Baru Bian, the first Lun Bawang minister, fought hard for Sarawak natives' land rights

File photo of Baru Bian (second from left) at a protest for fight for Native Customary Rights lands in Sarawak.

File photo of Baru Bian (second from left) at a protest for fight for Native Customary Rights lands in Sarawak.

KUCHING: Baru Bian, 59, the newly sworn-in Works Minister, is a lawyer who is best known for fighting several dozen court cases for over 25 years to defend native customary rights (NCR) land in Sarawak.

The Sarawak PKR chairman often had to struggle against powerful players with political and commercial "connections", who wanted to take over native lands for either logging or oil palm plantations.

Ironically, it was the White Rajahs from the Brooke family which had first legally recognised NCR lands in "colonial" times.

Sometimes, Baru won the court battles. For instance, in Oct 2013, the Sarawak government was ordered to give back 3,475 hectares of NCR land in Sungai Lembong, Suai Miri to Ibans from two longhouses.

This was after the Court of Appeal found that provisional land leases to two companies granted by the Sarawak government were unlawful and unconstitutional.

But the courts did not always side with the natives.

For example, Justice Tun Mohd Raus Sharif, in a Federal Court case in December 2016, said there was no law in Sarawak that allowed a group of Dayaks to claim customary rights over virgin forests around their longhouses.

(Raus was later controversially appointed Chief Justice of Malaysia, even though his position was deemed "unconstitutional" by several groups. It was announced last month that he has sent in his letter of resignation and will vacate his post on July 31.)

The Federal Court refused to recognise the indigenous concepts of “pemakai menoa” (territorial domains) and “pulau galau” (communal forest reserves).

In response, Baru and Sarawak PKR threw its support behind a rally in Kuching on Nov 13 last year to push for NCR over land.

“The refusal to recognise pemakai menoa and pulau galau appears to be a betrayal of the natives by those who do not understand, or choose to ignore, the long-practised and long-recognised customs and traditions of the native communities,” he said then.

Baru received his primary education in the mountainous deep interior of northern Sarawak at Long Tellang, Long Semadoh, and Long Napir, close to the border with Kalimantan, until the early 1970s.

This is the heartland of Sarawak's Lun Bawang ethnic group, who are known to be staunch Christians.

In the mid-1980s, the Lun Bawang highlands made national news with the sighting of mysterious "balls of fire" in the skies. Locals also claimed that various "miracles" happened in their villages.

Baru continued his secondary education in Limbang, a town in the state's northern region sandwiched between two parts of Brunei.

Baru pursued his tertiary education at Universiti Institut Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Shah Alam, Selangor in Diploma in Law (DIL) and subsequently obtained a Bachelor of Law (LL.B) in Melbourne University, Australia in 1986.

Baru later became a trainee at a law firm in Kuala Lumpur and was then admitted to the Malayan Bar as an advocate and solicitor.

It was during that time that he began to venture into the political arena as an ordinary member of then Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS).

His involvement in elections started in 1991 when he was defeated in the Lawas Parliamentary seat. The following year, he set up the Messrs Baru Bian Advocates and Solicitors in Kuching.

In 2004, he resigned his post as PBDS Supreme Council member after deciding to contest as an independent candidate in by-election for the Ba'Kelalan state seat, held following the death of its incumbent Datuk Dr Judson Sakai in a helicopter crash.

But he was defeated at the hands of the Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate.

His political journey also saw him contesting in 2006 on the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) ticket under BN for the Ba'Kelalan state seat, where he was once again beaten.

Two years later Baru joined Parti Keadilan Rakyat Malaysia (PKR) as an ordinary member and in November 2009, he was appointed as Sarawak PKR chairman.

His success in the electoral arena began in the 10th and 11th Sarawak state election (in 2011 and 2016).

In both state polls, he defeated the BN candidate from Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) Willie Liau.

In the last general election he contested in the Selangau Parliamentary constituency and managed to wrest the seat in a straight fight against the BN candidate from Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), to become an MP for the first time.

Previously, prior to the 14th general election, Datuk Henry Sum Agong was the first leader from the Lun Bawang community to be appointed as Deputy Minister of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism in the federal cabinet.

Baru has now gone a step further in being appointed as the Minister of Works.

It is believed that this will enable him to help build much-needed roads and other infrastructure in Sarawak and Sabah.

Baru Bian , Minister of Works , Cabinet