To have a state assemblyman who dares to say things the way he sees them is rare, so it has been a morale-lifting week indeed for me after I found out that Belaga assemblyman Liwan Lagang is such a person.
To me, he is a wakil rakyat who truly has the interest of his constituents at heart and who, in the course of performing his role as an elected representative, does not hesitate to speak his mind and criticise wrongdoings and injustices, even if he has to step on the toes of powerful and influential bigwigs in the process.
Last week, Liwan, who is Assistant Culture and Heritage Minister, took on the role of mediator to find a solution to the problems at the Murum dam site in Belaga where more than 300 Penans are staging blockades.
The Penans from eight settlements and a handful of Kenyahs from one longhouse are being uprooted by the construction of the RM4bil hydroelectric dam and they are unhappy that they have been kept in the dark and given the runaround with regard to their resettlement and compensation.
They have been blocking the roads into the dam site since two weeks ago, thus disrupting the construction of the dam.
Liwan went to the blockade sites and met the Penans, spending time with them and listening to their grouses. He also spoke to the contractors and developers handling the dam project.
After the site visit he went to Bintulu town to meet again for another dialogue with the leaders of the Penans and some state officials to try to end the stand-off.
He had indeed worked very hard to try to find a solution to the problems, and had also arranged for some Penan leaders to go to Kuching to meet with the state secretariat officials to end the impasse.
So far, he has not managed to negotiate a truce. The blockades are still on. But it is very clear Liwan is trying his best.
Some environmentalist friends I know have acknowledged that Liwan is indeed trying his very best and that he is trying to be as fair as possible to all parties involved in the dispute.
However, the most heartening thing is that in all of these goings-on, Liwan had not tried to hide the truth of what was happening at the dam site which had caused the Penans to set up the blockades.
Unlike many political leaders before him. Liwan had not pointed his fingers at the “foreign NGOs” or the opposition and accusing them of instigating the Penans.
He had instead acknowledged that the affected Penans had been given shoddy treatment by the contractors.
“These Penans are reasonable people. They are not asking for the moon and the stars. All they want is to be properly consulted and given fair treatment with regard to their resettlement and compensation.
“They are being kept in the dark as to their future, no wonder they are worried and angry. They have a right to protest.
“The contractors handling the dam project are making millions of ringgit. They must exercise better public relations and perform their corporate social responsibility.
“These contractors must be fair to those affected by the project and keep them informed all the time about their resettlement and compensation negotiations,” he said.
What a refreshing change, to hear a state assemblyman speaking so frankly when voicing his opinions!
I had encountered similar protests by the Penans before in ulu Baram with regard to logging and oil palm plantation disputes.
Always, the state ministers, state assemblymen and MPs, when asked for their comments, would immediately blame the opposition parties, the environmentalists, the NGOs and even the western media.
Their usual line of defence was that “the Penans are being instigated by these western NGOs and the opposition politicians to be anti-government and anti-development”.
Other excuses dished out by these state ministers included the rather harsh and rash conclusion that the Penans had been coached by foreign NGOs to lie.
Instead of going to the ground to check on the plight of the affected natives, such disputes were simply dismissed and swept under the carpet.
Little wonder then that those aggrieved natives had no choice but to actually seek the help of local and foreign NGOs and opposition politicians to air their grouses.
I have visited numerous interior settlements in ulu Baram and ulu Belaga over the past decade or so for official functions and also for specific reasons, such as to look into the plights of communities affected by logging disputes, land claims, river pollution and also food shortages.
In my interviews with the natives, including the Penans, they had always claimed that they had not received fair treatment with regards to compensation from logging and oil palm giants.
They told me that when they brought up their grouses to the state leaders, including some of the YBs in their areas, nothing substantial was done to help them.
These frustrated natives had no choice but to seek the help of the NGOs and the opposition politicians who were more sympathetic to their cause. The blockades at the Murum dam site are still on, but Liwan is making progress, albeit slowly.
He has managed to persuade the protestors to bring their children and old people back to their villages so that these little ones and the aged do not have to sleep at the blockade sites while efforts are being made to find a solution acceptable to all parties.
The state government leaders must pay keen attention to this dispute in the Murum dam site. They must pay particular attention to Liwan and the very humane and caring manner in which he is trying to solve the issue up to this stage.
Liwan has gained a lot of respect for being fair to all sides. I have spoken to some church people I know in Belaga, and they too spoke highly of Liwan while some community leaders there have also praised him for being very people-oriented.
I hope to see more daring and down-to-earth YBs like Liwan getting elected into office as elected representatives.
We really need more politicians within the ruling government who have guts and who dare to speak the truth as they see it.