For all middle-class urban citizens, the jungle must seem like a primitive, wild place. We urbanites can only be comfortable when we are surrounded by what we consider to be the advanced products of industrial civilization. Plunged into the middle of the jungle, we would probably not survive on our own for more than a few days.
But the Penan are perfectly comfortable in this jungle environment. They are familiar with the forest, and know it like their back of their hand. Like all jungle dwellers, the Penans are totally immersed in the land where they live. They depend on this environment for their survival.
To city dwellers then, the jungle must look intimidating, alien and even terrifying. The hard fact is indeed that the natural environment may not always be kind and hospitable to neophytes: the jungle can be a dangerous place.
Grief beyond words
On Nov 17, 1994, a group of NGO friends decided to send a fact-finding mission to the upper reaches of the Baram River, to investigate tales of rape and violence visited on the Penan villages there.
A trip upriver is always a risky proposition, because of the harsh physical terrain, and the complex difficulties involved in communication and transportation. Travellers are expected to walk on foot for hours, and brave the elements and the ever-present danger of the merciless rapids on the mighty rivers.
In this instance, the team sent by the NGOs consisted of the following: See Chee How (SACCESS), Jannie Lasimbang (PACOS Trust), Colin Nicholas (COAC), Francis Cheong and Cynthia Gabriel (SUARAM), Wong Meng Chuo (IPK, Institute for Community Education) and Justin Louis, 30, a video documenter from Pusat Komas.
They encountered a disaster, while they were travelling on a longboat on the Baram river, the second largest in Sarawak. This longboat was as its name suggests: a long wooden boat, carved out of a tree by local villagers, and propelled by a modified outboard motor.
The motor of their longboat suddenly sputtered and died in mid-stream. Their vessel was carried backwards by the strong current, and soon their boat overturned, throwing all the passengers into the raging waters.
In the river, the passengers clung to everything they could hold on to, including floating biscuit tins. By some miracle, after a brief struggle in the swirling current, all except Justin Louis swam to the safety of the riverbank.
The remains of Justin were recovered two weeks later, about 130 km downriver from the site of the tragedy. Justin’s body was buried in Marudi, and he has rested there ever since. May God bless him!
I was informed by Chee How of the accident while I was in Kuala Lumpur. The death of this selfless young man grieved me deeply. I mourned his untimely passing, in the safety of my urban surroundings. It could have happened to anyone making that journey, and it goes to show that we must prepare for the worst in our line of work.
In 1995, the NGOs sent another team into Baram to complete their project, gathering facts about the Penan rape case, deaths at timber blockades and subsequent investigations. This time, the team returned safely. I reproduced part of their important findings in last week’s article.
A second untimely death
For the Penans, you might think that they would be as safe in the jungle as if they were walking through their own backyards. But for them too, unexpected dangers lurk in the jungle.
Take the case of the Penan chief who perished leaving only his skull and bones. In the early morning of Oct 23, 2007, Kelesau Naan and his wife Uding Lidem were loading their harvested rice into gunny sacks, ready to leave their farm hut at Upper Sungai Segita. They faced a two-hour journey on foot to return home to their settlement, Long Kerong.
The Long Kerong headman then remembered that he needed to check on a trap he had set for wild game. He told his wife he would return shortly.
Unfortunately, he did not return, even after two days. His wife had to rush back to Long Kerong, to gather Penan villagers from there, as well as other settlements nearby. They immediately set out to look for the headman.
On Dec 17, eight weeks later, the skeletal remains of Kelesau Naan were found on the riverbank of Sungai Segita, not far from his farm hut, on the track connecting neighbouring villages Long Kerong and Long Sepigen. Uding Lidem immediately recognised her husband’s belongings discovered with the remains, including beads and the sheath of a machete.
Kelesau had been an inspiration in the Penan fight against timber giant Samling. He and three other Penan leaders had sued the company and the state government in 1998. The lawsuit had asserted the Selungoh Penan communities’ land rights against the company’s intrusion, licensed by the state government.
Three months before Kelesau Naan vanished, villagers from a nearby Kenyah settlement, Long Siut, employed by Samling as surveyors, had threatened Long Kerong villagers with violence. But the Long Kerong villagers did not rise to the bait.
This story was fully reported in Malaysiakini, and though a police report was filed on the mysterious death of the Penan chief, nothing has come of it. Even the jungle can be a dangerous place for innocent Penan. The cause of Kelesau Naan’s death has been left to our speculation.
The most famous death in the Penan cause must be that of Bruno Manser, the Swiss environmental activist, famous for his dramatic and influential anti-logging protests in support of Penan rights.
I had not met Bruno Manser (left) personally but I had heard of his social agitation, drawing the world’s attention to the plight of the Penan. He had gained prominence on the international stage by grabbing headlines using unconventional tactics, such as parachuting into Chief Minister Taib Mahmud’s garden.
He had been classified persona non grata by the government. He even attracted a price on his head in Sarawak. Manser was last seen in May 2000, in the isolated village of Bario.
His last known communication was a letter mailed to his girlfriend from there on May 22. After search expeditions proved fruitless, a civil court in Basel ruled on March 10, 2005, that Manser was to be considered dead.
The jungle is a dangerous place for people who are prepared to fight the timber interests in Sarawak.
Fortunately, the forest peoples in north Borneo have never ceased to fight for their land rights and their very survival. This is how the pro-Penan movement has grown from strength to strength, even until today.
SIM KWANG YANG was member of parliament for Bandar Kuching, Sarawak from 1982 to 1995. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(The author can be reached at email@example.com. All comments are welcomed.)