An unknown thug threw a Molotov cocktail into the driveway of the home of See Chee How, state assemblyperson for Batu Lintang, Kuching, and Sarawak PKR vice-chairperson, around 4am a week ago.
No one was injured by the makeshift weapon. See’s family car was slightly dented by the projectile, and there were scorch marks on the chassis, as well as broken glass on the driveway.
See (right) is an indigenous land rights lawyer, and a successful partner in Baru Bian and Associates, a law firm based in Kuching. He and Baru Bian, state PKR head, have won a string of landmark native customary rights (NCR) land cases against the state government, and its partners in oil palm plantation firms and logging companies.
The law firm is representing NCR landowner communities in over 100 other cases, in a desperate struggle against land leases awarded by the state government on their ancestral farmlands and hunting grounds.
These lawsuits have rocked the foundations of the cosy relations between oil palm planters and the state administration.
Thanks to judicial decisions in favour of NCR communal land ownership, multimillionaire plantation owners, and their even wealthier political masters, have already lost hundreds of millions of ringgit in earnings, throughout the commodities boom in recent years.
These NCR rights are clearly recognised in the federal constitution and the state land code, but not by the oil palm companies, loggers or state government ministers.
Successful NCR plaintiffs have largely been poor, uneducated, and effectively invisible rural Dayak landowners. These rural people have doggedly attempted to defend the land they inherited – the only assets they will ever possess – from hostile incursions by urban businessmen, and their allies in the state government.
Threatened in recent weeks
The police have not yet commented on the progress of their investigation into the Molotov attack.
See agreed with the widely held opinion that the threat was related to his legal work to safeguard the rights of NCR landowners and is providing leads to the police, including the identities of gangsters who had threatened him in recent weeks.
According to See, the gangster had warned him to pull out from a particular NCR lawsuit against the state government and oil palm companies.
“In fact, I can zero in on the likely conglomerate involved, which has, of course, its list of gangster associates and hidden political bosses,” See told Malaysiakini.
“I arranged for the conglomerate’s representatives to meet the NCR landowners, to see if there’s an amicable way to resolve the dispute. Unfortunately, their only suggestion for resolving the lawsuit was that I should withdraw from the case! ‘If you don’t act as their lawyer, they will be no problem for us’, they told me. Well, I suppose I should take that as a compliment,” he said, with a rueful smile.
Gangsters have long been instrumental in suppressing opposition to hostile takeovers of NCR land, employed by palm oil and logger barons alike.
Will not be cowed by such criminal intimidation
“I really don’t give a damn about intimidation. Sure, there are funny calls and looks all the time. My suspicious mind does wonder at times that someday, someone might really come out with something nasty,” See contemplated.
“In fact, for years, every morning, when I opened the door to pick up the newspapers before six, I used to think there might one day be a Molotov cocktail, or a pig’s head, or a cow’s head waiting on the car porch. So when I saw the broken glass that morning, I wasn’t completely unprepared”.
See never felt high walls or barbed wire were a viable option, for fear he and his family would feel like prisoners in their own home.
“I’ve never thought that anybody would wait at the door to point a gun or a knife at me. I purposely installed a transparent gate and fence, so that my neighbours can see into the compound of my house, and call the police if somebody tries to break in.
“The political and legal work I’m doing is the product of my conviction and my commitment, and I will not be cowed by such criminal intimidation and violence,” he said.
“There’s no time to waste. This cowardly attack certainly won’t slow me down. My work is my answer, as to whether I’ll be affected or intimidated”.
On Nov 13, the day after the Molotov cocktail attack, See was back in battle in court, in Serian, an hour’s drive from Kuching.
He was defending five Melikin villagers, charged with “intimidation and mischief” for alleged assaults on oil palm company employees.
Many Melikin villagers feel this prosecution is related to the civil lawsuit launched by 17 longhouse residents against the palm oil companies United Team Trade and Memaju Jaya.
Melikin residents have complained angrily that their reports of criminal intimidation of villagers by gangsters have been ignored, yet the police sprang instantly into action when the palm oil plantation accused villagers of assaulting its workers.
According to local media reports, in June, Michael Luang, an Iban community leader agitating for the Melikin NCR campaign against United Team Trade, was the victim of a Molotov cocktail attack on his house.
The fire resulted in extensive damage to his four-wheel-drive vehicle, though fortunately, there were no casualties.
The police will need to establish if this is mere coincidence, or similar fact evidence, as lawyers say.
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 at firstname.lastname@example.org