Hornbill Unleashed

January 18, 2011

Bakun: Empty promises, damned lives

Filed under: Corruption,Politics — Hornbill Unleashed @ 12:03 AM
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Kua Kia SoongNONE

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s visit to the Bakun area on Jan 15 was trumpeted as a gracious offer of largesse to the displaced peoples from the Bakun area who have been resettled at Sungai Asap since 1999.

He promised a RM62 million road linking Belaga and Bakun; a RM46 million clinic, and has “agreed in principle” to write off the remaining housing loans of about RM41 million owed by some 1,500 families who were displaced by the Bakun dam. Can this offset the “ethnocide” of the displaced Bakun indigenous peoples, the “damned lives” at the Sungai Asap Resettlement Scheme?

More than 10,000 indigenous natives from at least 15 different ethnic communities had to give up their ancestral homes and preferred environment at a time when the dam had been suspended during the financial crisis at the end of the 90s. Among these groups of indigenous peoples displaced are the Ukits, who are the only ethnic community of its kind in the world with their distinct language and culture. Theirs is now an endangered culture.

I was amazed to read that Najib was “the first prime minister to set foot in Belaga town”! That means that the prime minister most responsible for this monstrous project, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, had never set foot in Belaga despite the long drawn-out saga of this accursed dam during his reign!

Now, even when I was a young lecturer at NUS, I managed to visit Belaga in 1978. And soon after the resettlement of the displaced peoples, I again visited the area with the other members of the fact-finding mission in 1999.

NONEYet no Malaysian prime minister had bothered to see for themselves this part of Malaysia where more than 15 different ethnic communities lived in some of the most beautiful forest environments of Malaysia and where the biggest dam in SEAsia was to be built to displace these indigenous peoples!

The only word that sprang to mind when we observed the state and morale of the displaced people and their shocking “new” living environment was ETHNOCIDE. That was just six months after the resettlement.

“Ethnocide may be defined as the process whereby a culturally distinct people loses its identity due to policies designed to erode its land and resource base, the use of its language, its own social and political institution as well as its traditions, art forms, religious practices and cultural values.

“When such policies are carried out systematically by governments on the pretext of social progress, national unity, economic development, military security, then such governments are guilty of ethnocide…”
(Shanthi Thambiah, ‘Cultural Diversity and Indigenous peoples’ in Kua Kia Soong edited, ‘Mother Tongue Education of Malaysian Ethnic Minorities’, DJZHLC, 1998:19)

Having witnessed this process of “ethnocide” at Sungai Asap, I have always said that this displacement of the 10,000 Bakun peoples was the single most dastardly act of the Mahathir administration and the Taib state government. For this, all component parties of the Barisan Nasional must bear full responsibility. Permit me to refresh your memory regarding “Operation Exodus”.

Affected communities not fully consulted

Ever since the project was first proposed, concerned Malaysian NGOs have consistently raised the issue of the lack of clear information and accountability with regard to the Bakun project. Just about every aspect of the project, including the plans for resettlement, was shrouded in secrecy, vague promises and poor consultation with the affected victims and NGOs.

It is clear that the hurry to resettle these indigenous peoples was linked to the fact that the contracts for the Asap Resettlement Scheme had been given out before the onset of the economic crisis. It was also calculated that money could be made from oil palm plantations in the resettlement area.

The displacement of the Balui population was thus part of the plan to convert them into wage labourers for these plantations. The state is in fact subsidising these plantation interests not only in creating this pool of cheap labour but in the budget allocation for the Asap Resettlement Scheme.

NONEThe affected people were promised, by the authorities, adequate plots of land (3 hectares), reasonable housing, jobs and other facilities at the Asap Scheme. Yet, until their final exodus, they had no knowledge of how the Asap Resettlement Scheme had been designed. Nevertheless, they were required to sign a sales & purchase agreement on arrival as a condition for obtaining the keys to their new homes.

As a further pressure for the indigenous people to move to Asap, the authorities closed all support services (schools, clinics, etc) in the original longhouses and all those who stayed behind or moved further upstream were warned that they were trespassing on state land and liable to be forcibly evicted. Those who refused to move to Asap were told that they would lose their right to their compensation payments.

This is hardly the situation within which such a traumatic experience for the indigenous peoples who had lived for generations in their ancestral homes, should have taken place. Instead of receiving all manner of assistance to settle in to the new life, they had to put up with veiled threats and (empty) inducements.

