How bad is the situation with plantation workers and girls and young boys, in remote areas which are not easily accessible and isolated, wonders Carol Yong.
I’ve come across numerous cases of domestic violence, spousal abuse and child sexual abuse, and these continue to be highlighted in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of these cases seem to be happening in urban settings and areas. This makes it all the more important that the voices of abused women and children should be heard.
However, the more remote the communities are, the greater the difficulty for them to receive attention, thereby making them even more vulnerable.
Recently, cases of alleged rape of women workers in oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia were exposed by an international new agency. The report noted: “These are the invisible women of the palm oil industry, among the millions of daughters, mothers and grandmothers who toil on vast plantations across Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, which together produce 85 percent of the world’s most versatile vegetable oil.”
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Both these countries are world leaders in the oil palm industry. Many plantation projects undertaken by both government and private plantation companies have often been accused of numerous human rights violations. NGOs, researchers, journalists and others have conducted investigations into oil palm plantations, looking especially at how they have jeopardised affected indigenous and local peoples’ lives.
The typical reaction and defence offered from those at the top in the ministry and its agencies responsible for plantation development is that NGOs, particularly those in the West, are biased and therefore paint Malaysia’s palm oil industry in a bad light.
Hence, when the above alleged rape cases were exposed, the Malaysian government said it had received no reports about rapes on plantations. Meanwhile, Indonesia acknowledged physical and sexual abuse appears to be a growing problem, with most victims afraid to speak out.
In addition, the head of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA), a government-supported umbrella group, called the allegations against the industry unwarranted: “All of them are not true … There may be violations by some, but definitely it is isolated and not from our members’ plantations.”
Perhaps a saving grace is that a top officer in the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) issued a statement calling for the authors of the report to immediately cooperate with Malaysian authorities or through an appropriate independent non-governmental association to share the evidence so these allegations could be thoroughly investigated.
This call is commendable and investigations are urgently needed. The perpetrators of these obnoxious crimes should be caught and duly punished.
Still, my inquisitive mind cannot help but ponder a longstanding problem between Malaysia and one of its key export market, the EU. The Malaysian government at state and federal levels and big oil palm companies have been facing a public relations problem with selling palm oil to developed countries, in particular Europe.
The European Parliament’s decision on 17 January 2018 to phase out palm oil from biofuels by 2021 accentuated Malaysia’s tensions with the EU, adding pressure to Malaysia to make sure the EU ban would be dropped.
If we follow the developments on the trade deals between Malaysia and the EU on issues pertaining to palm oil, this position is inverse to the “lashing of the bad anti-palm oil NGOs”.
So, is winning support from Malaysia’s business partners (palm oil buyers) – especially in developed nations which want increased certainty and ‘zero tolerance’ for human rights violations on trade rules – a factor that spurs the oil palm council to be more willing to investigate the allegations of rape of women in the plantations, almost as soon as the news was publicised?
I am reminded of the cases of the Penan and other remote communities in the remote rainforests of Sarawak – if they can still be called rainforests after decades of massive logging there!
Disturbing reports alleging the rape and sexual abuse of Penan women and girls by workers from two big logging companies operating in Sarawak’s Middle Baram region were highlighted in September 2008. The two companies denied the allegations.
In contrast to these cases of rape of women workers in the plantations, where at least there was a swift call for an investigation, in the Penan case, both the Sarawak state and federal governments remained mute.
It was only following an unprecedented public outcry that the federal (then Barisan Nasional-Umno) was pressured to investigate the situation. A high-level national taskforce conducted an inquiry into Baram on 10-15 November 2008, and 10 months later, they released a summary report of the findings to the wider public.
So, sexual violence including rape and exploitation of Penan women and girls in Middle and Ulu Baram, Sarawak, was happening over many, many years, but after the investigation, there was no further action.
Dissatisfied with the federal government’s post-taskforce results, several NGOs carried out a more comprehensive fact-finding mission, led by the Penan Support Group, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), and the Asian Indigenous Women’s Network. (See the full NGO investigation report, “A Wider Context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls in Middle and Ulu Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia“, 2010, Suaram Komunikasi, Selangor)
The view of the MPOC CEO that the recent rape allegations are very serious “as they are criminal in nature” and have to be subjected to Malaysia’s criminal code of justice ought to be supported.
At the same time, taking the lesson of the Penan cases, it will be a sheer waste of time and money if it is an “investigation” for show onlywithout the genuine political will needed to follow up with concrete action to remedy the problems faced by plantation workers.
The question continues to linger in my mind: how bad is the situation with those women and girls, and possibly also young boys, in remote areas which are not easily accessible and isolated? It is not difficult to imagine that they have little or no avenues to reach for help if or when they are raped, abused or attacked.
Yes, indeed, they could be screaming for help – but will anyone hear them?
Carol Yong is an activist and independent writer