Talking to the people

  • Lifestyle
  • Sunday, 18 Jul 2010

Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil shares the insights she gained when she travelled to a remote Penan settlement for an unusual, informal walk-about.

IN December last year, The Star reported that 19-year-old Damaris Panai did her community proud by receiving the Sarawak Chief Minister’s Special Award for the best Penan student in the previous year’s Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia examination.

She comes from a poor family from Long Kevok in Ulu Baram and is the first in her family to go to college.

Damaris’ story reflects the possibility of a bright future, but not all Penan women are fortunate enough to walk such a promising path.

The Penan community in Sarawak has been under an uneasy spotlight since its women and girls’ claims of rape and sexual abuse emerged in 2008. The alleged accused are logging companies’ employees on whom the Penan women depend for transportation into and out of the more inaccessible interior.

These claims first surfaced on the Bruno Manser Fund website ( in a media release dated Sept 15, 2008.

(Manser was a Swiss environmental and native peoples activist who lived off and on with the nomadic Penans for six years, championing their rights in the face of the alleged inhumanity of the tropical timber industry. He disappeared and has been legally deemed dead since March 2005.)

The Star first published a story about the website’s allegations in September 2008 (Cops: Report any sexual abuse in Penan areas to us, Nation, Sept 24). In October that year, we sent a reporter and photographer to Ulu Baram – the Penan’s home base – to interview some of the alleged victims, who confirmed that they had been raped and sexually abused (see Recapping the story, right).

In October 2009, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil told Parliament that a committee set up by the ministry to investigate the claims had concluded that abuse had taken place, although the number of victims was not known.

Then, in November 2009, volunteers from 36 NGOs went on a fact-finding mission. Earlier this month, on July 6, these NGOs released a report in Parliament entitled A Wider Context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls in Middle and Ulu Baram, Sarawak that revealed the testimony of seven more Penan women who claim they were also raped or sexually abused.

Following these fresh allegations, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak tasked Shahrizat to personally look into the plight of the Penan people in Sarawak.

Consult first

The Penans are one of the 24 sub-ethnic groups that are broadly grouped by the Government under the term Orang Ulu – literally meaning people of the upper river. The Penans, Kayans, Kelabits, Kenyah and Punan make up the main tribal groups in Sarawak. The Penans are one of the few groups that is still partially nomadic.

To better understand the issues the community is facing, Shahrizat decided she should see firsthand what the situation is in Batu Bungan, Ulu Baram, an area in which some of the Penans have been resettled.

During a briefing on the eve of her Ulu Baram visit, Shahrizat told her team members that, “It is not right for Government agencies and NGOs to make ‘arm-chair decisions’ from Kuala Lumpur without first consulting the very people who need their help.”

On Thursday, at an interview at Shahrizat’s office in Kuala Lumpur, she said, “I was not under any illusions that my visit would immediately solve things. However, rape is rape, there are no two ways about it. Whether it occurs deep in the jungles of Sarawak with Penans or on Jalan Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur, the perpetrators must be punished.

“The visit to Batu Bungan was the first of several visits that we will be making to Baram, including villages in the remote interior, and was aimed at touching base with the community in an attempt to obtain a better understanding of the situation on the ground.”

To ensure that the visit would be constructive, Shahrizat invited along deputy International Trade and Industry minister Datuk Jacob Dungau Sagan, who is also Baram MP; Datuk Dr Noorul Ainur Mohd Nur, deputy secretary-general (policy) of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry; Lihan Jok, Telang Usan assemblyman; Datuk Acryl Sani Hj Abdullah Sani, deputy director-general of the CID; as well as senior police officers and officers from the National Welfare Foundation, Department of Social Welfare Malaysia, and the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.

“I would like to say that we have zero tolerance for crime. Anyone found breaking the law, exploiting the vulnerable, be they men, women or children, will have to face the full force of the laws of this country,” Shahrizat says, explaining that the police were included in this visit to enforce this point.

Discoveries abound

On Tuesday, after a 45-minute helicopter ride from Miri, Shahrizat and a group of 22 arrived at Batu Bungan. (Access to this remote area by 4-wheel drive or boat would have taken a whole day.)

Upon arrival, what was foremost on Shahrizat’s mind was that she “would not be political or patronising” when it came to finding ways to help this community.

This was to be a casual walk-about to meet and get to know these people – who had only been informed of the visit a day before so as to avoid too much protocol.

The visitors found that this group of re-settled Penans are living with reasonably modern facilities, but that there is still room for improvement in their living conditions.

“We went to a school and I didn’t expect to see a proper and well-equipped school. But they have computers, a library and they have teachers from KL, Terengganu and big towns in Sarawak,” Shahrizat says.

What she found interesting in this remote place was the care shown to and discipline instilled among children aged between four and six at their pre-school.

During a break, the children sat down together to have their meals – and “After their meals, we saw buckets of water lined up outside the classroom and learned that the children have been taught to always brush their teeth after eating,” she observes.

Shahrizat says that what struck her was that the children appeared happy and not shy, and took to strangers easily.

