Hornbill Unleashed

May 28, 2010

Mahathir Mohamad’s mindset lives on

Bruno Manser 1999 penan sarawak

By Keruah Usit

A letter written by Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1992, at the peak of his power as prime minister, reveals a disturbing mindset regarding the Penan people of Sarawak.

“If any Penan or policeman gets killed or injured in the course of restoring law and order in Sarawak, you will have to take the blame.

“It is you and your kind who instigated the Penans to take the law into their own hands and to use poison darts, bows, arrows and parangs (machetes) to fight against the government,” began his letter to Swiss human rights advocate Bruno Manser (top right).

Full of Mahathir’s trademark rhetoric and contradictions (the Penans do not use bows nor arrows, and they have been fighting the intrusion of logging companies, not the government), the letter harangued Manser for supporting Penan blockades against logging companies in Baram, Sarawak.

Penan message Along Sega at Burno Manser commemoration in BaselManser was a maverick advocate for Penan rights. He spent years living with nomadic Penan, including respected leader Along Sega (right), in the rainforests of Sarawak.

Manser grew to love the Penan humility, gentleness, and readiness to share the food they hunted or gathered from the forests. He produced beautiful diaries and sketches of life in the forest.

He was in Sarawak when thousands of Penans, from both the minority of nomadic groups and the overwhelming majority of settled communities set up blockades across logging tracks in Sarawak.

The barricades constituted a form of non-violent protest against the invasion of their land, by logging companies with close ties to the ruling elite. Entire Penan communities placed themselves behind these blockades, in the path of company bulldozers.

NONEManser drew international attention to the brutality of the companies and the police against these desperate defences, constructed simply of branches, and of the human flesh of the villagers standing there.

Violent attacks by thugs hired by the companies, and police supporting the companies, led to injuries and deaths among Penan protestors, ever since industrial-scale logging in Sarawak began to accelerate over the past quarter of a century.

No respite from violence

According to ‘Not Development But Theft’, a 1995 report on logging in Baram by local NGO Ideal, the Penan affected by logging had repeatedly asked the authorities for protection. The government, spearheaded at the time by Mahathir and Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, ignored them.

“They have approached local district officers, police and other government officials, they have approached the various logging companies who invade their land, they have petitioned their representatives, they have sent delegations to Kuching to talk to ministers and the chief minister, they have sent delegations to Kuala Lumpur to visit federal government officials – in short, they have done everything within their means,” the Ideal report stated.

The fact-finding mission report included horrifying eyewitness accounts of the violence used against peaceful Penan villagers at the Baram blockades, including alleged deaths and rape.

One such report on police violence, during the removal of the Sebatu logging blockade in September 1993, was made in a statutory declaration signed by Bulan Yoh, of Long Mobui.

“On the second day of our arrival at Sebatu, the tear-gassing and dismantling of the blockade took place… I believe there were more than 300 police personnel present. Some men at the blockade went some distance down the road with the intention of negotiating with the police. But they were immediately arrested upon coming into contact with the police.

“At that moment the Police Field Force (PFF) started throwing tear-gas canisters at the group without any warning and without any provocation from the group. At the same time, those PFF personnel that were armed with M-16 rifles surrounded the area around the blockade.

“I was afraid for my children whom I had left in our lamin (an open-walled temporary hut, raised about 6 feet above the ground) located about 100 metres from the blockade. In our lamin, were Sonny (4 years), Rose (7-8 years) and Stella (6-7 years).

penan blockade in sarawak logging“As I made my way towards our lamin, I saw the PFF throw tear-gas canisters towards the lamins of the people. Some of them landed near our lamin. The gas drifted towards thelamin and enveloped the area. People ran away from the gas.

“As I tried to get back to our lamin, the PFF tried to prevent me and the other people from getting to the lamin… When I finally arrived at our lamin, there was tear-gas all around and inside. I was choking from the gas. I rushed inside and found only Sonny there. He was crying, coughing and vomiting from the effects of the tear gas.

“I took him out of the lamin and went into the nearby forest, to get away from the gas. Sonny was vomiting badly. I tried giving him some water but he drank only a little. That night, I sheltered with Sonny and the rest of the family in a lamin in the forest. Sonny was constantly coughing and vomiting and could hardly eat or drink.

“The next day we set off on foot for Long Kerong with the other families from the blockade as we were extremely fearful of the police. On the journey, Sonny’s condition deteriorated. We only had some Panadol for medication. We travelled for five days in the forest and reached Long Sait where we stayed with some relatives.