The entire “Operation Exodus” has shown a failure of planning and decision planning. The state of the Asap Resettlement Scheme itself further confirms this fact.

Damned Lives

As a member of the fact-finding team in 1999, I was shocked to witness, first hand, the appalling state of the site, considering it was scarcely a year old. Lack of an adequate sewerage system, lack of rubbish disposal, lack of proper access roads were serious faults, threatening the health and longer-term sustainability of the communities.

The plumbing, made of PVC pipes, can be seen under the houses, and is connected to the septic tank. Leakages in some of these pipes were already noticeable, despite the newness of the scheme. No apparent remedial action had been forthcoming from the authorities. Sewerage waste at some of the longhouses flowed directly into the river near the long houses (we saw this at the Long Geng and Long Ayak resettlement area).

NONEThe longhouses do not have a proper drainage system. There are no concrete drains and there are already sections of stagnant and putrid water in the mud drains which take discharge from the houses. This is unsanitary and poses a health hazard, being mosquito breeding grounds and pose risks to children who may play with the water.

Rubbish collection is another problem faced by the community in the resettlement area. It is non-existent. The access road is too narrow for the rubbish collection lorries. Rubbish disposal is an essential service.

During our stay at the site, we noticed at one longhouse residents were tipping rubbish into the stream, while at another, it was being dumped in a heap not far from the longhouse. They had no alternative. The question is: Who planned this site and how could the design have been passed with such basic flaws?

The situation with regard to the housing provided at Asap is also appalling. Not only is the design and condition of the new houses inadequate, but indigenous people were being forced to pay some RM52,000 for a unit through a contract that has not been explained to them and is written in English legalese.

The price of the house was extraordinary, given its shoddy quality, its location and the paltry amount of compensation paid for the original buildings which were of far greater substance and relevance to the people. Sarawak is supposed to be one of the world’s main suppliers of wood. (For comparison, a concrete properly finished low-cost house in peninsular Malaysia costs only RM25,000!)

The longhouses are of standard design. Each longhouse has fifteen units (bilik). They are arranged on two storeys. Downstairs is a hall and a kitchen, with a bathroom and toilet. Upstairs is just one open room, presumably for sleeping. The common balcony is much narrower than a traditional longhouse design, meaning it is difficult to use for traditional communal activities.

azlanOther than the roughly cemented toilet and bathroom floors, and the bathroom and toilet walls which are of asbestos, the houses are made of wood – very poor quality wood at that. The doors and wall panels are of plywood, the floor boards are thin third-grade soft wood with gaps between the planks, while the main pillars are thin belian wood.

The long houses at Asap had been designed without any indigenous peoples’ inputs. Instead, a British-based company (Bucknall’s) was given the contract! And from our investigations, no certificate of fitness had been issued before the resettlement and this was a serious irregularity in the planning process for the site. The state authorities had in fact acted against the municipal laws of Malaysia.

Residents claimed that they had asked for ten acres each at Sg Asap. They were promised seven but only received three acres. Three acres of land is hardly sufficient to meet their needs. The fertility of the soil is inadequate for much of the land is situated on swampy or hilly areas. The size of the land is also inadequate.

Further, despite prior warnings, the state authorities had failed to provide for the circumstance whereby the indigenous people had to abandon their previous land (and crops) but thus had no time to cultivate the new land. There was thus a dearth of vegetables and fruits available at the site.

Several consequences had emerged from this. Firstly, the pressure on the existing land meant almost immediately that there was a severe shortage of fish, game and jungle products. This, together with the lack of vegetables and fruits, meant that the communities were thrust immediately into a wholly cash economy, spending significant sums on purchasing food and materials which had previously been obtained for free.

High transportation costs also meant that the cost of such purchases was relatively expensive.

To attempt to offset this, some of the indigenous people had begun to cultivate state land, outside of the demarcated land for the resettled communities. Again, there was not enough of this extra land, and this had already led to inter-community conflict. In addition, the cultivation of such land (considered “state land”) was likely to incur the wrath of the authorities, sooner or later, meaning such cultivation would be terminated.

It was not coincidental that while the mission was in Sarawak, the State Assembly actually passed an amendment to the Land Code to outlaw squatting on state land. This would have grave consequences for the indigenous peoples at Sg Asap who had been using state land beyond the three acres they had been given.

The mission found that this was a general practice of most of the people there. The other group of people affected by this amendment would be those who have chosen to move further upriver.

