Police in Simunjan, a quiet district town two hours’ drive from Kuching, showed exemplary caution when facing a crowd of 300 Iban villagers gathered in support of Numpang Suntai this Wednesday.
Only 20 of the supporters were allowed into the courtroom in Simunjan, where Numpang (right) was facing a charge of ‘criminal intimidation’ against Loyal Billion, a logging company contracted to extract timber for a wealthy conglomerate, Quality Concrete.
The remainder of the crowd remained outside, braving the heavy rain.
Numpang was charged with threatening employees of Loyal Billion with a shotgun. “My brother never handled a gun in his life.
One of his arms is partially paralysed due to a stroke he suffered in 1997,” Christina Suntai, Numpang’s sister, stated on her website.
Quality Concrete shareholders include the sister of Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, Roziah@Radziah Mahmud (left), and their cousin Hamed Sepawi.
The villagers have a lawsuit pending against Loyal Billion and Quality Concrete, alleging that the companies had trespassed on the villagers’ ancestral Native Customary Rights (NCR) land.
This NCR dispute has angered Iban villagers from 16 longhouses in the Sebangan area, near Simunjan, because the owners of the logging concession are stripping their forests to profit Roziah Mahmud and Hamed Sepawi, two of the richest people in Sarawak.
Sneaking around the Bench
The natives claim Loyal Billion has been working outside its concession area, and even after an injunction imposed on the company, the villagers say logging is still continuing.
Numpang was arrested last October as one of the ‘Sebangan Seven’, after Loyal Billion alleged the natives had set fire to its timber camp.
The other detainees included Nicholas Mujah, a respected land rights activist from the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia).
According to Mujah (right), a Loyal Billion camp worker had told police Mujah had been at the camp at the time of the arson, even though he had witnesses placing him 400km away at the time.
Besides Numpang, none of the others have been charged. International NGOs denounced the police action as harassment of the villagers.
Civil society has urged the police to act against Loyal Billion and Quality Concrete for illegal logging and for hiring gangsters to threaten villagers opposing the companies’ intrusion onto the NCR land.
“I am still wondering, who is intimidating who in this case? They are the ones who encroach (on) our land, they are the ones who steal our trees.
Mysterious ways of the law
“They are the ones who use the gangsters to intimidate us, they are the ones who utilise the police to harass us.
“And yet I am the one who is going to be charged for criminal intimidation,” Numpang told the press.
“Within (our NCR) area, there are pulau galau, forests that have been deliberately preserved for future generations in pemakai menoa (our territory). I have every right, like anybody else, to (talk about) and fight for the rights of everybody in the area,” he explained.
He added that the fight was all about ensuring what has been theirs for generations, their native customary rights remain with them.
“If all that’s taken from us, we don’t have anything,” he said.
Numpang pointed out that the issue was not specific to Sebangan , but all of Sarawak, from Lundu to Lawas…(whether) Malay, Lun Bawang, Kayan, Kenyah, Iban, it doesn’t matter.
“It stems from the simple fact of how the country is administered, how laws are made…I don’t like being locked up in jail, I don’t like to do a blockade up in the mountain, not enough food, not enough sleep, but the strength I have comes from the fact that I know I am doing the correct thing.”
The court heard submissions from Numpang’s legal team of Baru Bian, See Chee How and Desmond Kho.
The next attempt at crowd control for the police will be on March 2, during the hearing of legal team’s submission that Numpang has no case to answer, with the court ruling expected on March 10.
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 email@example.com