On September 2, 2010, around 150 Penan villagers from Long Nen in Sungai Layun,Long Belok and Long Sayan in Sungai Apoh, Tutoh, Long Bangan in Sungai Terawen,Tutoh and Ba’ Marong in ulu Sungai Si’ang, Tutoh gathered to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the simultaneous blockades held by the same communities in the area between August and September last year.
The gathering in fact was held not only to commemorate the anniversary of the protests but also to honour the three-decade struggles of the Penan communities in Sarawak against the continued violations of their Native Customary Rights (NCR). It was held as a reminder to our people to appreciate their rights, livelihoods, traditions and culture that are closely tied to the forests, which have now been largely destroyed by logging companies.
Indeed, the blockades organised last year were not easily forgotten by the protestors. During the protests, the state response included the appearance of the Telang Usan state assemblyperson, YB Lihan Jok at the blockade site, who then urged us to dismantle the barricades as well as to sign a particular memorandum of understanding (MOU) with him as a co-signatory.
The content of the MOU included the following pledges on the part of the Sarawak State Government:
1. To make an effort at bringing Penan community leaders to meet with higher authorities in order to discuss on matters concerning their land and traditional territories;
2. To make an effort at bringing the Penan communities’ application for the construction of kindergartens and primary schools at each Penan longhouse (to the appropriate authorities).
3. To increase the number of community leaders for the Penan community.
4. To make an effort at introducing agricultural activities that are suitable for the Penan communities.
5. To make an effort at obtaining financial allocations for the housing and healthcare needs of Penan communities
To set the record straight, the demands above were not even the original demands that we had made during the blockades. The blockades last year were erected firstly, to demand that the Sarawak State Government must recognise that we have the right to make our own decisions in relation to our NCR land, and secondly, to ask that logging activities and the encroachments into our NCR land to be immediately halted in order to prevent starvation incidences. In essence, it was a protest to demand that both the government and logging companies to recognise our rights on our land.
However unfortunately, we were pressured by YB Lihan Jok to change these demands to the ones above.
Now a year later, we have yet to hear how even these very simple demands will be fulfilled by the state. Where are the materials and help for us to have better longhouses? Where are the kindergartens and clinics? Where are the meetings promised? Where are the agricultural assistance and resources to help us help ourselves in producing more and better foods for our families?
Our community views that it is very unworthy of YB Lihan Jok to not live up to the promises made last year. If the state continues to ignore its obligations to the community, we will not hesitate to set up blockades for a longer period of time. Many of us have gone to prison for defending our rights to this land. Thus, we will continue defending our rights for the rest of our lives.
Equally important, our community have also been increasingly alarmed by various newspaper reports which revealed the state government’s plans in respect of our communities, which would be announced without any prior consultations with us or further attempts at proper follow-up activities.
For instance, in December 2009, the state government announced of a plan to move the Penan communities to a resettlement site similar to that of the Sungai Asap resettlement scheme for the Bakun-affected communities. The newspaper report in fact quoted YB Lihan Jok as stating that our demands will only be fulfilled when we agree to move to the resettlement site. Then, there was also the supposed government housing allocation of RM 2.7 million for the Penan communities, announced by the Miri Resident Dr. Ngenang Janggu in Borneo Post on Sept 18, 2009.
How can the government continue to act and function in this way to this very day, treating its indigenous communities with much apathy? Especially since Malaysia has ratified the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People in 2007? Our people will not move to any other location just because the government says so. Our home lies within our ancestral land. The government cannot continue to threaten us in this way and move us around at will. Further, once a pledge, whether financial or otherwise is made, it must be fulfilled. We would like to know, how has the RM 2.7 million been spent thus far? How come our communities are still living in poorly built longhouses, with not even the most basic water, electricity and sanitation facilities?
The government just simply cannot continue to govern in this way – making ‘announcements’ without any sense of obligation to first consult our communities and ‘pledging’ without taking any follow-up steps and fulfilling the promises. We reiterate that failure to meet our demands will certainly result in long-term blockades in the state.
Promises have to be kept. Our people have to be informed. We are citizens with rights.