By HILARY CHIEW
Pictures by SIA HONG KIAU
Teenage schoolgirls have become the latest target of unscrupulous timber workers.
BLOCKADES have sprung up again in middle Baram in the midst of the padi planting season in interior Sarawak.
Several Penan communities have abandoned the padi fields to put up symbolic barricades - flimsy wooden gates across logging roads - to stop encroachment into the last stretch of remaining ancestral forest in a region that has seen extensive logging over the last 25 years.
The once-nomadic tribe, noted for their unwavering rejection of logging on their territory and synonymous with blockades since the late 1980s, is fighting a losing battle against the Government-backed timber industry.
Yet another sinister threat has crept into the remote communities - Penan women, especially the young ones, are preyed on by workers from logging companies.
About three weeks ago, a media release by non-governmental organisation Bruno Manser Foundation (BMF) brought to light a long-held concern - the sexual abuse of Penan women.
The Swiss group charged that workers from two timber companies were preying on Penan women in the various settlements within the companies’ operation areas, and targeting female students who relied on the companies’ transportation service to get to school.
Students from middle Baram are boarders in secondary schools in the interior towns of Long Lama and Long San, which could take up to a week to travel on foot from their villages. The Baram district in Miri division is almost as big as the state of Perak.
The allegations were flatly denied by Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Alfred Jabu who dismissed the NGO’s claims as baseless. Jabu, who is also Rural Development Minister, challenged BMF to name the villages otherwise “it would be a waste of time to investigate”.
Largely ignorant of their rights and not well-versed in criminal law, the Penans have long suffered the transgression against their womenfolk in silence.
The problem is further compounded by stigmatisation associated with rape in the predominantly Christian communities.
A visit to several villages reveals the prevalence of sexual abuse since the advent of commercial logging. Village leaders who readily air their grouses of hardship brought by logging are hesitant to talk about the sexual exploitation by workers from nearby logging camps.
Nonetheless, at Long Pakan, Bulan Laing, a female elder claims that violation of the women began around 1996 when a Miri-based logging company arrived.
“There have been three pregnancies so far; the last one was in 2006. In one case, the woman married the Indonesian worker who violated her but was later divorced after she was sexually abused by another worker,” recalls Bulan.
Asked if the cases were reported to the police, Bulan appears not to know that rape is a criminal offence.
“We complained to the camp manager. He assured us that they would take action against their men but we’re still suffering.”
Her husband, headman Pada Jutang, says: “We’ve lost hope in the police taking any action. So we stopped going to them.”
The village’s nearest neighbour, Long Item - two hours’ drive away - faces a similar predicament. Headman Balan Jon reveals the modus operandi of unscrupulous timber workers.
He says the workers come to the village in small groups of not more than five, either on motorcycle or by company vehicle, with alcoholic drinks and entice the young men to join them for drinking binges at night.
“They become bold after several drinks and will coax our boys to bring them to houses with young women or girls.
“Or they bring along instant noodles and persuade the victims to cook them a meal on the pretext that they have not yet had dinner. They then hang around and wait for the chance to strike after other occupants of the house turn in for the night,” adds Balan.
Bulan explains that young Penan men are curious about “anything from the cities” and are easily influenced despite advice by village leaders to be wary of these outsiders. She also suspects that the victims could have been drugged.
Balan laments that complaints to the company’s managers on the ground are not taken seriously.
“There are always new workers showing up. They are also good at covering their tracks and the camp manager refuses to investigate or take action,” he says dejectedly. Like Pada, Balan says he has given up on the police.
Further north in the Apoh region, Long Belok’s headman Alah Beling recalls no less than four cases of sexual violation. The latest incident resulted in a baby born last December. He reckons that the known numbers could just be the tip of the iceberg. Victims who do not end up with unwanted pregnancies may choose to remain silent to hide their shame.
It appears that schoolgirls are the latest to be preyed upon, according to villagers at Long Kawi, next to Long Item. They complain that timber workers come to the village during the day to identify the young girls and return later at night to carry out their plans. The harassment gets worse during the school holidays when the girls are around.
But the latest revelation of female students being made to stay overnight in logging camps, thus exposing them to sexual abuse, has plunged the Penan community into despair.
The Penans have abandoned their nomadic lifestyle so that their young ones could get an education and have a better life.
“If we don’t send our children to school, we are blamed. But providing them transportation is beyond our ability. We are at the mercy of the timber companies. We’ve to beg them to ferry our children to the secondary schools which are far away.
“I walk my younger children to Long Kevok (a four-hour drive away) to attend primary school. This problem was discussed at the school’s parent-teacher association meetings a few years ago. The school asked us to get help from the Government. There were promises but we’re still waiting,” says Galang Jutang, Pada’s younger brother.
Principal of SMK Long Lama, Ng Cheng Soo, acknowledges that transportation remains a huge problem for Penan students who make up about 12% of the 945 pupils.
“We put in a proposal for a transport allocation in 2006 to the Resident Office in Miri,” says Ng. Resident Ose Murang could not be reached for comment on the status of the proposal.
Ng adds that Penan students are catching up in their studies as shown by their better examination results and lower dropout rates.
“We hold special remedial classes and show them that we care for them. They appreciate it and they like coming to school. Penan kids are the first to volunteer for any gotong-royong events,” Ng says, adding that being rather timid, Penan students are easily bullied.
Instances of students trekking in the jungle for days to get to school and even missing major examinations when company transportation fails to materialise, are common. Hitching a ride by the side of dusty logging roads makes teenage girls especially vulnerable.
Following recent publicity of the alleged sexual abuse of Penan women in the local media, Sarawak Police Commissioner Datuk Mohmad Salleh says the force needs a police report to be lodged to facilitate investigations.
Dismayed by the police response, the Women’s Centre for Change pointed out that according to the Child Act 2001, the authorities must take action if they suspect child sexual abuse has taken place. Under the Act, anyone below the age of 18 is a child.
The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and the Human Rights Commission have announced that they will investigate the claims.