The failure by the planners to properly provide adequate alternative land again reflects an apparent inability to respect and honour what the indigenous people themselves had asked for, to properly respect and honour their culture and traditions, to respect and support sustainable farming and to respect and support provision for future generations.

It further indicates how the indigenous communities have been treated like objects in a process which has provided a hopelessly inadequate alternative life for them, under the guise of ‘development’.

azlanThe residents have been displaced from a subsistence/ part-cash economy to a totally cash economy. Almost everything has to be paid for, including their staple rice, vegetables, wild boar, fish, even buah pinang and sireh which they used to get in abundance. There was a general loathing toward having to pay electricity and water rates. As they have no income, they have been living off their compensation money and this is almost finished now.

The cost of living for the households has increased dramatically after they move into the new resettlement area at Sg Asap. Now, the people are burdened with electric and water bills, which they never paid before. In their original home, they were using a diesel generator to generate electricity (the diesel was provided by the logging company at no cost) and the water supply came from the natural streams.

Although the state government had envisaged the displaced people as wage labour for oil palm plantations, in 1999 only one company had moved in. Even so, the seedlings would take at least five years to mature and allow harvesting work to be done.

From interviewing some local people at Asap, the plantation company Samling prefered to pay local people RM8 per hectare but they paid Indonesian labourers RM20 per hectare. Five companies had been given the green light to open up plantations, including the Sarawak Enterprise but only one had started. This again showed dismal planning by the authorities.

New social problems had arisen such as breakdown of family relations, distrust within communities; lack of social and recreational outlets for the youth; conflict between different communities, and disempowerment of women. We saw widespread despondency among the residents at Sg Asap; alcoholism had taken root and there was no motivation to produce their traditional handicraft beyond the plain floor mats…the symptoms of ethnocide.

Who benefits from the Bakun Dam?

The whole displacement process raises the fundamental questions of who defines and who benefits from development. The fact is that the indigenous population affected by the Bakun HEP have been asked to sacrifice their entire natural and cultural heritage in the name of development. Indeed, government spokespeople and others have lambasted critics as being anti-development and traitors.

Yet on closer examination of the way this whole project has been planned and implemented, it is clear that the indigenous people feel utterly betrayed and degraded by this so-called “development”.

They have been made to change a lifestyle which they controlled and from which they could plan their future, to one where everything has been planned for them and which has robbed them of their dignity, autonomy and ability to sustain their livelihood through integration with their traditional land and its resources.

It must be pointed out that the indigenous peoples of Bakun are by no means “backward” and living primitive lifestyles. Far from it. Most communities have been participating in part cash economy for a long time now. Their original long houses have produced quite a few university graduates and professionals. The member of Parliament for the area in 1999 was himself a former headmaster who had grown up at Bakun.

What they could have done with to improve their quality of life at their original long houses were better services: transportation, education facilities, clinics and hospitals, marketing and credit, etc. They could do with some sustainable means of power for each of their long house communities.

In other words, development must be based on the needs of the community and not the socially destructive projects such as the Bakun dam. Now their forest has been destroyed, their rivers have been depleted of fish and drinkable water and even the only means of transport since the days of their ancestors – the upstream tributaries of the Rajang – has been terminated by the accursed Bakun Dam.


KUA KIA SOONG, a former MP, was principal of the New Era College, Kajang. He is also a director of human rights group Suaram.


  1. There have been countless wrongs against the indigenous people of the Bakun area since the creation of the Bakun dam, and thank you for making a few of those wrongs so plainly put. I myself am a Kayan of Uma Belor and we were relocated along with the other indigenous people back then. I was only 7 when they moved us, but I remember my long house. I remember the feel of the wood, I remember playing on the veranda, swimming in the river, fishing with the men and washing clothes with the women in the clear streams. I remember dark nights when I’d just lay down on the floor of our family room and feel the axe marks on the wooden panels, knowing that every plank I was lying on was hand made by my ancestors and worn down smooth by the feet of past generations. My father went to our old longhouse just a few months ago. Only the roof is showing now. Soon, even that will disappear altogether. The longhouse he grew up in, the longhouse his mother and his mother’s mother grew up in. I can’t forget, and I can’t let it go. My grandfather passed away missing the river and the jungle. Now that I’m in university, you can expect that I wont lie still anymore.

