Thursday, 10 December 2009

S'wak minister draws flak over Penan

S'wak minister draws flak over Penan

Keruah Usit
Dec 9, 09

The Antidote Sarawak Land Minister James Masing has come under fire for his scornful dismissal of claims that Penan girls and women have been sexually abused by employees of logging companies.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4's flagship Today programme, broadcast on Dec 7, Masing said: “I think this is where we get confused. I think... the Penan are a most interesting group of people and they operate on different social etiquette as us... a lot this sex by consensual sex.”

BBC correspondent Angus Stickler then quoted Mary, a young Penan teenager, as saying that she had been dragged from her room, beaten unconscious and raped, after she had hitched a ride to school on a logging truck.

A federal government task force had confirmed in a report on Sept 9 that girls as young as 10 had been raped by loggers. Like Mary, some have borne children as a result of rape.

Masing, however, told the BBC: "They change their stories, and when they feel like it. That's why I say Penan are very good storytellers."

His remark is typical of the Sarawak government response. The official line has been to deny the rape of Penan girls and women by loggers, and to smear the Penan as primitive and promiscuous liars, while declaring that logging is a form of development.

The Sarawak government has asserted that logging brings roads, even if they are poorly maintained, to remote native Dayak communities.

However, the same roads have led to numerous reports of sexual assault on local Dayak, including Penan, girls, by logging company drivers and employees.

Masing's slur of “changing stories” may be a reference to the police report lodged by a Penan rape survivor, 'Bibi', who withdraw her allegation.

But the Penan Support Group (PSG), a civil society coalition, pointed out her alleged rapist, Ah Heng (called 'Johnny' in the task force report) had escorted her to make the retraction. It said Ah Heng threatened and intimidated her into changing her story.

The PSG have criticised the police for closing their investigation into the sexual abuse, although the police had a representative in the task force.

The Bruno Manser Foundation (BMF), a NGO based in Switzerland that works for the Penan in Sarawak, has called on Masing to issue an apology.

The BMF had highlighted the sexual abuse of Penan by loggers last year. This sparked ocal media coverage and led eventually to the high-level task force investigation.

Masing's changing story

Masing is unlikely to comply with any request to apologise. He is a leader of the Dayak-based Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), a splinter group from the Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS).

The PBDS nearly took over the Sarawak government in 1987 from Abdul Taib Mahmud, the most tenacious chief minister in the history of Malaysia.

Masing was PBDS vice-president and a stalwart of the opposition against Taib's leadership of the state Barisan Nasional (BN) at the time. With a doctorate in anthropology, Masing was one of the most articulate political voices expressing the anger of the majority Dayaks, over the loss of their land to logging and plantation companies.

Following a crushing PBDS defeat in state elections in 1991, the party was broken and returned to the state BN. Masing was instrumental in dismantling the PBDS. He set up the PRS in 2003, claiming to represent Dayak people in the state BN.

Since then, he has been vilified by the Dayak communities fighting for their customary land rights all over Sarawak. The Penan, numbering some 15,000, are one of the ethnic groups included under the Dayak umbrella.

Masing is a highly qualified anthropologist. He understands the false dichotomy between 'them' and 'us'. He has been trained in the cultural sensitivity required of all ethnographers and, as such, should serve as a Dayak spokesman for the Sarawak government.

Instead, he has become a vociferous defender of the Sarawak government's abysmal record of deprivation of the Dayaks' native customary rights (NCR) to land. He has transformed into the nemesis of his previous identity as a proponent of Dayak rights.

Sarawak's political rivalries have thrown up public announcements and graphic descriptions of how its ministers allocate timber licences to family members and friends. They in turn lease the licences to loggers to extract timber. The logging companies - and their benefactors - have grown fabulously rich from their concessions.

Under the Sarawak Land Code 1958, natives are entitled to claim land they have used under customary law or adat. The Federal Court has affirmed the natives' customary claims in celebrated landmark decisions such as Nor Nyawai vs Borneo Pulp Plantation Sdn Bhd, and Madeli Salleh vs the Government of Sarawak.

Regardless of court decisions, the logging companies, oil palm plantations and hydro-electric dam construction corporations have bulldozed these NCR claims aside. The state government claims all land without title is state land, even if NCR claims are pending.

Frustrated by the failure of the law to protect their communal farms and forests - and with landmark court cases ignored by the executive - Dayak communities have set up many blockades against the logging and oil palm companies.

Yet Masing continues to deny the widespread hardship among rural Dayak. He was disparaging about the Dayaks who fought for their land rights.

“You're looking at state land. That land belongs to the government,” he told the BBC.

“But you cannot condone people who are squatters who are in areas where they should not be. If it is indeed their land, the law of the land will take care of that.”

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia. His 'The Antidote' column, which appears in Malaysiakini every Wednesday, is an attempt to allow the voices of marginalised people to be heard all over Malaysia.