Friday, 3 July 2009

Greens denounce 'Knight of the Chainsaw'

July 01, 2009 The Star, Malaysia

Environmental groups are demanding that the Queen withdraw the award of a knighthood to a Malaysian tycoon accused of making his fortune from the illegal destruction of huge areas of tropical rainforest.

The announcement of the honour for Tiong Hiew King, billionaire chairman of the Rimbunan Hijau conglomerate, comes just six weeks after Prince Charles launched an internet initiative to preserve the world’s dwindling rainforests and prevent “catastrophic climate change”.

To add to the embarrassment, Mr Tiong has been calling himself “Sir” Hiew King although, as the recipient of an honorary, rather than a full, knighthood, he is not entitled to use this style.

“Tiong Hiew King is commonly known to be one of the chief people responsible for widespread illegal logging in both Papua New Guinea and other countries,” said Lukas Straumann of the Bruno Manser Foundation, which campaigns for the indigenous inhabitants of the rainforests. “He is unfit for a knighthood and we call upon the Queen to deprive him of this honour.”

Mr Tiong, 71, was rated by Forbes magazine as the 20th richest man in south-east Asia with a net worth of US dollars 1.1 billion in oil palm plantations, information technology, hotels and travel and newspapers in thirteen countries, including China, Indonesia and Russia,. But his biggest business is the one with which he founded his conglomerate in 1975 - logging tropical timber.

His conglomerate, the Rimbunan Hijau Group, has repeatedly been accused by environmental groups of trampling on the rights of indigenous people and breaking local laws. But its companies have collectively become the biggest extractor of tropical timber from the Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea, one of the most remote and corrupt countries in the world.

According to a report by the World Bank in 2006, as much as 70 per cent of logging in PNG is carried out illegally. In 2000, an independent review commissioned by the PNG government of some of Rimbunan Hijau’s operations concluded that several of them had been awarded illegally.

In 2004, another PNG government report cited allegations of violence by police controlled by logging companies, including Mr Tiong’s, and said that the company’s treatment of its employees “reflects exploitation and slavery and should be condemned at all levels”.

In the same year, a former PNG police officer claimed that he had been paid by Rimbunan Hijau to intimidate local people who attempted to defend their land rights. He told the Australian television station SBS: “We bashed them up, we hit them with huge irons, and when we mobilised in there we made sure that these people who complain against the rights of their benefits were manhandled.”

According to his opponents, Mr Tiong’s business activities are helped by his intimate connections with politicians in PNG as well as his native Malaysia. Both he and one of his sons have served as senators in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, where he lives.

“Rimbunan Hijau [is] involved in significant forest crime.” a Greenpeace report concluded. “It is destructively logging vast areas of ancient forest in defiance of national laws … It is causing large-scale environmental damage and increasing the poverty of local people under the protection of political elites.”

None of this prevented Mr Tiong from being awarded the honorary title Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the Birthday Honours List on the recommendation of the government of PNG. Tiong family companies, as well as newspapers owned by the conglomerate, have referred to him as “Sir Tiong Hiew King” – but according to protocol, as an honorary knight, is only entitles to put the letters KBE after his name.

“Two years ago, Greenpeace awarded Tiong’s company a ‘Golden Chainsaw Award’ for thirty years of forest plunder,” said Stephen Campbell of Greenpeace. “This is the only award he deserves.”