By Hazlan Zakaria
Logging company Samling Global has denied claims by indigenous rights NGO, Bruno Manser Funds (BMF), that a circular it sent out to timber workers in the Baram region last July, was admission of its staff involvement in the alleged sexual abuse of Penan women.
“BMF’s allegations are baseless,” said the firm in a statement emailed to Malaysiakini by its corporate communications representative.
Admitting that it did indeed send out such a circular, Samling, however, said that it was standard practice and is issued regularly as a reminder to its employees that the company does not tolerate any criminal act or inappropriate behavior from them.
“We have in place strict policies regarding staff-native community assistance and engagement. We regularly issue circulars to our staff to ensure policies are enforced. The purpose was to protect the communities as much as ourselves,” the statement added.
Samling also claimed that it had been made clear to all staff that those suspected of criminal activities will be handed over to the authorities to be dealt with accordingly.
Though the circular was issued on July 9 scant days after The Penan Support Group (PSG) released a report claiming systematic sexual abuse by loggers, it may be a damage control measure to reduce Samling’s exposure to more allegations of misconduct by its employees.
BMF, however, is claiming that the circular sends a different message.
“While Samling had previously denied the involvement of its staff in the sexual abuse cases, this circular indirectly acknowledges that Samling staff are indeed involved and that the group management is concerned over their insufficient control of their employees’ conduct,” said the NGO in its press release posted on its website.
BMF is contending that the leaked document provides strong evidence that the presence of Samling staff in Penan areas constitutes a continuous threat to the native communities, and particularly to girls and women.
The NGO is asking the Sarawak state government to halt all logging operations in areas where Samling and other companies operate without the consent of the local communities. It also wants the Sarawak government to provide free public transport services for the rural communities and, in particular, for schoolchildren.
Leaked circular forbids visits
The circular, which was leaked to BMF, was issued by the general manager of Samling’s Forest Operations in Malaysia and was titled “Kes Rogol Wanita Penan” (Rape Case of Penan Women)”. It contained a directive to all Samling timber camp managers, drivers and employees in the Baram River region.
The directive informs them that they are “forbidden to visit any Penan village or transport any Penan except with the permission of the camp managers concerned.”
Any employee found to have disobeyed this order faces the threat of summary dismissal.
Samling has also been accused by the BMF of continuing to bully the Penan community into submission to silence their claims of sexual abuse of Penan females by the firm’s workers. This was apparently by the threat of withdrawing transport services to the Penan if sexual abuse allegations were not retracted.
The logging giant, however, claimed it had no knowledge of any such threats or demands made against the Penans.
It is not clear if the circular had anything to do with the logging firm’s purported threat to stop transportation services to the Penan.
Samling and the Penans have been embroiled in a finger pointing match after reports of sexual abuse cases in the Baram region surfaced. The Penan have claimed that a number of their women and girls were sexually abused by loggers who offered them transport in the remote Sarawak jungle.
Samling and the Sarawak government have asked the Penan to substantiate their claims, accusing the indigenous community of fabricating tales, while the Penan with the support of NGOs are adamant that the incidents did take place.
The matter even became the subject of a federal government fact finding mission which found damning evidence of timber workers sexually abusing Penan women.
However, police and the Sarawak government have yet to prosecute the cases, citing lack of funds and evidence and difficulty in gaining statements from the Penans in their remote villages who distrust law enforcement officers in the belief that they do the bidding of timber companies. — Malaysiakini