Subject: Sharing and learning from past experiences
In 1987, I was working with the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) (environmental organisation) Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) based in Marudi, Baram and it was at our office there that the Penans came to lodge the same complaints that they were making today which forced them to set up their blockades then, which complaints concerned the blatant disrespect for their rights over their lands and forests, the pollution of their rivers, disappearance of wildlife which they hunt, the intimidation from gangsters paid by the companies whenever they try to protest, damages done to their burial grounds, the bias of the government against them in favour of the companies, ignoring their complaints as above, etc.
SAM repeatedly wrote appeal letters on their behalf to the govt, the Chief Minister, our elected reps in Council Negeri and Parliament but was also ignored.
In July, 1987, I led a delegation comprising representatives of not only the Penans but also of the Ibans, Kayans, Kenyahs, Kelabits and Lun Bawang to meet with Federal Ministers including the then Deputy Prime Minister, the late Ghafar Baba. We also met with the IGP, Tun Haniff Omar and top army officials of the country at Bukit Aman and had a very lavish lunch with them there.
During the meetings held with all the above, we told them that the problems as above affect all native communities in Sarawak not just the Penans. Everyone of them promised to help to look into the problems.
NONE OF THEM TOLD US that it is an offence to put up blockade on our customary land. The IGP in fact told us that its not for the police to decide who has a right over the land in dispute. That is for the court to decide.
In fact, for the record, all those arrested by the police and the Forest Department for putting up the blockades and who were defended by the lawyers were all acquitted and discharged by the courts.
After we came back to Sarawak, many of our people put up blockades like the Penans.
I was visited by a lot of company managers and their towkays who tried to offer me and my family large sums of money. Some even brought fruits to our house.
My answer to them was simple and standard. "The land where the blockades are set up is not my land. So even if you pay me money, I have no authority to ask those who put up the blockades to dismantle them. Its their land and only they can decide whether or not to dismantle their blockades."
There was one General Manager who came all the way from Sibu who cried (probably only shedding crocodile tears) in front of me after I told him I cannot go with him to one of the blockade sites affecting their company as I don't want to be accused of being bought by the company.
Officials of the companies also tried to seduce me with luxurious food and drinks, holidays and beautiful women of different nationalities.
Gangsters were also unhappy with me but I couldn't be bothered with them.
Many of our own people, particularly our Ketua Masyarakat, Ketua Kaum and political leaders humiliated me in many ways and on many occasions. They said, "if Harrison is such a good man, why can't he help his own parents and family first. He is just an empty tin". Of course, it was and is a fact that, my parents and family were the poorest and most downtrodden in my longhouse, Kampung Long Kesseh.
And of course, being so poor and as a human being, working only with an NGO and yet still dare to get married at that time, I was many many times tempted to take the money dangled to me by the companies, mind you, they were in big bundles (of hundred ringgits!).
But somehow, my heart kept telling me, "never mind, GOD is fair and just."
I hate to also think that if I received the money from the companies and bought say a house, how would I feel every day living in this type of house knowing I got it from the companies. I would be tormented with guilt every day.
But things even got worst for me after that. The in famous "Operation Lallang" (ISA arrests) took place in October, 1987 and I was one of those arrested during that operation accused of instigating our people to go against logging.
I was detained for a full 60 days and interrogated by 12 officers from different sections of the police special branch for 2 to 3 weeks. They also went through the files they seized from SAM office on the day I was arrested.
On the 60th day of my detention, I was brought to see the Director of the Special Branch Sarawak, Datuk Lee Seong Mei, a Sabahan Chinese who told me I would be sent back to Marudi. I told him this, "Tuan, I have been your guest for 60 days and now you want to send me back but nobody told me what I have done wrong". His reply was, "Harrison, if I am in your position, I would also do the same thing".
After our meeting, the police sent me to stay in one of the hotels in Kuching as Mahathir the PM and Home Minister at that time has yet to sign my "Restricted Residence Order" restricting my movement to Marudi for 2 years but which was revoked after about 1 year. That night they brought me to a night club around 9.00 pm and we came back around 4.00 am. There were Taiwanese, Thai, Filipino women in the club and one Chinese businessman footed all the bills! I was wondering whether he was one of the tycoons.
About one month after my release, the former Baram District Officer, Richard Pahang came to my house one morning saying the State Secretary (SS) Tan Sri Bujang Nor wanted to see me. So I went with him to the District Office Marudi and saw the SS there with the former Resident of Miri, Stephen Jussem and all the Ketua Masyarakat of Baram. The SS told the Ketua Masyarakat that he wanted to meet with me first before he talked to them.
Some of our Ketua Masyarakat were stunned and confused with some I heard exclaiming "the government just arrested and detained him, now the SS is meeting with him".
During the meeting, the SS asked me to work with the governmentt and I said I cannot. He asked why not? I said, the government is the cause of our problems and I went on to explain why. He told me that is why I need to join the government to help solve the problems. I assured him that even if I am outside of the government, I am prepared to help and that there is no point even if I join the government but the government doesn't want to listen or to change its ways of doing things I won't be of help.
He asked me what the government needed to do to solve the problems of our people. I told him to gazette the communal land boundaries of all the longhouses or Kampungs and Penan settlements so that there would not be any dispute over land or the boundary of any land in future. I also told him that the Brookes and British started and encouraged that during their time so there is no reason why our own government cannot do even better than them. But he said its difficult.
I said its a question of political will on the part of the government and that it could be done phase by phase or area by area and if every year the government can gazette the communal land boundaries in one Division within 10 or 15 years, the government would have gazetted the land boundaries in all the adminstrative Divisions of Sarawak.
I also proposed the State Government allocate a specific budget for the purpose and that after gazetting the communal land boundaries, the next step would be to survey individual plots of individual NCR land within the communal land boundary of the longhouse and issue individual documents of title to the individual owners. As for the shared area outside of the individual plots but within the communal land boundary of the longhouse, the government should issue the title in the name of the longhouse.
In relating my abovesaid experiences, it is my earnest and fervent hope that all of us will learn something about our individual weaknesses, limitations, how people who want to grab our land and our resources in it divide, rule and manipulate us often particularly targeting our political and community leaders.
And most important of all, why we all must stay united, fight our enemies together, be brave because we are not here robbing other people of their rights or property but merely defending or protecting what is rightfully ours. We must learn how to detect or identify and handle enemies among us as our enemies will always try to recruit and use (or abuse) our own people to fight against us.
A few other things I also learned were that, when you want to help your own people to defend or protect their land or rights, you will be demonised, ostracised, branded a traitor to our country, being anti-government or anti-development or tools of foreign NGOs jealous of our country etc. etc. in the local newspapers, in the radio and TV by those having vested interests or those who are after our land and resources.
Some of our own political leaders who are "apple polishers" will be their local agents to mount all these accusations against you and I. Their strategy is to frighten our own people from supporting our cause so that we are weakened and left alone in our fight to defend and protect our lands and our resources.
Mark my words, all the big companies will unite with these enemies among us using money and threats to get or buy our votes during the coming state election.
Would you still give the key of your house to the thief?
May God Bless you all and guide and give His Wisdom and Protection and Courage to all of us and to our Penan brothers and sisters at their blockades.
Harrison Ngau Laing