Hornbill Unleashed

January 17, 2011

Revisiting the Bakun dam controversy

Carol Yong

Sarawak’s Bakun Dam continues to arouse controversies and conflicts, not least because Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, on his latest state visit to Sarawak (15 January) decides to meet the villagers at the Sungai Asap resettlement scheme. Officially, at least, Najib wants ‘to address outstanding issues such as the Native Customary Rights land around the dam area.’ However, following Barisan National’s conventional practice before any upcoming elections – in this case, the Sarawak state elections which must be held before June – there is wide speculation that Najib ‘will be dishing out compensation to villagers displaced by the RM7.3 billion Bakun Dam.’

The Bakun Dam story is long and tortuous. It is not the first hydropower project in Sarawak, but it is by far the biggest in southeast Asia and, from the time the hydro potential of Bakun was first surveyed in the early 1960s until now, it has had a highly controversial history spanning nearly three decades. The Bakun Dam has been halted and revived several times since 1986 and, until recently, said to be completed. However, the few monopolising the benefits of the project undoubtedly have been enriched in the form of lucrative contracts to their own subsidiaries and their corporate and political allies.

In sharp contrast, those directly affected by the damming of the Balui river and the poorer people downstream of the Bakun dam invariably end up bearing considerable human suffering. In particular, nearly 10,000 indigenous peoples, mainly the Kayan, Kenyah, Kajang, Bhuket and Penan were forced to evacuate from their ancestral homes and moved to Sungai Asap in 1998. Some families who refused to live in Sungai Asap had returned instead to the forests near their original homeland in higher grounds within the catchment area. One reason was because Sungai Asap simply lacked lush jungles with the flow of a river or tributaries where they could roam, hunt and gather, fish, cultivate and collect forest products for handicraft making or other uses.

Besides flooded forests and dispalced peoples, the Bakun dam on its own raises questions about the ecological and environmental impacts and, more specifically, questions about the economic costs of the project.

This is Bakun’s ‘forgotten history,’ hidden from public view. There is no need to repeat the long list of negative implications of dams and resettlement – this is already widely known and obvious.* What most citizens are unaware about is, apparently, decisions relating to the Bakun Dam affecting native lands and territories, and in particular which require their relocation, have been pushed through by the Malaysian and Sarawak state governments in breach of the principle of ‘right to free, prior and informed consent’ (FPIC). Consultation associated with resettlement is seemingly limited only to a handful of local community leaders mostly government-appointed, state agencies and ruling state and parlimentary representatives. Most citizens may not even realise that their tax payments contribute to the financing of the Bakun Dam or who actually pockets a major share of the benefits. It is also hardly surprising that the warnings of independent analysts and critics of Bakun Dam – three decades since the project was first mooted – that such an enormous project was a huge waste of money have been ignored.

It is worth recalling the World Commission on Dams (WCD) had released the report, Dams and Development in November 2000, which outlined a set of principles and priorities critical for more informed and transparent decision making regarding dams. How far has the Bakun Dam in Sarawak complied with any precepts of national and international laws and United Nations declarations on indigenous peoples’ rights, and the recommendations of the WCD Report?

Noting that the state government is going ahead with the construction of more dams in the state, namely 12 mega-dams purportedly to be built by 2020, Sarawak’s Land Development Minister James Masing has most recently called for the setting-up of a Resettlement Ministry. The plans to built these mega-dams was never disclosed to the public, rather it was leaked through the Internet.

Who needs the power? These dams are necessary to meet energy demands in the state, so says Taib’s government. The combined total of 7,000 MW from the 12 proposed dams is expected to feed large energy intensive industries like aluminium smelter plants and for export, primarily to Peninsular Malaysia. Who needs the REAL power? Don’t ask Taib, he won’t tell. Just read online blogs such as Hornbill Unleashed or newsportals such as Sarawak Report and the answer would naturally be, ‘power from these hydroelectric projects are allegedly connected with Taib and his family.’ We know, Taib is mute on the allegations exposed by Sarawak Report that he has amassed billion dollars worth of foreign properties in Australia, Canada, the US and London, native customary rights (NCR) lands being leased to his crony companies and members of his family and land grab issues. Put simply, during the three decades rule of Taib, he has made himself a multi-billionaire.