    That is what is needed. We need to get an education if we want to make a difference in the fate of our people. Knowledge is currency, is power, and more and more of my generation are continuing their studies. We can make a difference. Thank you for spreading awareness on the issue. The time is coming when we can properly act. I pray the time comes soon.

    Comment by Daniella — March 17, 2011 @ 11:42 AM | Reply

  2. FOR YOUR INFORMATION – 19/01/2011


    The Taib Government appears set to proceed with 12 more dams regardless of whether UMNO PBB BN wins the State election of not. The experts have already been engaged at high costs to the tax payers. Probably Taib’s companies have also been signed up to sell concrete and other services etc..

    The Bakun Dam is just finished. It has created billion dollar fortunes for the Taib and Mahathir families and cronies and drastically impacted on thousands of affected and suffering ulu families. Now they want to do a sale and purchase of the Dam to Sarawak for more billions.

    In Africa the people also had their shares of dams built since the 1950s and the associated problems with dams. Below is an extract from “International Rivers” website on how the famous Kariba Dam affected 57,000 Africans since 1957.

    We may learn by comparing Kariba Dam people’s experience with the Sg. Asap people’s plight (as KK Soong exposed in his article). There are a lot of similarities.

    PM Najib’s recent election promises to the Sg.Asap people is an admission of the UMNO OBB BN total failure to deliver their promises made some 20 years ago.
    (Group Works to Right Wrongs at Kariba Dam)
    Basilwizi Trust

    The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River is one of Africa’s largest dams, and one with a particularly sorry legacy for those forced to make way for it. Just miles from the huge reservoir in the Zambezi Valley live several tribes who are among the poorest, most remote and least developed in the country. Their predicament is largely attributed to their forced removal from their riverside communities in the late 1950s for the construction of Kariba. For almost 50 years, they have lived in isolation and with few significant development initiatives.

    At least 57,000 Tonga people living along both sides of the river were moved for the dam. These people were not compensated for their removal and have never directly benefited from the project. Their lives have been dramatically changed by the harsh environment of the resettlement areas. Their new places are marred by low and erratic rainfall, poor rocky and sandy soils and tsetse fly infestations.

    Kariba’s resettlement process has been called a “poorly conceived and trauma–ridden crash program” by experts familiar with the case. A report on Kariba by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) notes, “It was reported that the people to be resettled ‘were treated like animals or things rounded up and packed in lorries’ to be moved to their new destination … The racist attitude of the time did not consider the resettlement of Africans as a problem.” The dam’s poor record of resettlement left a huge black mark on the project, which has never been adequately addressed by the parties responsible for building the dam. The colonial and post independence governments and the major funders and beneficiaries of the dam continue to neglect the relocated people on the Zimbabwean side of the reservoir.

    Basilwizi Trust is an NGO in Zimbabwe committed to building the capacity of the people affected by Kariba Dam to help them change the conditions under which they live. We work towards empowering these communities – men and women, young and old, able and disabled – with knowledge and resources required to enhance their self–reliance and self–determination.

    The full article may be read at the International Rivers’ website. Maybe KK Soong could submit his excellent article to them for publication on the net to highlight our people’s plight?


    Posted by Free Sarawak Information Service in the service of an Free and Independent Sarawak.

    Comment by Free Sarawak Information Service — January 19, 2011 @ 1:50 PM | Reply


    Comment by babai — January 18, 2011 @ 10:08 PM | Reply

  4. A very sad tale and thank you Kua Kia Soong for bringing forward to M’sians especially S’wakians how cruel this BN government. I especially like the point you made “…..raises the fundamental questions of who defines and who benefits from development.” You went on to articulate that “……development must be based on the needs of the community ….”. I had/am always a strong and vocal opposition to Taib much trumpeted the so-called ‘politics of development’. The one question which always come to mind is “Development for whom?” Today your article really put in perspective – Bravo Mr Soong.

    Comment by Sir Noet — January 18, 2011 @ 7:28 AM | Reply

  5. Thank you KK Soong for your thorough expose!

    Najib only promised “in principle” to write off the housing loans.

    Does it mean it may not be done if they don’t win the election?

    So the people should not celebrate until it happens! It might just be another mendacious cynical promise not meant to be kept!

    Taib has already initiated his project for 12 more dams. It means more human misery multiplied 12 times and the destruction of our precious forest lands and environment 12 times.

    Only a people’s revolution can stop this wanton destruction of lives and land!

    Comment by Sarawakbaru — January 18, 2011 @ 3:10 AM | Reply

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