“At Long Sait, Sonny’s condition continued to worsen. He eventually died on the third day after we arrived in Long Sait. We buried Sonny in Long Sait.”

Sonny died on Oct 6, 1993.

Manser’s publicity campaign

Manser and the Penan protestors became the nemesis of the logging industry and the state and federal governments, thanks to a tireless international publicity campaign for Penan rights.

Bruno Manser 1994 penan sarawak BMFA friend of mine met Manser at the scholarly Royal Geographical Society in London, during one of Manser’s efforts to bring the suffering of the Penan to the world’s attention.

“He was a soft-spoken, intelligent man with clear eyes, and no power-crazed imperialist trying to overthrow the Sarawak government, like he was described in the Malaysian press,” my friend recalls.

He disappeared mysteriously in the Baram forest a decade ago. The Penan, the best trackers in Sarawak, combed the forest, but failed to find any remains. Some Penan say he may have suffered an accident.

kelesau murdered penan leader sarawak 100708 02Others say he may have been killed, somewhere in the forest, in retaliation for supporting the Penan against logging companies. They point to other Penan leaders of the anti-logging campaign who went “missing”, including Long Kerong chief Kelesau Naan (right).

Kelesau was found dead under suspicious circumstances in December 2007.

Kelesau’s son Nick told Malaysiakinihe was offered RM25,000 by a logging company, to withdraw allegations of foul play in his father’s death, which Nick had made in reports to the police and the press. The police closed the case after cursory investigations.

Until today, Chief Minister Taib remains minister for land and natural resources, in charge of issuing logging licences. Logging and plantation companies continue to enjoy his patronage. Blockades remain standing throughout Baram, and the police are still tearing them down at intervals.

International condemnation persists to this day, of human rights abuses against the Penan and other rural Sarawakians, and of environmentally destructive logging practices.

The Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), an NGO based in Basel, Switzerland, commemorated the 10th anniversary of Manser going missing, presumed dead, on May 25.

Baru Bian Sarawak PKR-leader at Bruno Manser commemorationThe ceremony was graced by messages from Along Sega and other Penan. According to the BMF, more than 500 people attended, including Sarawakian land rights lawyer Baru Bian (left), the co-chair of the Nobel laureate Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group, Thomas Stocker, and the mayor of Basel, Guy Morin (below).

In Malaysia, the authorities are still chasing Manser’s spectre. They seem intent on demonising NGOs like the BMF and Sahabat Alam Malaysia, for opposing logging.

Guy Morin mayor of Basel penan sarawak Bruno Manser commemoratonThey insist on echoing Mahathir’s claims from his 1992 letter to Manser, that Manser’s concern for the Penan was a form of “Swiss imperialism”.

Mahathir wrote, “the Penans may tell you their primitive life is what they like. This is because they are not given a chance to live a better life like other tribes in Sarawak… you are trying to deny them a chance for a better life so that you can enjoy studying primitive people the way you study animals. Penans are people and they should be respected as people.”

Today, 18 years after Mahathir wrote his tirade to Manser, and 10 years after Manser vanished, little has changed.


  1. Bro, perhaps this may add additional points to your blog, we share your grief

    Comment by Sabah Sifu — May 30, 2010 @ 12:14 AM | Reply

  2. See how much evil industrial logging has brought with it! I have no words, I am simply stunned by the destruction. This destruction of Borneo’s forest is a sin as great as mass murder, and actual mass murder is part of the plan. Remove the forest, and you automatically remove the pesky natives who dispute your claim to ravage it; they starve or die off of disease. We knew this the intended Final Solution to the Penan Problem decades ago. The Penan were not helpless. They helped themselves, and many others contributed what help they could. But the Malaysian state is powerful, and the ruling clique chooses to use its power to enrich itself rather than in maintaining justice. Poor Bruno! I read that he was feeling discouraged and depressed in his last months. To the Penan, I salute your courage and resolve. Thanks, Pak Bui, for keeping us aware that this massacre is still going on. The main reason I want to see Taib out and PR in is to see their promise of protection for native land fulfilled.

    Comment by Kaustik — May 29, 2010 @ 7:47 AM | Reply

  3. Thanks for this article and may the truth of Manser and the Penan be revealed to all ‘rakyat’ of Malaysia.

    May the spirit of Manser and the Penan lives on to torment Tun Mahathir, Tan Sri Taib Mahmud and the logging companies.

    Justice will be served by the Judge of all judges.

    Comment by PH Chin — May 28, 2010 @ 1:13 PM | Reply

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