Endemic scourge

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From the testimonies gathered from the victims, family members and their fellow tribe members, it does seem that sexual violence against the Penan has taken on a life of its own, reports Hilary Chiew.


It is systematic and endemic, screamed the ‘A Wider context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls in Middle and Ulu Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia’ report.

Indeed, from the testimonies gathered from the victims, family members and their fellow tribe members, it does seem that sexual violence against the Penans has taken on a life of its own and the ‘monster’ has grown over the years.

This ‘monster’ firmly established itself with both Federal and state governments, and enforcement authorities that continue to turn a deaf ear to the cry for help from those remote and isolated settlements.

The Penan Support Group, Forum Asia and Asian Indigenous Women’s Network (PSG et al) findings released last week, again showed the vulnerability and long suffering of the Penan’s fairer sex in the vast logging frontier of the Baram district in Sarawak. The district is as vast as the state of Perak.

The report from a fact-finding mission conducted in November 2009 followed an alert issued by the Bruno Manser Fund in September 2008. The issue gained national attention after a national English daily, The Star, published interviews with three of the victims identified by BMF in October 2008.

Subsequently, two of the victims lodged police reports with the sexual crimes division of Bukit Aman.

One of them, ‘Bibi’ has since retracted her statement and claimed that she was ‘duped’ by NGOs into filing the case. According to a Sarawak press report, she also implied that the NGOs disguised as members of the media in obtaining and publishing her confession.

Sarawak police have warned to take stern action against those who manipulated the victim as well as the victim herself if it is found that she was lying. However, until this day, no one knows what the outcome was.

Interestingly, and this has been pointed out by others who followed the development of the issue, the police don’t seem bothered by the fact that the so-called husband of ‘Bibi’, a logging company worker, known as Ah Hing, who accompanied her to the police station, is a polygamist, an offence for non-Muslims in this country.

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It is disheartening to learn that the other victim was pressured to do the same as ‘Bibi’ by her alleged perpetrator in the company of the police, according to land rights activist Muhin Urip in an interview with Malaysiakini suggesting an attempt to cover up the hideous crime instead of thoroughly investigating the allegations of rape professionally. Looks like the police have a lot to answer to.

Denial syndrome

Apart from producing a report, which it refused to make public despite its initial promise but was forced to do so due to political pressure, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development has basically sat on its hands and done nothing.

Ministers like Jabu and James Masing (Land Development Ministry) showed their disdain by labelling the Penans as ‘stooges of foreign NGOs’ and ‘good storytellers’.

Nevertheless, the taskforce’s report admitted that sexual exploitation of the Penan womenfolk is indeed happening. Even then, the state government disputed it and questioned the reliability of the taskforce simply because it consisted of women rights NGO representatives. Never mind that more than two-third of the taskforce members consisted of civil servants including from the state’s own women’s affairs department.

The PSG et al effort was initially mooted as a form of assistance to the police to gain access to the victims who had understandably lost confidence in the professionalism and impartiality of the force which over the decades was seen to be taking the side of the logging companies in oppressing the people who are defending their land rights.

The excuse given by the police for failing to follow through on this initiative which it eagerly embarked on between late 2008 and early 2009 following a public outcry and the police reports filed by the two alleged victims is common knowledge now. And highly unpalatable to many sound-thinking Malaysians.

Hollow rhetoric

Eighteen months later and yet another report – this time more comprehensive and argued objectively in the context of a socio-economic development model that has further disempowered and impoverished the forest-dependent communities – and the authorities’ reactions remain unchanged.

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Sarawak deputy chief minister Alfred Jabu who is in charge of Penan affairs dismissed the report as an act of sabotage against the state’s progress and said the Penan are manipulated by foreign NGOs in his trademark rebuttal on anything to do with Penan. The state police chief Mohmad Salleh accused the PSG et al of politicising the issue and bent on shaming the police.

But as more such reports surfaced, such rhetoric is sounding like a hollow, broken record.

Indeed, acknowledging the deep distrust of the Penan towards the authorities, PSG et al has again offered to work together. The report called for state and federal authorities and all stakeholders (logging and plantation companies) to fundamentally change their attitude and approach.

The group, in my opinion, certainly has an open agenda as it claimed. It certainly did not wish for the endemism to worsen as it wrote: “Or are we simply looking at another report such as this one, in five years’ time, ten years’ time, documenting the same abuses, the same deterioration, the same violence?”

Only way to test the sincerity of the NGOs is for the authorities to take up the challenge and work with them.

Thorn in the flesh

To understand the Penan’s disillusion with the state government and its apparatuses and in turn the shabby treatment that they are receiving, one has to understand the history of their protracted struggle.

The Penan’s continued resistance against encroachment by logging companies and in more recent time, plantation companies, had made them enemy No. 1 of Taib Mahmud’s regime. The state government particularly resents the international attention that the Penan continue to enjoy despite the ill-fated international campaign to save the Borneo rainforests in the late 1980s.

Ministers like Jabu and James Masing (Land Development Ministry) showed their disdain by labelling the Penans as ‘stooges of foreign NGOs’ and ‘good storytellers’.

The contempt towards the Penas goes back a long way; since the advent of industrial logging in Sarawak from the 1970s. Known for erecting blockade to stop trucks from ferrying felled timber in what they claimed as their ancestral forests, the Penan, often seen as the underdog, eventually caught the eye and sympathy of Western rainforests campaigners.

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The peaceful blockaders quickly became the poster boy of the largely Western-led campaign. However, after a compelling argument from then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed that these westerners should instead focus on their own governments and societies that are the market forces for the cheap timber from the Penan heartlands, the campaign fizzled out.

The result was the birth of timber certification schemes such as the Forest Stewardship Council and our own government-backed Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme. However, the success of the MTCS in ensuring legality and sustainability, two key criteria of any timber certification scheme, continue to be questioned at the international marketplace largely due to pressure from local and foreign NGOs.

For example, the Malaysian Forest NGOs and Indigenous Peoples’ Network had denounced the MTCS for failure to respect indigenous land rights in its quest to promote Malaysian timber abroad.

These days, blockades have taken on a more urgent note as the Penans as well as other Orang Ulu tribes like Kenyah, Kayan and Lun Bawang are faced not only with degradation of their forests but a complete uprooting of their ancestral domain only to be replaced with oil palm and mono-species timber tree cultivation.

As a signatory of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the Malaysia government has the obligation to ensure that the cultural identity of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak that is shaped and connected to the forest is preserved.

Article 8.2 of UNDRIP dictates that States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for: (a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities.

Let’s hope that when Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak visits the Penan, these commitments are not forgotten.

In the interest of transparency, the writer wishes to inform that she was the Star’s journalist who verified the BMF’s alert by obtaining first-hand information from the alleged victims.

Hilary Chiew is a socio-environmental researcher and freelance writer based in Kuala Lumpur.

This article first appeared at http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/fmt-english/opinion/comment/7874-endemic-scourge

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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