Six Iban longhouses in Sebuyau, Sarawak, have lodged 30 new police reports condemning logging on land they say is their temuda (individual orchards and gardens).
The Ulu Sebangan longhouses have reiterated their opposition to logging, despite the arrest of seven of their leaders in response to allegations of arson at the loggers’ camp.
“Looking at the map showing the licensed area, it is clear that they were logging outside their timber concession area. This is ridiculous, and the police must act with fairness and impartiality to investigate the complaints lodged by the villagers,” said the villagers’ lawyer and PKR information chief, See Chee How.
“They should not be seen as favouring the party that did not come to them with clean hands,” he said, referring to the police detention of the seven Iban activists on Oct 22 based on a report of alleged arson by the logging contractor. The company, Royal Billion, had blamed the villagers for a fire at its timber headquarters on Oct 18.
The longhouses are openly defying Quality Concrete, owner of the timber licence granted on the disputed land, and Royal Billion’s employer. The villagers refuse to back down, even though they are aware that Quality Concrete’s directors include Roziah @ Raziah Mahmud (left), sister to Chief Minister and state minister in charge of forestry, Taib Mahmud.
Royal Billion is the contractor engaged by Quality Concrete to harvest timber from the concession of 3,305 hectares. This is an area larger than several of the national parks in Sarawak, and the yield is projected to exceed RM230 million.
‘Bujang berani’ released
The ‘Sebangan Seven’ were released under police bail on Oct 25, and were welcomed home as bujang berani or heroes. They have not been charged, but have been instructed to report back to the Simunjan police station after a month.
The detainees include Nicholas Mujah, recognised worldwide for his campaigns for indigenous peoples’ rights. Mujah (right), secretary-general of the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia), was arrested when he voluntarily visited the police station to make a statement. This prompted an international telephone protest campaign to Sarawak police.
The other detainees were tuai rumah or village chiefs Sadon anak Anson, Neli anak Nipa, Philip anak Bakat, Bawi anak Atman, and two Iban activists, Numpang anak Suntai and Tinsi anak Bunda. The arrests sparked local and global censure by environmental and human rights NGOs.
On the day of the arrest of the seven leaders, 200 other Iban villagers assembled peacefully at the small police station in Simunjan, apparently asking the police to take statements from them and arrest them all. The police maintained a cordial silence.
Villagers say fire provided a smokescreen
These seven leaders had helped to spearhead a blockade on Oct 15 across Royal Billion’s logging track. Villagers had also stopped a company barge from transporting logs. These road and river blockades had caused substantial losses to the company.
The local communities exhibited a copy of a letter from the state director of forestry, Len Talif Salleh, to Quality Concrete, dated Aug 12 this year, announcing that logging on the contested land was suspended until the conflict could be resolved.
The company, villagers say, ignored the letter. Villagers’ reports to the police and government departments were fruitless, resulting eventually in the blockades.
The Iban landowners observed that the Quality Concrete timber licence is expiring next month, and there will be a large insurance pay-out on the burnt machinery. They point out press photos taken in the camp showed new bulldozers had been left unharmed, while older machines had been torched.
“Why would villagers burn only old machines?” one blockade supporter asked sarcastically.
A company spokesman, Lau Poung Siing, had claimed a loss of RM2 million worth of machinery in the fire. He alleged the villagers had fired shots in the air, frightening off camp workers. He also insisted that the company possessed a licence to extract timber.
“The company, in their press statement, had made unfounded allegations against the villagers. Claiming that the villagers burnt down the camp and used firearms is too far-fetched,” See replied.
More than 400km away
According to See, Mujah was with a colleague in Pulau Beruit, Sibu, more than 400km away, when the fire broke out. However, Mujah reported that police said a logging contractor claimed to have seen Mujah at the camp, setting fire to logging vehicles.
Mujah said he was upset with the detention but remained calm. “Even the police in Simunjan knew that I was in Pulau Beruit at the time of the incident. They gave the reasoning that they had been directed to investigate on the report lodged by the logging company.
“But they assured me that they will take appropriate action if the police report lodged by the representatives of the company is false. My lawyer is writing a letter to the Simunjan police station and I will lodge a formal complaint with the police shortly.”
“The protestors were at the roadblocks at least 4km away. How could they be in two places at one time?” See asked later. “I hope the police will be daring to do their job and not ignore the reports of the villagers, just because the chief minister’s sister is a non-executive director of the company.”
Quality Concrete has a history of clashes with Native Customary Rights landowners. In June this year, Lee Ling, a logging contractor operating on Quality Concrete’s timber licence in Long Sebayang, Ulu Limbang, was vilified for beating up local natives blockading its timber track.
Lun Bawang, Penan and Tabun villagers reported the company had threatened to bring in “more gangsters”. They also reported that Lee Ling had driven three policeman to the blockade site. One policeman, armed with a pistol, had forced the villagers to dismantle a blockade.
The plan in Long Sebayang, as in Sebangan, was to clear out the forests and then replace them with oil palm plantations.
Fire in the Iban heartland?
The news of the arson and arrests has raised the temperature among Sarawak’s Ibans. Although the Iban form the largest ethnic group in the state, illiteracy and poverty rates are among the highest. Many have been forced to travel out of the state for employment, with some 30,000 Ibans working in Johor alone.
Many Ibans have expressed disgust with the concessions given to loggers and plantations by the state government, at the expense of villagers’ claims to their NCR land.
A question on many Sarawakians’ lips is this: Will this latest conflagration trigger a surge away from the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) in the upcoming state election?
One historical precedent was the resistance shown by Iban villagers in Rumah Bali and Busang in 1999, when they allegedly killed four gangsters employed by a plantation company threatening their NCR land.
However, the confrontation did not spread and there was no political fallout: the BN won 60 of 62 seats in the subsequent state polls in 2001. Taib’s government has traditionally been able to retain Iban votes, using prodigious spending during election campaigns.
The exception to this rule occurred when Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) provided a credible alternative for Iban voters in the past. There was a transient swing against Taib, during the PBDS’ heyday in the late 1980s.
The burning question must now be: Can Pakatan Rakyat offer a convincing alternative to BN, and channel the widespread discontent against Taib and his family into electoral inroads?
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist – ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.