Hornbill Unleashed

July 14, 2010

Endemic scourge

By Hilary Chiew

It is systematic and endemic! screamed a report on the plight of the Penans. The report was titled “A Wider Context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls in Middle and Ulu Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia”.

Indeed, from the testimonies gathered from the victims, family members and their fellow tribe members, it does seem that sexual violence against the Penans has taken on a life of its own and the “monster” has grown over the years.

This “monster” has firmly established itself in both federal and state governments, and enforcement authorities that continue to turn a deaf ear to the cry for help from those remote and isolated settlements.

The findings of the Penan Support Group, Forum Asia and Asian Indigenous Women’s Network (PSG et al) released last week, again showed the vulnerability and long suffering of the Penans’ fairer sex in the vast logging frontier of the Baram district in Sarawak. The district is as vast as the state of Perak.

The report from a fact-finding mission conducted in November 2009 followed an alert issued by the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) in September 2008. The issue gained national attention after a national English daily, The Star, published interviews with three of the victims identified by BMF in October, 2008.

Subsequently, two of the victims lodged police report with the sexual crime division of Bukit Aman.

One of them, “Bibi” has since retracted her statement, claiming that she was “duped” by NGOs into filing the case. According to Sarawak press report, she also implied that the NGOs had disguised themselves as members of the media to obtain and publish her confession.

Sarawak police have warned they would take stern action against those who manipulated the victim as well as the victim herself if it’s found that she was lying. However, until this day, no one knows what was the conclusion.

Interestingly, and this has been pointed out by others who followed the development of the issue, the police don’t seem bothered by the fact that the so-called husband of “Bibi”, a logging company worker, known as Ah Hing, who accompanied her to the police station, is a polygamist, an offence for non-Muslim in this country.

It is disheartening to learn that the other victim was pressured to do the same as “Bibi” by her alleged perpetrator in the company of the police, according to land rights activist Muhin Urip in an interview with Malaysiakini, suggesting attempts to cover up the hideous crime instead of thoroughly investigating the allegations of rape professionally. Looks like the police have a lot to answer.

Denial syndrome

Apart from producing a report, which it refused to make public despite its initial promise but was forced to do so due to political pressure, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development has basically sat on its hands and did nothing.

Nevertheless, the taskforce’s report admitted that sexual exploitation of the Penans’ womenfolks is indeed happening. Even then, the state government disputed it and questioned the reliability of the taskforce simply because it consisted of women rights NGOs representatives.

Never mind that more than two-thirds of the taskforce members consisted of civil servants including from the state’s own women affairs department.

The PSG et al effort was initially mooted as a form of assistance to the police to gain access to the victims who had understandably lost their confidence in the professionalism and impartiality of the force, which over the decades was seen to be taking the side of the logging companies in oppressing the people who are defending their land rights.

The excuse given by the police for failing to follow through on this initiative which they eagerly embarked on between late 2008 and early 2009 following public outcry and the police reports filed by the two alleged victims is common knowledge now. And highly unpalatable to many sound-thinking Malaysians.

Hollow rhetoric

Eighteen months later and yet another report – this time more comprehensive and argued objectively in the context of a socio-economic development model that has further disempowered and impoverished the forest-dependent communities — the authorities’ reactions remain unchanged.

Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Alfred Jabu, who is in charge of Penan affairs, dismissed the report as an act of sabotage against the state’s progress, saying the Penans are manipulated by foreign NGOs in his trademark rebuttal on anything to do with the Penans.

The state police chief Mohmad Salleh accused the PSG et al of politicising the issue and bent on shaming the police.

But as more such reports surfaced, such rhetoric is sounding like hollow, broken records.

Indeed, acknowledging the deep distrust of the Penans towards the authorities, PSG et al has again offered to work together. The report called for state and federal authorities and all stakeholders (logging and plantation companies) to fundamentally change their attitude and approach.

The group, in my opinion, certainly has an open agenda as it claimed. It certainly did not wish for the endemism to worsen as it wrote: “Or are we simply looking at another report such as this one, in five years’ time, 10 years’ time, documenting the same abuses, the same deterioration, the same violence?”

The only way to test the sincerity of the NGOs is for the authorities to take up the challenge and work with them.

Thorn in the flesh

To understand the Penans’ disillusion with the state government and its apparatuses and the shabby treatment that they are receiving, one has to understand the history of their protracted struggle.

The Penans’ continued resistance against encroachment by logging companies and in more recent time, plantation companies, had made them enemy No 1 of Taib Mahmud’s regime.

The state government particularly resents the international attention that the Penans continue to enjoy despite the ill-fated international campaign to save the Borneo rainforests in the late 1980s.

State ministers like Jabu and James Masing (Land Development Ministry) showed their disdain by labelling the Penans as “stooge of foreign NGOs” and “good storyteller”.

The contempt towards the Penans goes back a long way — since the advent of industrial logging in Sarawak from the 1970s. Known for erecting blockades to stop trucks from ferrying felled timber in what they claimed as their ancestral forests, the underdog image of Penans eventually caught the eye and sympathy of Western rainforests campaigners.

The peaceful blockaders quickly became the poster boy of the largely Western-led campaign.

However, with compelling argument from then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad that these westerners should instead focus on their own governments and societies that are the market forces for the cheap timber from the Penan heartlands, the campaign fizzled out.

The result was the birth of timber certification scheme such as the Forest Stewardship Council and our own government-backed Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS). However, the success of MTCS in ensuring legality and sustainability — two key criteria of any timber certification scheme — continues to be questioned at the international marketplace largely due to pressure from local and foreign NGOs.

For example, the Malaysian Forest NGOs and Indigenous Peoples’ Network had denounced the MTCS for failure to respect indigenous land rights in its quest to promote Malaysian timber abroad.

These days blockades had taken on a more urgent note as the Penans as well as other Orang Ulu tribes like Kenyah, Kayan and Lun Bawang are faced not only with degradation of their forests but also a complete uprooting of their ancestral domain only to be replaced with oil palm and mono-species timber tree cultivation.

For tribes whose identity are shaped and connected to the forests, this is tantamount to cultural genocide.

In the interest of transparency, the writer wishes to inform that she was the Star’s journalist who verified the BMF’s alert by obtaining first-hand information from the alleged victims.


  1. Apparently, Baru Bian, PKR Sarawak Chief, had to see for himself if the reports on Taib’s family properties are true. He went to the UK and came off quite riled up after seeing the reality of the posh realty.

    Comment by Watcha — July 14, 2010 @ 7:03 PM | Reply

  2. […] Endemic scourge Filed under: Human rights,Native Customary Rights,Politics,penan — hornbillunleashed @ 12:00 AM Tags: Sarawak, Malaysia Politics, penan women, Save Sarawak, Pakatan Rakyat, Native Customary Rights, Anak Sarawak Bangsa Malaysia […]

    Pingback by Another query on deaf response from Parliament on Penan rape cases « Sarawak Indigenous Community News — July 14, 2010 @ 11:55 AM | Reply

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