Trouble was brewing in 1990 in the jungle of Sebatu near Long Ajeng, Ulu Baram in Sarawak. Penans from 15 villages had put up a long-standing blockade in their attempt to stop loggers from entering their area. A blockade is a simple collection of branches laid across the path of a jungle road to prevent timber trucks from entering.
Eventually, the state police decided to take action. They sent in 300 members of the much-feared Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) and tore down the blockade by force, while arresting the people on site.
The protesting Penans were taken utterly by surprise and they were shocked by the sudden show of violence on the part of the FRU.
They ran helter skelter through the jungle in great confusion. In the pandemonium that followed, a four-year-old Penan boy was overcome by one of the tear-gas bombs hurled into the midst of the Penans and he later died from the effects from the gas.
With the FRU and police personnel occupying their Long Ajeng settlement, many families left Long Ajeng to take refuge in other Penan settlements. It was on one of these desperate journeys that a 12-year-old Penan girl was raped by a uniformed intruder, according to Penan villagers.
When some NGO members from abroad brought these crimes to my attention in 1993, I decided to take the matter to the law. I sent my personal aide, See Chee How, into the Upper Baram area to get a first-hand, eyewitness account of what had happened in the deep jungle.
Chee How reported to me the violent actions of the FRU, together with details of the death of the young boy and the rape of the 12-year-old girl.
But my attempts to report the matter to the police failed, because the police in Miri were lukewarm in their response and did not treat the report seriously. That was when I decided to lodge a police report in Bandar Kuching central police station.
It was a logistic nightmare, but finally we overcame all kinds of difficulties in communications and transport. A group of 20 Penan village chiefs representing 15 Penan villages finally arrived in Kuching city.
Close knit community
The next morning, I took these village chiefs (tuai rumah) to the central police station in Kuching. A police inspector had been contacted and was waiting for us, and he was the very picture of hospitality and courtesy.
The visitors were offered hot drinks and cakes, and invited to sit down at a big table. After we sat down and exchanged pleasantries, a police officer was assigned to record the villagers’ statements. The action of the police, in this instance, was exemplary.
In the afternoon, the Penan chiefs called for a press conference. They trooped into my small office at Green Road in Kuching. The office was crowded with eager members of the local press.
That was when I noticed something unique as we entered my office; the Penans always walk in single file, there in my office in the city, and anywhere they go in the jungle. They keep together and depend on one another.
That was my first time meeting the Penan villagers face to face. Much as I had heard of their shyness, they were articulate and outspoken in voicing their long-standing problems with the authorities, in their jungle home. They were a gentle people and slightly shorter in stature than town folk.
I could not detect a single fat person among them. They were all fit, their bodies hard as nails, thanks to the long years of living in the wild and depending only on their personal resources for survival. I was told that the nomadic Penans’ most prized possessions are their loyal hunting dogs, on which their existence depended.
I was taken aback by another unique practice of the Penans. In their communal traditions, they share everything in their lives together. They do not have a concept of a spokesperson.
Every time a question was raised by the reporters, the question would go through the ring of Penans one by one, with murmured consultations, until finally one answer emerged at the end of the discussion. The press conference took a great deal of time for this, but I was very impressed by the democratic practice of their communal living.
There was some degree of excitement among the reporters at the end of the press conference; some were busy taking pictures, while a film crew recorded the proceedings.
The next day when the newspapers were delivered to my office, not a single picture of the Penans appeared in the press. That was how it was in those days: any news of the Penans was systematically blacked out.
Fortunately, the news of the Penans’ visit to Kuching was leaked out to the international press. That was the time when reports about the Penans had become big news with the international media, shortly after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June, 1992.
During their visit to Kuching, the delegation of Penans also took the opportunity to lobby their cause with the government.
They sent a delegation of representatives to visit the chief minister’s office; they also met with officers from the education and medical departments and a representative from the State Cabinet Committee on Penan Affairs, under the aegis of Minister Abang Johari Abang Openg.
A day or two later, they returned to their villages. All in all, despite efforts to suppress the news of their suffering, it had been a successful trip for the Penans.
This was how one of the most highly publicised actions taken by the Baram Penans came about. Unfortunately, in 1995, I fell ill and had to retire from active politics. But thanks to the Internet, the struggle of the Penans has never lost steam and has gained more momentum in the last two decades.
Meanwhile, See Chee How (right) and his team of lawyers have picked up the Penan cause where we left off. They have kept up public interest regarding the plight of the Penans with even greater urgency and effectiveness. Today, the problem of the Penans and native people fighting for their rights to their land is one of the hottest issues on the Sarawak political stage.
Next week, I shall reproduce in full the 1993 police reports lodged on the deaths of the four-year-old Penan boy and a Penan man at the blockades, and the rape of the 12-year-old Penan girl.
SIM KWANG YANG was member of parliament for Bandar Kuching, Sarawak from 1982 to 1995. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.