No wonder Taib continues to embrace the establishment of Sarawak’s controversial energy masterplan labelled as Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) and the identification of 12 large hydropower dams across Sarawak, given his rich experience in ‘exploiting’ the state’s dwindling natural resources to strengthen his own power grid and heavy investments worldwide. Taib’s control of three key portfolios – Sarawak Chief Minister, state’s finance minister, and planning and resources management minister of Sarawak – allows him the power to develop projects, to control land, timber, minerals and other resources, and directly be responsible for handing out concessions via state acquisition of native lands. Hence the dams proposed were never brought to the fore of public debates or tabled in the state assembly by the Taib-led government. Haven’t we heard, the people who enjoyed the wealth, the members of the Taib family, the owners of logging companies and politicians who benefitted are often tireless when it comes to defending Taib? They repeatedly come up with new justifications and insist that the dams should be allowed to happen.

I cannot resist the temptation of repeating what James Masing, reportedly, said “As an anthropologist, I don’t mind undertaking the resettlement projects. However, without the proper setting up of a ministry, I was neither the authority to apply for allocations for engaging experts to look into the resettlement issues nor the power to negotiate better terms of the affected people.”

Is Masing trying to say he wants to be the Resettlement Minister, if he expects Taib to give clearance to creating the post? Masing’s call has apparently been inspired by a recent trip to see the world’s biggest dam, China’s Three Gorges Dam: “…the project involved the resettlement of one million inhabitants and it has been done well because the resettlement budget took up as high as 45 percent of the construction cost.”

Perhaps Masing has missed the point. The fact is, the high budget allocation for resettlement in the Three Gorges dam is expected because these relocated people are on such a massive scale – one million people, as the Chinese government says, while other estimates vary between 1.3 and two million people, moved because their homes have been flooded by the rising water of the reservoir. There was no mention of the QUALITY of the resettlement in the new site: the landscape and vegetation, the land that is planted with trees and other crops, the flowing rivers, the historical and cultural sites and artefacts, as found in the ancestral villages of people forced to move in order to make way for the dam project.

This writer has, for over two decades, followed closely the issue of dam-induced displacement and resettlement worldwide and it is hardly surprising why governments and dam proponents look favourably on resettlement they approved, often backed by ‘positive’ findings of their appointed experts. The pros and cons of resettlement, especially forced resettlement, are complicated and will continue to be debated long after the project is complete. Meanwhile, the most critical actors and the most affected, particularly indigenous peoples and women, remain largely absent from public decision-making in policies and programmes.

Clearly, in Sarawak’s case, even as a significant number of the state’s population continues to have no access to electricity, Taib is encouraged to play the role for which he is best suited – ‘developing the natives’ ‘idle’ lands’ via ‘development’ projects like mega-dams.

* For readers unfamiliar with the Bakun Dam debates, the Fact Finding Mission report of The Coalition of Concerned NGOs on Bakun, may 1999, is a ‘must read’ – it highlights in a very human way the causes and consequences of the Bakun resettlement from the point of view of the affected indigenous peoples. Enquire from Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), the human rights non-government organisation (NGO), email:suaram@suaram.net

Hydropower projects in Sarawak 2008-2020


  1. What would you do if you were to choose between the government and the protesters? I’d stay in the middle and screw everyone.

    Comment by awesomeunicorn — May 21, 2011 @ 2:09 PM | Reply


    The colonial criminals continue pillaging Sarawak through the Bakun Dam construction and now selling it back to Sarawak!

    They win by stealing the land from the ulu people and building the dam with their companies and win “selling” it back! It could be well over $20 billion when they are finsished with this scheme.

