Hornbill Unleashed

September 21, 2010

Penan power and a press conference that wasn’t

penan benalih baram blockade 270807 community 03By Sim Kwang Yang

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.

azlanWhen 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.

NONEThat 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.

penan logging blockade 220606 headman panai irang and familyI 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.

Muted press

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.

NONEDuring 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.

penans meet suhakam 130208 see chee howMeanwhile, 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.

Part 1: A flower for the Penan
Part 2: A distant cry for help from the jungle

SIM KWANG YANG was member of parliament for Bandar Kuching, Sarawak from 1982 to 1995. He can be reached at sky8hornbill@gmail.com.

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3 Comments »

  1. FIRE IN THE JUNGLE

    Thanks to Sky for the insight into the passive resistance of the gentle Penans.

    One is saddened and angered by the outrageous and brutal things that are happening to them such as the death of the young boy caused by tear gas and cases like the rape of the young girl by KL’s uniformed colonial troops and legalised murderers called the FRU.

    The Penans’ struggle symbolises the struggle of the people/s of Sarawak against the new colonial master called Kuala Lumpur/UMNO BN. They are the most visible frontline fighters for our right of self-determination and independence.

    This struggle reflects the elements resistance against of colonial rule. Our land is subject to large scale plunder and the wealth is taken out of the country. Most all, the KL control of our oil resources shows how this colonial ruler literally drains our resources to enrich the KL UMNO BN regime.

    Last September 2009, SKY brought up the subject of “Secession”. There does not appear to have been a continuing discussing on this topic.

    Of course using the word “secession” implies we willingly joined Malaysia in 1963. It depends on your understanding or interpretation of what happened. Many younger readers may not even know what happened as KL has blacked out and re-written this part of our history! So we need to do a bit of rewinding of the history tape to clarify what happened.

    The other perspective is that Sarawak was forcibly colonised by a new colonial master from Kuala Lumpur (called “Independence within Malaysia”) and ruled through it local ruling BN clique who are at the beck and call of KL. Prior to this Sarawak had become a British colony after the Japanese Occupation in 1945. A hundred years before, Sarawak was a semi independent (self-governing) country under Brooke Rule. That’s how we developed our Sarawak Identity. We were our own people and country. Ask yourself – do you not always identify yourself as a Sarawak born and bred person and feel very proud to be one?

    From the beginning “Malaysia Proposal” was met with the strongest opposition of the anti-colonial people.

    In December 1962 the “Brunei Uprising” broke out in opposition to “Malaysia”. A large number of Sarawak youths joined in the struggle and later formed the guerilla army which fought KL till the 1990s. Not many of us have a full understanding of this struggle which has been kept under wraps by KL just as it tries to black out the Penan Struggle and our history.

    We have had 47 years of betrayal by the local political parties in power which typically joined in the plunder of our land. Under KL rule they sold out the country and people with years of tearing down the virgin jungles and dispossession of the rightful owners of the land.

    At least the Brooke colonial family had some decency and concept of protecting the “natives”- exampled by “Native Land Rights” (This was a very advances concept as for example modern Australia is just starting to apply this idea) etc.

    Sarawak is occupied by the FRU and Federal police who patrol the streets & highways & river ways of Sarawak and the large KL army garrisoned in our country. The Sarawak Rangers and Constabulary have all but relegated to the jungles and not heard of anymore.

    This was the deal (forget about the 18 Points) between KL and the local elites- Rule by the gun and divide the spoils. This is the licence given to those who pretend to be the “good guys”. But they are real gangsters and robbers.

    This is not a question of “secession” but “Independence” from KL rule.

    So the Penan Struggle is a small spark to remind all of us that we are not the slaves of a foreign master and we must stand up and break the bonds that prevents us from exercising real national self-determination
    and independence. It is for all of us to turn the spark into a raging jungle fire.

    Comment by Abang — September 25, 2010 @ 2:55 PM | Reply

  2. I agree with FaithHope. As SKY inspired See Chee How, I hope people like See Chee How will inspire other Sarawakians to stand up against injustice. Sarawak is changing and the fear of Taib and BN that held us all in its grip seems to be diminishing. Those who rule by fear cannot profit from it indefinitely.

    Comment by Landowner — September 22, 2010 @ 4:30 PM | Reply

  3. Dear SKY,

    As per your usual standards, another well written & cohesive piece, undoubtedly there is more to come from the maestro.

    However, my comments today, are directed at a character in your piece rather than the theme itself. It concern’s See Chee How. I have known this person since school days. In school he was a quiet, unassuming and if you may, a gentle person.

    An anomaly amongst the usually boisterous school boys of St Joseph’s School. Even when playing basketball, a sport not for the faint hearted, he excelled in it whilst maintaining his gentlemanly character and sense of fair play. Academically, he was gifted with an uncommon reasoning and a quick mind, without doubt he could have contributed to academia if he had been so inclined.

    However, as long as I have known Chee How, he has but one calling in life, to fight injustice, it is here that the steel of the man is revealed. There is a singleness of purpose in his eyes when he is drawn to a matters where unfairness needs to be remedied.

    Invariably his fights against injustice, have drawn him to aid organizations such as Amnesty International and causes such as “Free Burma”. Locally as we all know there is no greater instrument of unfairness than the BN government and it is here Chee How has discovered his purpose in life.

    His battles leads him to confront powerful and dangerous individuals but he does so without so much as batting an eyelid. A fellow member of the Bar recently described him as having ” balls of steel”, to risk financial destitute by taking on Taib Mahmud personally.

    The stamina of the man is also to be admired, Working throughout the day and sometimes the night, he prepares for NCR cases, cases where the rights of common folk have been trampled upon. All these while finding time to flash his charismatic smile at all and sundry, who would drop in at his workplace at the PKR office at 3rd mile at all hours of the day.

    He is an inspiration and an example to all those who would follow the light. Thank you SKY for unearthing this gem of a man.

    Comment by faithhope — September 21, 2010 @ 10:36 AM | Reply


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