She adds, “They smiled a lot and were quite extroverted, and I wish this attitude can be found more in the children in the peninsula.”

In the school’s kitchen, the minders pointed out that they struggle with insufficient water and are forced to depend on rain water; they requested assistance in providing piped water.

Visiting the longhouses in which 68 Penan families – comprising 280 people – live, Shahrizat met with the men, women and children. The younger Penans spoke in Malay while a translator was needed when it came to communicating with the older Penans.

Shahrizat told everyone about the purpose of her visit, which was linked to the issues of rape and sexual abuse that had been highlighted in the news.

“I asked the men folk to be more vigilant and to be responsible in ensuring the safety of the women. When the head villager heard the word rape in Malay, he immediately offered, ‘Tak ada rogol di sini’ (There are no rape cases here)”, reports Shahrizat.

Although the Penans live simply, Shahrizat was pleasantly surprised by the fact that they had their own “economic empowerment programme”.

This was through the production of handicraft, mainly weaving works by women, available for sale to visitors.

Even within this short visit, Shahrizat began to understand the Penan people and, she says, “I am still learning every day about this community in order to be able to offer them what they need.

“I found them to be a very simple yet proud people who live with great dignity. They have their own sensitivities, culture and way of life, so there isn’t one easy solution that can fit everyone,” she says.

Going forward, Shahrizat says, “As a Government, we are duty bound to bring development to this community – but it must be meaningful development.

“The areas that need immediate attention are welfare services, transportation, health care and education. My ministry will work closely with the Sarawak State Government on these areas,” she says.

An example of looking into the well-being of these people, according to Shahrizat, is through the deployment of welfare officers who will become advocates for the Penan community.

“Currently, there is no one they can turn to for help. Welfare officers could look after the interest of the community as well as be the contact person who will take a victim (of, for example, sexual abuse) to the nearest doctor, hospital and police station,” she explains.

And, of course, for a welfare officer to function effectively in these areas, Shahrizat stresses that transportation needs to be provided, so they are looking at providing boats.

‘I will accept nothing less’

During the visit, Shahrizat did not speak personally with the alleged victims or their families, as, she says, her ministry is clear about its agenda, which is “to continue investing in women and girls and in the communities in which they live”.

She points out that easy accessibility to education, health and welfare services presents a very real challenge given the difficult terrain the Penans live in.

“I will be working with my Cabinet colleagues to make all the services of Government much more accessible to the Penans and other Orang Ulu groups,” she says.

On the allegations of rape and sexual abuse, Shahrizat clarifies that investigations of these allegations comes under the jurisdiction of the police.

Shahrizat reveals that she met with Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan and CID chief Bakri Zinin in December 2009, and she was assured that they, too, view these allegations very seriously. However, the police also expressed their frustration over the fact that they can act only after reports are made – but there have been none made.

“The new allegations of rape and sexual exploitation among the Penan (raised in the July 6 report to Parliament) are an issue of grave concern for both me and the ministry,” says Shahrizat.

“We are taking this issue very seriously, and the police have assured me that despite the setback with regards to the lack of police reports, they will continue to pursue investigations. I will accept nothing less.”

According to a report in The Star’s Sarawak edition earlier this month, Kuching Commissioner of Police Datuk Mohmad Salleh said all cases would be looked into – provided reports were lodged. So far, the police have received none, he added. (Police: Report and we’ll act, Nation, July 9.)

Mohmad Salleh said police had earlier taken the initiative to lodge three reports and had carried out investigations when cases of Penans being raped were highlighted by The Star in 2008.

The report also quoted Sarawak CID chief SAC II Huzir Mohamed who said that police had then gone to Ulu Baram three times, visited nine villages and taken statements from 72 witnesses; they identified two of the alleged victims, some of whom were married to the suspects. However, the case was closed last year at the directive of the senior federal counsel due to lack of evidence.

Paying too high a price?

Making a police report is not an easy thing for any to do, but the Penan community find it especially difficult.

According to a report in The Star in January this year, the Penans are among the estimated 66,000 people throughout Sarawak who don’t have birth certificates and MyKads.

The report also said that the Penan people have been living without citizenship since Independence; some of them have applied for these vital documents unsuccessfully many times over the years.

With no proper documents, remoteness, a language barrier, poverty, innocence, and a lack of education and support from an advocate – making a police report is certainly a low priority for the Penans.

While the male work force of the logging companies in these inner parts of Sarawak have been pinpointed as alleged perpetrators, another looming threat appears with the impending construction of hydroelectric dams in Baram and Limbang.

Sarawak Women For Women Society (SWWS) president, Margaret Bedus, said in a report in The Star earlier this month that “this construction could escalate sexual exploitation among the Penans.”

For a Third World country, development is surely a symbol of hope and pride, but what hope and pride can we feel when indigenous communities pay such a high price for this progress?

What’s more, in September 2007, this country voted (at both the United Nations Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly) to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which emphasises the right of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in accordance with their aspirations and needs.

What would the Penans say, I wonder, if we explained this charter and our commitment to uphold it to them?

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