by Gan Pei Ling / 22 March 2013 © Selangor Times
DURING a recent trip to Miri in January, my flight arrived at the same time as the Sarawak Chief Minister’s.
I watched from my economy seat as Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud stepped down from his jet plane, accompanied by his young Lebanese wife Puan Sri Raghad Kurdi Taib, on a red carpet.
Abdul Taib has ruled Sarawak for more than three decades as the president of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB).
He took over the reins of power from his uncle, the third Chief Minister Tun Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman Yaa’kub, in 1981.
Under his rule, Sarawak, together with Johor and Sabah, is known as the fixed deposit for Barisan Nasional (BN).
At present, DAP only holds two out of 31 federal seats in Sarawak while PKR has none.
The political tsunami, which resulted in a change in five state governments in Peninsular Malaysia in 2008, did not reach Sarawak’s shores.
BN comfortably retained its two-third majority in the 2011 state elections, clinching 55 out of 71 seats.
In the upcoming national polls, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) hopes to wrest a third of the parliamentary seats in Sarawak in their quest to oust BN from Putrajaya.
“We’re confident of winning 10 seats (in Sarawak),” said PKR’s Baram parliamentary candidate Roland Engan.
The indigenous lawyer hails from Long Jeeh, one of several Kenyah villages along the main river of Baram.
Apart from urban seats like Kuching, Sibu and Miri, PR is focusing on rural constituencies such as Baram where the indigenous people are increasingly dissatisfied with the ruling government due to land disputes and corruption.
I had flown to Sarawak at my own expense to cover the indigenous people’s protest against the Baram hydroelectric dam, which will displace about 20,000 natives from their homes and flood 412 sq metres of rainforest.
PKR had initiated the long boat protest, backed by Save Sarawak Rivers Network.
The NGO was set up last year to oppose several mega dams the state government is building. Its chairperson, Peter Kallang, is also a Kenyah born and bred from Long Ikang, Baram.
The Baram valley is home to Malaysia’s second longest river and many legends.
The river runs strong and wide. It serves as the “highway” for the locals here.
Kenyah and Kayan villages can be found along the main river while Penan villages are scattered around its tributaries.
However, the vast Baram basin has been logged intensively since the 1980s.
Once translucent, the river has turned murky over the years due to soil erosion.
An independent candidate, Harrison Ngau Laing, had won the Baram parliamentary seat by capitalising on logging issues in 1990.
The Kayan lawyer has since joined PKR and is now the party’s Baram branch chief.
In the 2011 elections, he competed in Telang Usan, one of two state seats under Baram, and lost narrowly by 845 votes to PBB’s Dennis Ngau.
But in the neighbouring state seat of Marudi, PKR’s candidate was thrashed by BN, which won with a 3,202 majority.
The Baram parliamentary constituency has a total of 29,042 voters according to the Election Commission’s latest statistics in November 2012.
Engan, who helped Harrison campaign in 2011, hopes to ride on the people’s growing opposition against the Baram Dam to garner support in the upcoming polls.
PR has pledged to halt the construction of mega dams.
But would his strategy work? The villagers’ response to the long boat protest organised by PKR could serve as a gauge.
On Jan 16, the organisers met in Long San, a village about six hour drive from Miri, before travelling upstream to the furthest village reachable by boat – Lio Mato, which literally means Hundred Isles in Kenyah.
Twenty-six villages that will be directly affected by the dam were invited to join the long boat convoy travelling downstream from Lio Mato to Long Lama over a period of five days.
Engan, Kallang and local activists visited the villages one-by-one to mobilise the people and collect signatures.
At the first stop on Jan 17 at Long Tungan, some 40 villagers dressed in traditional costume warmly welcomed the convoy with drums. But the same could not be said about subsequent villages like Long Semiang and Long Selaan, where few villagers were around to receive the convoy.
Most village chiefs, political appointees who receive RM450 monthly and other perks from the state, are still afraid to be associated with the opposition party and told their villagers to stay away.
Yet, a few village chiefs would openly declare their support for PKR as they pinch their hope on the party to scrap the hydropower project should it come into power.
“We have stayed here all our lives. God gave us this land. We have everything we need here. We don’t want to move,” Long Apu village head Tingang Use told the crowd when met on Jan 18.
Their villagers had lined up along the jetty to greet the protesting convoy.
At villages like Long Anap, Long San and Long Na’ah, the people disregarded their chiefs’ instruction and welcomed the convoy enthusiastically.
Shouts of “Ayen ti dam! Mangna dam! Amai manu dam!”, which means “Stop Baram Dam” in the Kenyah, Kayan and Penan language respectively, rang out as the convoy continued on its journey down the river.
Mobile and Internet coverage were non-existent until we reached Long Na’ah, the village closest to the proposed dam site.
The Kayan villagers had chased the dam surveyors away last year and erected a warning sign at the village’s entrance.
“We told them they are not welcome here and warned them not to come again,” said Enyie Eng, 67, a subsistence farmer who participated in the long boat protest.
