The Sarawak government is currently trying to engineer major changes in the leadership of the Penan communities in the Upper Baram region of the East Malaysian State on Borneo. In an attempt to break the resistance to logging in Sarawak's last primeval rainforests, the authorities have ceased to recognise community leaders' posts in a number of communities.
According to community reports, a government official recently announced to an assembly of Penan representatives from the Upper Baram that their leaders were no longer officially recognized. As a consequence, the government stopped paying the Penan leaders their monthly headman's allowance of 450 Malaysian Ringgit (130 US$).
At Long Benali, a community that has successfully prevented timber group Samling from entering their Native Customary Rights land through blockades and a media campaign, headman Saund Bujang has been deposed. Currently, the government is trying to install a Samling stakeholder in his place.
At Long Sait, a Penan community on the River Selungo, headman Bilong Oyoi, who has always been outspoken against logging in the area, received a letter from the government which stated that he had been deposed. Bilong is one of the leading plaintiffs in a Penan land rights claim that has been pending since 1998.
Another plaintiff in this same case, the late Kelesau Naan, former headman of Long Kerong, disappeared near his paddy fields in October 2007. Two months later, he was found dead; the Penan suspect that he was murdered. The Long Kerong community has since elected a new headman, the former deputy headman Tirong Lawing. As the government has refused to recognize Tirong up until now, the community has no official headman.
The community of Long Lamai, which filed land rights litigation against Samling and the Sarawak State government in April 2007, does not have an official headman either. The former long-term headman, Belare Jabu, died in May 2007. His son Wilson Belare, the newly-elected community representative, has not yet been recognized by the Sarawak authorities.
"We protest against these violations of our right to elect our own leaders", a Penan representative from the Upper Baram region said. "Despite all these attempts to undermine our leadership, the communities in the Upper Baram stand firmly behind their elected leaders."
The non-recognition of the elected community headmen by the Sarawak State Government is a clear violation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration, which has been adopted by Malaysia, upholds in its article 18 the right of indigenous communities "to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures".
(9 September 2008) Bruno Manser Funds News