A late night police raid on August 12 in Serian, Sarawak, against Iban villagers fighting oil palm companies over Native Customary Rights (NCR) to land, led to no charges being brought, let alone convictions.
But the arrests produced a comical standoff at the Serian police station, when five arrested Iban villagers were released on August 15.
Some 200 Iban men and women had converged peacefully on the Serian police station on Wednesday, when the remand order on the five men was due to expire.
Inspector Azlan Abdul Wahab, the leader of the late night raid, was visibly nervous, but gamely tried to appear stern. He told the assembled villagers: “if you make noise, I’ll arrest you all!”
The young police inspector’s fearsome words vanished like straw in the wind, amid laughter from the crowd, followed by cheerful shouts of “Okay!”. The five detainees were duly freed, on police bond.
Sanjan Ambol, Singa Unsit, Samad Junna, and village heads Nyalu Tampa, and Musit Ngawing, aged between 41 and 58, had been spirited away at 11.45pm on Sunday, from their longhouses in Melikin and Ensebai Plaie, 90 minutes’ drive from Kuching.
The five men spent two and a half bemused days in the Serian lock-up, after an oil palm plantation company had filed a police report claiming that one of its employees had been assaulted and beaten.
However, a local daily reported, without producing any sources, that the Iban were being investigated instead for allegedly burning a bridge belonging to the oil palm company.
According to the detainees’ lawyer, See Chee How, vice-chairperson of Sarawak PKR, the police report had been lodged on the alleged assault, but had not named any suspects. The arrests, he said, were unwarranted and “malicious”. He promised to look into legal action against the police for wrongful arrest.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence. If you look at (the detainees), they’re old, and I don’t think they’re capable of beating people up,” he said wearily.
“It seems (the authorities) purposely want to do this, probably to intimidate the people in the kampung…but as you can see today, I don’t think anybody is worried about this, because to them, land is more important than their own liberty.”
Village chief Nyalu Tampa spoke stoically about his incarceration: “I have rights that I must protect in my village over there, to defend that land. I was not afraid, not worried, because I have done no wrong.”
This crackdown was not an isolated example, See added, pointing out the nearly identical ordeal endured by NCR activist Numpang Suntai and six others in Simunjan in 2010.
Plantation companies demand ‘toll’
United Teamtrade, Memaju Jaya and Tetangga Arkab are oil palm companies awarded provisional licences over 2,200 hectares – claimed by villagers as NCR land – in Melikin.
United Teamtrade’s majority shareholders have been described by whistleblower website Sarawak Report as “assistants” to Awang Tengah Ali Hassan and Naroden Majais, two prominent allies of Sarawak’s chief minister and First Resource Planning Minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud.
Awang Tengah and Naroden happen to be Second Resource Planning Minister and Assistant Resource Planning Minister, respectively. Taib personally selects the lucky recipients of provisional licences for oil palm plantations and timber concessions.
Memaju Jaya is owned by the former local state assembly representative for Kedup, Frederick Bayoi Manggie, a senior member of Taib’s party PBB, according to DAP MP for Bandar Kuching, Chong Chien Jen.
Tetangga Arkab is a joint venture oil palm company owned by the state government agency, the Land Custody and Development Authority (LCDA).
Villagers supporting the Melikin detainees at the Serian police station waved placards reading “Get rid of corruption, don’t protect criminals”.
Under Sarawak’s Land Code, any native land settled before 1959 qualifies as communal NCR land, a principle upheld by the Federal Court.
The wife of one of the freed detainees explained: “our ancestors came to Melikin in 1955.”
The Land and Survey state director Sajeli Kipli has argued that the Melikin natives cannot claim NCR, because the area had been gazetted a forest reserve by the Brooke administration in 1927 and 1935.
“No disrespect,” retorted the villagers’ lawyer See, “but I doubt whether Sajeli Kipli knows what NCR means. Or he chooses to defy what the courts say…common sense should tell us that if protected forests can be leased for oil palm plantation, what (rubbish) protected forests are those? If we listen to Land and Survey, there should be no NCR in Sarawak, and the natives have to prove otherwise.”
In February this year, United Teamtrade wrote a letter to make an unprecedented demand of ‘toll’ from local villagers using the road on the disputed land to reach their farms: five ringgit “accessibility (sic) fee” per motorcycle, 30 ringgit per car and 50 per truck.
In May, after futile appeals to the state government regarding the plantation companies moving in, 70 villagers camped out in the Land and Survey carpark in Kuching, in an “Occupy” protest.
“Thousands of native landowners – the Ibans, Bidayuhs and Orang Ulu – have their rights encroached upon and (their problems) have remained unresolved,” Chong said at the time.
In late June, Michael Luang, a leading local opponent of the oil palm plantations, found his Hilux four-wheel-drive truck had been set on fire.
The angry villagers claimed the oil palm plantation companies had hired gangsters to scare them. They complained that police reports against the plantation companies had gone unheeded. Yet the police acted immediately following the company’s own police report, filed against unnamed villagers.
During the state election campaign in April 2011, Barisan Nasional (BN) supporters from the Melikin area had blocked PKR campaigners from visiting their longhouse. BN retained the Kedup state seat.
Now, after the plantation companies’ invasion, it appears the villagers have lost trust in the ruling BN – with the parliamentary elections fast approaching.
“We will tell the voters to vote against the Barisan Nasional which is taking away our land and giving it to its cronies. We will get rid of BN,” Augustine Bagat, a spokesperson for the “Occupy Land and Survey” demonstrators, told reporters in May.