KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian police said Wednesday they had dismantled blockades constructed in the Borneo jungles by Penan tribespeople protesting against logging and plantations on their ancestral land.
In a separate move police also arrested 17 people, including Penan and other indigenous groups, for mounting a demonstration against a proposed dam in Sarawak state on Malaysian Borneo which will force mass relocations.
On August 20, hundreds of Penan armed with spears and blowpipes set up blockades in three locations in the Borneo interior, escalating their campaign against the destruction of their rainforest home.
Jonathan Jalin, police chief in Marudi which administers the area, confirmed all three blockades had been removed.
"We did not use any force. There was no resistance. We had negotiations with the locals. I intend to place some policemen at the blockade site for a few days to ensure security," he told AFP.
Penan chiefs say that after enduring decades of logging which has decimated the jungles they rely on for food and shelter, they now face the new threat of plantations which will destroy forest resources and pollute the rivers.
Indigenous rights lawyer Harrison Ngau said the Penan would pursue their campaign despite the tearing-down of the blockades, because their grievances had still not been addressed.
"Definitely the blockades will be put back in time to come, whether now or later. Because where will the Penan live in the future if their land is already licensed out?" he told AFP.
"There has been no progress at all on the Penan demands, particularly the issue that their ancestral land has been leased or licensed out by the government to different companies. That is their main grievance."
In the Sarawak capital Kuching, a police official said at least 17 people were arrested outside the offices of chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud after attempting to hand him a petition against the proposed Murum dam.
Activist groups say the Murum dam, one of a dozen mega-dam projects planned for Sarawak which lies on Malaysia's half of Borneo island, will see 1,000 Penan and 100 Kenyah forced to move.
Those arrested included rights activists as well as representatives of the Penan, Kayan, Kenyan and Iban indigenous people.
"We came here to submit a memorandum to the chief minister, asking the government to halt the building of the Murum dam," said Raymond Abin from the Sarawak Conservation Action Network, who was one of those arrested.
"We want them to stop all dam projects and stop any forced relocation of indigenous people from their ancestral land," he told AFP from police custody.
Abin said the group spent four hours outside the chief minister's office, refusing to leave until he or one of his staff received the memo.
"They were arrested for illegal assembly after they refused a police order to disperse," said Sarawak Rural Development Minister James Masing.
"That's the law of the land. I believe they will be released soon," he told AFP.
There are at least 10,000 Penan in Sarawak, but their way of life is under threat from extensive logging of their traditional hunting grounds, as well as the spread of palm oil and timber plantations.
A high-level Malaysian investigation last week also confirmed allegations that women and young girls from the Penan tribe in Borneo have been sexually abused by workers from jungle logging camps.