The camerawork was admittedly shaky, but a short documentary called ‘Ulu Bengoh Darom Piin‘ (or ‘Upper Bengoh, underwater’ in one of the Bidayuh languages) that premiered at the Freedom Film Fest on Oct 2, was quite an eye-opener.
Joachim Leong, fresh from law school, recently led a team of young urban film-makers to four rural Bidayuh villages up in the mountains of Bengoh, Sarawak, 45 minutes’ drive from the cineplexes and Starbuckses of Kuching.
They were curious: why did many villagers in the area, forced to resettle by the Bengoh dam built last year, return the incumbent, Dr Jerip Susil, in the state election in April, despite losing their land to companies serving the BN?
Why did so many rural voters return BN to power, despite the rousing urban pro-Pakatan crowds?
In trying to explain the rural voters’ support for a BN government, slated for land grabs throughout Sarawak, Leong writes, in the blogLoyarburuk: “The rural-urban divide exists as a mental and physical barrier, with a host of reasons as to why such a barrier does exist.”
The film attempted to see beyond that chasm.
Endless broken promises
The film-makers captured images of the beauty of the mountains and the unique culture of the Bidayuh, as well as the hard grind of the villagers’ daily lives.
The team trekked up to the villages perched up on the high slopes, accessible only on foot.
They learned how only a handful of houses had small solar panels that lit up a single bulb for a few hours, so that some lucky schoolchildren might get to read, before the chorus of cicadas at bedtime.
The villagers told of endless broken promises by the BN state government. The authorities had insisted that the dam was needed to ensure future supplies of clean water to the city folk of Kuching, and had pledged compensation and modern facilities in a resettlement area.
The resettlement scheme remains a wasteland, as seen during filming in August.
The bare planks of the Bengoh villagers’ simple houses in their own relocation area upstream, were built by their own hands. There is no running water or electricity supply.
The film depicted these images as a dramatic counterpoint to the government’s narrative of the dam being a vital part of ‘development’.
There is a subplot, though this was not the focus of the film. The Bengoh dam contract went to a conglomerate, Naim, chaired by Hamed Sepawi (left), first cousin to Taib Mahmud, the Chief Minister. Taib is the minister in charge of natural resources – including dams.
Naim snagged the RM310 million contract without open competition, and “subbed” out the work to Sinohydro, a Chinese construction firm, for RM145 million – less than half of Naim’s windfall.
But there was no ‘win-win’ result for the villagers: they lost their land to the dam-builders. They were given little compensation, and even less say in their future.
One community, Kampung Semban, were astonished to find they were being driven out even though their houses lay above the water level of the dam.
Villagers have said Naim and its partners were simply grabbing land, using the dam as a pretext.
The villagers sued the government two years ago, but the courthouse is far away, and lawsuits take time.
The big picture
‘Ulu Bengoh Darom Piin’ explored the contradictions in the poverty of the area, and the government’s string of broken promises, with the thumping majority won by the BN.
Jerip Susil (right) won 8,093 votes to the PKR’s Willie Mongin’s 4,447. Two other candidates, one from SNAP and another independent, won some 2,000 votes.
Were there lessons to learn? The film gently, but humorously, pointed out that the PKR candidate, Willie Mongin, did not actually set foot in any of the four villages affected by the dam.
When the film-makers asked him why, he gave a series of bizarre answers, providing excuses to do with “strategy”, “time limitations” and “finances”, for not visiting the voters.
Selangor PKR executive councillor R Sivarasa and PKR national legal bureau chief Latheefa Koya were present in the audience, and showed the appropriate embarrassment, as well as concern that viable alternative candidates will have to be offered in future polls.
Another reason explored in the film was a mindset among some villagers that Dr Jerip had pledged to fight for their interests.
Some voters drew a distinction between the likeable person of the individual elected representative and his campaign promises on the one hand, with the BN-linked companies taking their land, on the other.
There are, of course, other reasons for the unexpected margin of the BN victory in April’s election, that the film did not address.
One is the widespread buying and manipulation of votes. Bersih 2.0 and Malaysian Election Observers (MEO-Net, an NGO that works on voter awareness in Sarawak) are striving hard on this front.
Another, more important, reason is that while the voters are kept poor, in order to limit their independence and access to information, the cause is not simply local corruption, but also the continuing economic deprivation of Sabah and Sarawak.
These are two of the poorest states in the federation, despite contributing vast amounts to the national coffers through Petronas.
This impoverishment means large numbers of rural voters remain uneducated. They are kept dependent on handouts and on the propaganda of the mainstream media.
Perhaps it will take more than one good documentary to bridge the ‘rural-urban divide’ that Leong writes of.
But it is a fine step in the right direction.
(‘Ulu Bengoh Darom Piin’ and the Freedom Film Fest is showing all over Malaysia, and I for one urge all readers to see these challenging films on offer. Entrance is free of charge.)
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted a firstname.lastname@example.org