    Both ways Sarawak is the double big time loser! This is the coin with 2 heads development scheme!

    The UMNO/PBB BN colonial regimes robbed us blind of our oil and land resources for 48 years and they give back to the people the equivalence of a few cents every election because they think it is a great way to buy our votes!

    They treat us like monkeys and give us peanuts which they think will make us happy.

    It sort of leaves us scratching our heads. They think we are fools? OR are we?

    If you are not fools then be real people, angry people who must rise up and put an end to the nonsense you have been suffering!

    You can end part of it by not voting for them. However, if you do not go and vote they win for each vote that is not cast against them!

    That is how they legitimise their criminal activities because they say the people voted for them!

    But don’t forget we are still part of the colonial system of Malaysia and to end this takes more than voting unless we have an independence referendum. We all have to work very hard for this day as the people of Southern Sudan are doing at this very moment.

    The “Australian” newspaper reported today that EU Observer Mission said the the S. Sudanese vote for “independence” based on the votes counted was a certainty. In some areas 75% of the people voted for independence.

    Well, it may be too soon to congratulate the S. Sudanese but we feel exhilarated for them too.

    In Tunisia the people just drove out their corrupt president Ben Ali who fled to Saudi Arabia after nearly 25 years of oppressive corrupt rule. A great victory. However, more has to be done as their system is as corrupt as the one we have!

    Comment by Sarawakbaru — January 18, 2011 @ 2:04 AM | Reply

  3. This Bakun Dam must return to Sarawakians. We did not owe the Federal any money. For nearing 3 decades they have had been milking our State mineral and revenue. Worst half the money were recklessly spent by the Barats political elites on luxurious livings and illicit breeding. They are feeling the hard pinch now for Kelantanese are also pressing for a higher royalty. The fetching of the money to our Kpg Sg Assap folks is nothing new for we still remember the many privileges enshrined under the 20points were swept under the carpet without the proper consultations of Sarawakians. Don’t ever think we are still staying up in tree houses Barats. The written off loan committed to the settlers is merely a bowl of money you are returning us. Voting BN will make the Barats even more fierce. Look how the Perkasa behave. Let the Barats go bust this time. Restore Sarawak to her glory state of Fair Land Sarawak.

    Comment by miaowkia — January 17, 2011 @ 8:23 PM | Reply

    • Beware Taib Mahmud might want to sell Bakun to an Abu Dhabi company owned by the royalty. We must scrutinize every single state government deals. SESCO was once transferred to Taib’s family and only to be reverted to the sate government once it has been milked. Now SESCO is in deficit and paying salaries from overdraft facility.

      Taib is bent in robbing us more and ensure his 12 dams take off. He has engaged a personal consultant from Norway and use tax payer monies to pay him USD1.5 million a year for the next 3 years initial contract. The now CEO of SESCO only works two weeks in a month in Sarawak and the other other weeks in Europe. The CEO has since recruited about 40 foreign engineers whose salaries are about 3 to 5 times the salaries of local engineers. Even his PA is imported. Such is the scheme of colonising sarawak by Taib Mahmud. The CEO and these foreign engineers received instructions directly from Taib personally and they are not expected to reveal any evil works wanted done by him.

      Sarawakians must protest in the strongest term such abuse of office by the theif minister. All NGOs must work with pakatan to expose such blatant abuse of authority by the thief minister.

      Comment by Bartholomew — January 17, 2011 @ 9:31 PM | Reply


      Comment by babai — January 17, 2011 @ 10:13 PM | Reply

  4. The paramount thief minister of Sarawak with his CM salaries and perks for the last 30 years is even richer than Ronald Trump. In fact he is ranked among the richest in the world at least unofficially.

    Sarawakians must make sure to vote for a Pakatan government to arrest him and make him accountable for the few USD billions he has stolen from the state and people.

    Comment by Mata Kuching — January 17, 2011 @ 7:45 PM | Reply

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