At the end of the journey on Jan 20, over 40 long boats converged at Long Lama.
In addition, some 500 people were gathered at the town to listen to speeches by Engan and Alan Ling, the DAP assemblyperson who defeated former SUPP chief Tan Sri Dr George Chan to win the Piasau seat in Miri in 2011.
Ini kali lah?
Following the January protest, Abdul Taib flew to Long Lama last month and announced the establishment of a new township at Telang Usan.
The Chief Minister’s visit aimed to pacify rising opposition against the dam, apart from to shore up support for incumbent Baram MP Datuk Jacob Dungau Sagan ahead of elections.
Sagan, who is also the Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industries, has held the seat since 1994.
But the indigenous people in Baram have lost hectares of their customary land to logging companies over the decades.
The hydropower project, which will force them out of their ancestral homes entirely, may just prove to be the last straw that will break the camel’s back.
Many villagers I met said they tune in to Radio Free Sarawak daily from 6pm to 8pm to listen to the only traditional media outlet that dares critique the Abdul Taib government openly in Sarawak.
The state had threatened to jam the British-based radio station in January as it is fast making inroads into rural areas.
Nevertheless, Sarawak is huge and with its one million voters scattered in remote villages, the task of stopping the radio station has not yet taken place.
Engan has had to dig into his own savings to campaign in the Baram parliamentary constituency, which is as big as Pahang, the largest state in Peninsular Malaysia.
He said PKR allocates RM3,000 a month to the Baram branch but one trip to the interior could easily cost twice as much.
Despite the wealth of its natural resources, Sarawak’s infrastructure development lags far behind Peninsular Malaysia states.
It is also the third poorest state in Malaysia, after Sabah and Perlis.
A short documentary recently released by international human rights watchdog Global Witness laid bare the systemic corruption in the state and its grave implications.
Titled Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State, the 16-minutes film exposed the instruments used by certain parties to evade taxes and profit from land deals at the expense of the natives, who were described as “squatters”.
However, PKR candidates will bring the film to longhouses and broadcast it before their ceramah, as Engan would screen documentaries on Bakun whenever the convoy stops over for the night at villages.
If PKR can bring this message to its targeted constituencies, the coalition may just win enough seats in Sarawak to help them throw BN out of Putrajaya in the upcoming elections.
Sidebar: Grand development plan
THE Baram Dam is but one of four mega hydroelectric dams that the Sarawak government plans to build by 2020.
This is on top of the existing Batang Ai Dam, Bakun Dam, the largest outside China, and Murum Dam, expected to be completed this year.
The hydropower projects are part of the state government’s Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy plan, better known as SCORE, to produce cheap electricity to attract energy-intensive industries to the state.
The US$105 billion (RM318.5 billion) plan, which would generate nearly as much power as the massive Three Gorges Dam in China, aims to “transform Sarawak into a developed state by year 2020”.
It is part of a grand development plan to grow the state’s economy by a factor of five, increase jobs and double the population to 4.6 million by 2030.
However, the 2,400-megawatt Bakun Dam, located at the Rejang River, had already forced 10,000 indigenous people to be relocated in the 1990s.
The 944-megawatt Murum Dam, also located at the Rejang River, will displace another 1,500 natives from their homes.
Panai Erang, 55, is a Penan village chief who has been to the Sungai Asap settlement where the Bakun people are relocated.
The community leader from Kampung Ba Abang, Baram was dismayed to find out that the settlers were given substandard houses and infertile farmland.
Some of the Sungai Asap settlers have returned to Bakun and are living on floating houses at the dam site.
“All the Penans in Baram are against the dam. We want to remain in our ancestral land,” he said.
Erang had travelled with the protesting long boat convoy organised by PKR from Jan 16 to Jan 20 for the entire journey.
From village to village, he would urge the Kenyah and Kayan to protest the dams with their votes.
“Many Penans can’t vote because we don’t have ICs, I hope the Kenyah and Kayan people can vote for PKR so that the dam can be cancelled,” he said.
Erang said more than half of his villagers do not have birth certificates nor MyKad and only five people from his village can vote at present.
The difficulty in securing a MyKad is a long-standing sore point among the indigenous people in Sarawak.
At least 40,000 indigenous people in the state are stateless, the deputy federal regional development minister Datuk Joseph Entulu Belaun estimated in 2010.
A 27-year-old woman of Kenyah-Kayan descent from Long Pillah, Baram, told me she has travelled to Miri to apply for a MyKad last year but was asked to apply again.
“They want the village chief’s and school principal’s support letters and photos of my five siblings. But I have lost contact with them,” said the mother-of-four who declined to reveal her name.
Her siblings are either married to other villagers or working in towns like Bintulu and Kuching.
Without mobile coverage in her village and their addresses, she said she is practically left in a limbo.
Stateless indigenous youths like her are forced to remain in the village to work as caretakers or farmers.
Those who went to work in urban areas risk being arrested by the police.
Life is likely to get tougher for them if the dams are built.
Without a MyKad, it will be difficult for them to look for jobs in towns and cities.