Hornbill Unleashed

March 11, 2011

Villagers cheer freeing of land rights campaigner

Keruah Usit

Numpang Suntai, an Iban from Sebangan, Sarawak, doughty defender of his community’s Native Customary Rights (NCR) to land, walked out of the Simunjan Magistrate’s Court yesterday a free man.

He had been arrested for ‘criminal intimidation’ against the camp manager of Loyal Billion, a logging company that has been removing trees from forests claimed by the villagers.

The decision brought tears of relief to many of the 200 supporters gathered at the courthouse. The peaceful gathering was delighted when Numpang’s lawyer See Chee How, of Baru Bian and Associates, announced Numpang had been acquitted.

TNONEhe court dismissed the charge of criminal intimidation, saying the police had failed to prove a prima facie case that Numpang (right) had threatened a camp worker with a shotgun.

Attempts at intimidation

Police demonstrated tact in choosing not to harass Numpang’s supporters. Relations between the police and the Sebangan villagers have been strained, with many of the latter claiming that police are prejudiced against them.

Loyal Billion is the contractor employed by Quality Concrete to log the contested land. Heavyweights Raziah @ Roziah Mahmud, Hamed Sepawi and Abdul Aziz Husain – sister, cousin and brother-in-law respectively of Chief Minister Taib Mahmud – are all shareholders of the Quality Concrete listed conglomerate.

Last October, Numpang and six other Ibans were arrested after villagers erected a blockade across the Loyal Billion access road, and a fire broke out simultaneously at the loggers’ camp.

Numpang has acknowledged that he participated in the blockade, but all the natives denied torching the camp.

NONENo charges of arson were laid and the police released the rest of the ‘Sebangan Seven’ ,only to eventually bring charges against Numpang.

Hundreds of villagers had turned up at his court hearings.
The villagers have claimed these arrests were an attempt to intimidate them, to lubricate the entry of Loyal Billion into 3,305 hectares of contested forests, claimed by the natives as ‘pulau galau’ or communal forests, reserved for the use of future generations.

Meanwhile, the natives say, the police have studiously ignored their 30 reports lodged against Loyal Billion and its powerful employer – Quality Concrete.

The villagers point out that the police have been unconvincing in their response to violence and threats by logging and plantation companies against NCR protestors throughout the state.

These provocations have become increasingly common, raising concerns that native landowners may retaliate against thugs hired by the companies.

Arrests fail to stifle dissent

But last October’s arrests did not quell the villagers’ protests. On the contrary, in November, Numpang and 14 other native landowner plaintiffs sued Quality Concrete, Loyal Billion, the state Director of Forests and the Sarawak government, as well as two government-appointed local community leaders, for what they called “illegal and unconstitutional” extraction of timber from NCR land.

NONEOn March 7, the Kuching High Court granted Numpang and his fellow villagers an injunction stopping Quality Concrete and Loyal Billion from extracting timber, pending the resolution of the lawsuit.

During the court proceedings, villagers discovered an ‘agreement’ purportedly signed by Loyal Billion and a government-appointed Penghulu, handing over the NCR rights of the 15 villages to the companies for the princely sum of RM250 per family.

The native landowners said they knew nothing of the document, and lodged several police reports alleging fraud, misrepresentation and forging of signatures.

A few sceptical observers have warned against premature celebrations, pointing out that the lawsuit has not yet been settled.

They say the authorities may well ratchet up pressure on the 15 longhouses after the upcoming state elections if Taib wins again, because bad publicity for Taib’s family would no longer be a major concern.

However, on the steps of the magistrate’s court in Simunjan yesterday morning, the villagers’ spirits could not be dampened.

“We have to be here, because this is not Numpang’s personal matter. Numpang is one of us and we are all in this battle to fight NONEagainst the company which is owned by the Chief Minister’s sister,” said a headman from one of the 15 villages.

“Together, we safeguard our NCR land,” he added.

At a joyful thanksgiving dinner yesterday evening, a hundred villagers had gathered to pray and celebrate.

“Although I was the only one charged, I did not for a minute feel alone. Most of my village folks were with me all the time, throughout the entire trial,” Numpang said.

“Tonight, many have spoken, and much has been said. It is a tough battle against the rich companies, but we are ready to fight them all the way!”


1 Comment »

  1. This line is for whom it may concern:-

    Government-appointed Penghulu = Police = corrupted to the core, alongside with the BN (Bullshit/Nonsense) leaders, headed by Taib & cronies…!!!

    Felt f—ed up again…Taik Mamut? LOL

    Comment by salaiBABIhutan — March 11, 2011 @ 6:15 PM | Reply

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