October 11, 2012
Plight of Penans is our shame
by Himanshu Bhatt
WHILE most Malaysians, particularly those in the Peninsula, have been going on with their daily routines over the last few weeks, few may be aware or have taken any real bother for a human tragedy that is taking place in a deep remote forest of Sarawak.
Those of us who have been keeping up with news reports by the Sun’s assiduous Sarawak correspondent, Sulok Tawie, may have taken note of the immensely grave situation in the Belaga district, where the Murum dam is being built. The artificial reservoir is expected to swamp an equatorial rainforest about the size of Penang island.
Even as you read this, hundreds of men, women and children from the Penan tribe are fearlessly continuing their blockades of access roads to the project area, to prevent construction vehicles and crews from further clearing the vast forest.
The indignation that these Penans feel is not just at having their ancestral land decimated by the massive project; there is a sharp sense of insult and sheer injustice at the inadequate level of compensation they are supposed to be given to get out of the customary land they have inhabited for centuries.
There is perhaps a greater tragic irony in this affair. The RM3 billion dam is expected to be completed by next year to help fulfil the energy needs of the region. But it is located only about 70km upriver from the RM7.5 billion Bakun dam, which was said to have swamped natural forests the size of Singapore, and which started transmitting power since August last year.
When it was being planned, the highly controversial Bakun was touted to be necessary to meet the electricity demands of not just East Malaysia, but also of the Peninsula.
Surely Malaysians, whether in Borneo or the Peninsula, would be interested to ask why a dam such as Murum is now being built, and so close to Bakun, after the gigantic Bakun itself was supposed to have provided for much of the electricity consumption of the whole country.
To make the projects even more questionable, plans are now also afoot to build a dam along the mighty Baram river, some 250km from Miri. This RM4 billion proposed project would affect more than 20,000 natives, mostly of the Kayan and Kenyah communities.
There is a poignant human dimension in this whole affair that has been neglected – particularly by much of the peninsula-based media and citizenry. In fact, there seems to be a shameless sense of nonchalance and apathy towards what is happening to the natives in Sarawak.
Almost a month after Malaysia Day – which was only recently observed to celebrate the union of Peninsular Malaysia with the Borneo-based states of Sarawak and Sabah – we see a glaring degree of insensitivity by those on the peninsula towards the stinging humanitarian incidents occurring in Sarawak.
This is despite the sufferings of the Penans, and many other natives of Sarawak, having long been documented and reported by environmental and human rights circles.
What is occurring in Murum and Baram only echoes the suffering that numerous Penans and others went through since the 90s when they were forced out of the Bakun forests. It echoes the gruesome reports of rape of Penan women by outsiders working in interior areas where perpetrators escape detection and punishment from the law.
In fact, such indifference among Peninsula folks as they nonchalantly go about their lives here, is symptomatic of the highly detached view urban Malaysians generally have towards the plight of the indigent and vulnerable communities in the country, especially in rural areas.
There are several layers of tragedy that this affair has shown – the ruthlessness of modern development, the coldness of the authorities, and the indifference of the rest of society. All these are now painfully reflected off the angry glaze of determination set on the eyes of the Penan people in Murum, as they continue their defiant stand on a few unknown dusty roads, to protect the only motherland they have ever known.
The writer is theSun’s news editor. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org