Fifty Years Of Native Abuse In Sarawak Must End

Once again conflict has arisen in the Baram region of Sarawak, owing to aggressive logging unwanted by the native community. The events form part of a familiar pattern involving the railroading of native rights, exploitation and intimidation by those in positions of power.

At the start of last week, the Penan community in Ba Abang, who number around 300 people, put up a blockade to prevent the company GT Interhill from continuing to encroach into their area where the loggers have apparently obtained a permit to operate (of which more below).

The next day the General Manager of the company turned up with his heavies who threatened the villagers and dismantled the blockade, claiming that the local state assemblyman, Dennis Ngau, had personally ordered its removal.

The community responded by lodging a police report in Miri and have turned to leading lawyers from the opposition to help them. The case has been taken up by Sarawak’s PKR leader, Roland Engan, who has proceeded to file for a judicial review over of the granting of the license and the irregular appointment of a new headman to agree on behalf of the community.

The folk from Ba Abang have also vowed to rebuild their blockade to resist the logging  which is destroying the forest area which they depend upon for their survival.

However, if the experience of the past 50 years is anything to go by, with all the power, financial muscle, regulations and legal processes stacked against the native community, matters will be decided in favour of the local assemblyman and his friendly logging company.

Only if the newly elected federal government (now at last led by PKR) intervenes, to enforce the law and counter the corrupt practices that have become the local standard in Sarawak, will the people of Ba Abang have a hope of keeping the timber raiders out.

Railroading Native Rights

Speaking to the civil rights platform RFS (Radio Free Sarawak) and to Sarawak Report villagers of Ba Abang have complained how the situation they face has been driven through by their local YB (state assemblyman) Denis Ngau who clings on to his seat with a tenuous majority.

Ngau’s claim to represent the community (they say he has not visited the area since this dispute arose) is already open to question, given that around half the villagers have yet to receive their most basic right to an identity card which enables access to health, education, travel …. and, of course, voting rights.

Indigenous communities across the state have been marginalised in this way for the last half century in order to assist the logging interests and their representatives in the state parliament. It is high time the federal authorities exercised pressure on Sarawak to recognise its native people in accordance with the law and to register the people of Ba Abang and elsewhere.

Villagers say that the pressure to open up their lands to GT Interhill began in 2020 when YB Denis Ngau started to pressure their then headman, Panai Erang, to allow the company to start logging as it had apparently been awarded a license to do so.

On behalf his his community, however, Panai Erang consistently rejected the proposal and barred the loggers entry.

Update: Following this article RFS obtained a brief interview with Ngau who rejected the suggestion that he should engage with his constituents on this matter, which he claims to know nothing about. He told RFS that the timber license was issued by the government and villagers can obtain information from the District Officer. The failure by the company to consult the community (let alone gain consent) in order to fulfil the obligations to achieve the license was not something he was prepared to discuss. 

This raises two important concerns. Firstly, how was such a license awarded without due warning and consultation with the community (who are overwhelmingly against the logging) as is required by law?

Secondly, why does the state of Sarawak continue to treat what ought to be open land registries as if they are state secrets? Not only are licences and concessions negotiated behind closed doors instead of being properly tendered, but they are then kept hidden. As one native rights activist explains:

We try to keep an eye on the timber and plantation concessions that have been handed out so we can warn people who will be affected. But these are not published so we don’t know who has been awarded licenses to operate on native lands until they start to put pressure.

Headman role awarded to an unelected outsider friendly to the loggers

Headman role awarded to an unelected outsider, Arun Nyaling, friendly to the loggers

Panai Erang has long represented his people and had been looking to receive an official recognition of his headman status from the DO’s office in Miri – a position that comes with a salary.

He had been due to pick up the letter of appointment (Sijil) in 2020, however the pandemic had intervened.

The YB meanwhile continued to pressure the community through the Covid pandemic, during which logging was one of the few economic activities allowed to continue without restriction, say local people. Panai Erang remained steadfast that he wanted to keep the loggers out.

Mid-2021 villagers observed that a gang originating from a nearby settlement was illegally logging protected Belian trees from their forest and reported them to the Forestry Commission. Dozens of the valuable and endangered trees which take decades to grow had been stolen, they say, in collaboration with buyers from the town who came in to collect the booty.

The same villagers accuse a young man, Arun Nyaling, of being behind this activity and complain that although the logging was stopped no action was taken against the perpetrators. To the contrary Arun, who had moved to Ba Abang, was suddenly announced to be the new headman of the village.

In February 2022 it was he who was awarded the Sijil of appointment as headman at the DO’s office in Miri, in a ceremony attended by YB Denis Ngau but none of the village leaders who were not consulted.

Arun Nyaling

Arun Nyaling (centre) appointed headman in Miri without the consent of the community – YB Denis Ngau stands behind him (4th right)

A letter approving his appointment was produced that had allegedly been signed by the regional Pengulu (as is required).  However, Pengulu Ajang Keaw has subsequently disowned that letter saying that the appointment was not knowingly signed of by him, say the protestors from Ba Abang.

Arun Nyaling (left) in new role

Arun Nyaling (left) in new role

After all, it is Panai Erang who has the support of this community and Arun Nyaling is by strict  custom barred from the position in that he is not even a native of that village.

The reason for the appointment was soon clear because while Panai Erang had continued to resist the loggers on behalf of his community, Arun Nyaling soon welcomed them in.

The villagers allege that he is in the pay of the loggers, certainly he does not have the consent of the majority to represent them.

The PKR lawyers say this appointment was therefore legally flawed and they have filed for a judicial review. They also say the new headman has no authority to welcome the loggers on behalf of a community, who wish them gone, but this is exactly how Sarawak has been destroyed, piece by giant piece, over the past few decades.

Update: YB Denis Ngau also told RFS that he had no hand in the selection and appointment of the youthful Arun Nyaling despite his rejection by the majority of the community. He said the appointment had been made by ‘the state government’.

After ripping down the blockade last week the logging company officials, accompanied by men on motorbikes drove to the village where they were video’d shouting at the local people who had put up the barrier against them.

Arun Nyaling stands with the angry company men as they berate the village folk over the blockade

Arun Nyaling (centre) stands with the angry company men as they berate the village folk over the blockade

Seen at their side in that recording and joining in the attack was the new ‘headman’, supposedly appointed to represent the villagers. In fact, he has acted as an aid instead to the logging company and claims the support of Denis Ngau, the ‘elected representative’ to the state parliament for the area, whom so many in the community have had no opportunity to vote against owing to their deliberate disenfranchisement.

This is the scandal that plagues Sarawak and has allowed its precious lands to be stripped bare by greedy scavengers backed by their political cronies who run the state.

This time action must be taken to uphold the law and uphold the rights of the indigenous people of Malaysia who have been deprived of all the benefits that the wealth of their lands has provided to so many of Malaysia’s newer arrivals, such as health and education and the right to choose their own representatives.