After two decades of environmental campaigning for Malaysia’s Penan tribe, the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) is stepping up its fight against local political corruption.
The Basel-based BMF has spent the past 11 years carrying on the fight launched by its charismatic founder Bruno Manser, a Swiss activist who lived among the Penan for six years and introduced peaceful road blocks in a bid to stop logging.
He set up the BMF on December 7, 1990, but disappeared on a trip back to Sarawak in 2000. A Basel court declared him missing and presumed dead in 2005.
The BMF says it has been making progress in the past 20 years despite most of the primeval forests being cut down.
“We have been successful in Sarawak in keeping the campaign going, keeping resistance against logging going, in terms of helping the local indigenous communities to get organised and to empower them to do the right things themselves, and to know also that they have rights to their land, that they have a right to have a say about their livelihood,” BMF director Lukas Straumann told swissinfo.ch.
As well as land mapping and setting up a pre-school and healthcare facilities, BMF have also helped the Penan take several land right cases to local courts and raised awareness of the situation elsewhere in Europe.
But faced with Sarawak’s “dictatorship-like rule”, it hasn’t been enough to make a significant change, the organisation says.
The family in question is that of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who Straumann says controls politics, the economy and the media. Taib is also the minister in charge of finance and planning.
The BMF website regularly reports on allegations of corruption in Sarawak. In February it launched an online campaign against Taib and 48 “blacklisted” companies, and this week the campaign stepped up a notch when BMF published a list of 332 companies in Malaysia with ties to Taib’s relatives, many of whom are directors or shareholders. Another 101 such companies are located elsewhere in the world.
BMF gathered the information from company records and registers and tried to find patterns. Dissecting the data further they found that Taib’s four children were involved in 342 firms worldwide.
“It’s really unbelievable. They are basically controlling the whole state,” Straumann said.
The BMF also alleges that the Taib family is hiding assets abroad. Probes into alleged illegally gained assets are being carried out in Switzerland and Britain.
Rooting out corruption
“We think corruption is one of the main drivers of environmental destruction in Borneo and I think it is also true in other countries. So I think it’s really important for us as an environmental and human rights group to see the broader picture,” he said.
“In a way after having run campaigns for 20 years we had to ask ourselves why these campaigns at a local level are not successful. The Malaysian government and Sarawak government in particular have not given in at all. And then we found out it’s all about corruption.”
Taib has denied taking any kickbacks or hiding assets abroad. He maintains deforestation is being done in the name of much needed development.
Straumann said Bruno Manser himself had tried to take on Taib but became depressed when he realised Taib was too powerful.
Role of NGOs
In 2010, at the ten-year commemoration of Manser’s disappearance, forestry campaigner Saskia Ozinga bemoaned the lack of organisations supporting the Penan people – a cause that attracted a lot of attention in the 1980s and 1990s but which had waned due to Malaysian NGO disunity and possibly a wrong focus by European NGO on timber instead of human rights.
She told swissinfo.ch: “As the problems in Sarawak are caused by incompetent or corrupt government, I think it is wise of BMF to focus on the corruption charges.”
The Swiss branch of the Society for Threatened People says organisations like the BMF are “extremely important” to indigenous people who are often marginalised or ignored.
“Without Bruno Manser, I am quite sure, nobody would know about the destiny of the Penan people,” branch director Christoph Wiedmer told swissinfo.ch.
He added: “It is very important that support is done in a positive way that does not risk becoming contrary to the interest of the indigenous peoples.”
BMF and other organisations have a role to play in raising issues at the United Nations level, putting pressure on governments and companies, helping with legal defence and in carrying out socio-economic projects on the ground, Wiedmer said.