawak Energy’s own assessment report.
And the decision to now flood the area to create yet more excess hydro-electric power in the state shows no more sign of improving their lives either.
In particular, no schools or clinics or other amenities are yet built in the isolated ‘resettlement areas’ that these jungle people have been driven into, on instructions that they must now learn to become farmers (on a temporary ‘compensation package’ of less than the minimum wage per family).
We ask, how come in the space of time that Sarawak Energy have built a dam, no one has prepared the very basic amenities that were promised these people before this forced and illegal resettlement?
If Taib can afford an army of police to harass these protestors, how come he can’t afford to provide a minimum wage in compensation for them to live on?
It is because Taib prefers the population to remain ignorant and poor and he has no more intention of keeping his promises to the Penan than he has of keeping his promises to communities all over Sarawak, who have been displaced by his grandiose and self-enriching schemes.
Likewise, the promises that have been made to the international community to abide by declarations on indigenous rights and dam protocols have been flagrantly broken.
Community under seige relies on solidarity
The NGO reporters brought back a searing description of the drama of the armed arrest of Ngang Buling last week:
“When Ngang was arrested so many people swarmed on the truck, demanding to be arrested with him, that the combined weight blew out the tires and broke the springs. The police had to fire into the air to disperse the crowd before they could load him into another vehicle and take him to the jail in Miri. That sense of community solidarity and courage was evident at the protest. There were people of all ages, from toddlers to grandmothers, enduring the significant hardships of living on the side of the road to demand that they be treated as human beings with the same inalienable rights as the rest of humanity, and not like animals.”
So what do the international companies, who have been eager to take Sarawak’s money to assist in Taib’s despotic dam building programmes, have to say to such scenes?
How about Hydro-Tasmania, who despite pulling back from the notorious project, has kept seconded personnel like Nick Wright in situ, as the man in charge of “Resettlement, sustainability and community consultation’?
Hydro-Tasmania and Sarawak Energy’s deluded Norwegian boss, Torstein Sjotveit, have busily assured the world that by working with Taib they would be able to achieve the “benchmark standards” they claim to be so proud of.
Are the distressed and under-consulted communities of Murum an illustration of the benchmark standards?
It is time these international companies learn that the dictator Abdul Taib Mahmud will always consult his witch doctors before he consults them and that their purpose is merely to provide the necessary PR for his projects, then take their money and go home.
As for Taib, he has called for better propaganda efforts by his state controlled media to counter the effects of bad publicity over issues such as Murum.
He would do better to reform the injustices against the poor people of Sarawak. Better, he should after 50 years of filling his pockets, stand down!