The Murum Penan Are Right To Fight

Families gathered at outdoor camps – last October’s Murum blockade was joined by women and children for several weeks

Sarawak Energy adopted a familiar tactic towards the renewal of the blockade at Murum by the indigenous Penan people at the weekend.

They patronised them, by complaining that they had been “instigated” by un-named NGOs.

Over the past days there have been reports that scores of the indigenous tribes people have again brought the construction site on their lands to a grinding halt.

One informant gave this update to Sarawak Report on Saturday:

There are at least a hundred Penan and Kenyah on the blockade. Workers at the dam sites are not working. There are a lot of police sent to be at the blockade. Managers from Synohydro and the Three Gorges went to see them yesterday asking the blockaders to join the in a meeting in the site office. But the blockaders refused the invitation unless their demands are met. The blockaders are looking at the possibility of entering the work site to make sure that no work is carried out, but they have not done so yet”.

The main demand of these blockaders is for adequate compensation, backed by legally binding guarantees, before they are prepared to be driven from their territories by the now nearly completed Murum Dam.

Yet, apparently, in the minds of Sarawak Energy (SEB) the Penan are such simple folk that they could never have come to their own conclusions over taking this effective action. Instead, officials claim that a handful of people from NGOs have been responsible for ‘influencing’ them.

we have information that a certain NGO has been instigating and organising a gathering on the site so that the people affected by the dam will not move to the resettlement villages”[SEB statement].

In which case, it is surely remarkable that the full force of the government and SEB have proved unable to persuade these ‘simple people’ otherwise?

Why should Sarawak Energy expect natives to trust Taib’s promises?

Left at the roadside – so far there has been no sign that supposed economic progress has benefitted any of the peoples who have lost land to timber, oil palm and hydro-electric dams.

The truth of the matter is that the Penan and the Kenyah can think perfectly well for themselves and fully understand where their best interests obviously lie.

SEB and Taib Mahmud’s state government have violated the law and indigenous rights over and again during their construction of this dam, which for the first two years was carried out in illegal secrecy in the depth of the rainforest.

Now, despite their CEO, Torstein Sjotveit having announced that they were going to ‘do things properly’ in future, SEB are trying to force the native people into inadequate resettlement areas with no more than a vague promise of minimal compensation.

What is being offered is a fraction of what the Penan have demanded and there have been no legal guarantees of any kind.

Therefore, the Penan are absolutely right to say no.

They would be absolutely mad to agree to be moved under such terms, because once they have moved they will be powerless to achieve a reasonable settlement for their futures. So who is instigating who and why is SEB trying so hard to get them to settle to anything less?

Why should Sarawak Energy expect natives to trust Taib’s promises?

The Penan don’t need instigating, given the situation they are in.

The state government is seeking to uproot them from their ancient homelands, which are to be flooded and destroyed, in order to drive them into settlements far away from their traditional sources of food and income.

In return the authorities are offering a vague promise of a monthly payment per family amounting to merely half the national minimum wage, which will expire after 4 years.

Simply not enough – especially when there is no guarantee. At Bakun the natives were told they would have to pay for their new homes only after they were moved.

After that there is an even vaguer promise of providing some food supplies if the Penan cannot fend for themselves and appear to be starving on their remote ‘reservations’, which happen to be placed in an abandoned oil palm plantation area.

The Penan are hunter gatherers, not famers and they do not understand oil palm.  How on earth are they expected to learn to survive in these circumstances within 4 years and why on earth should they trust such mean promises without even any legally binding agreements signed either by the government or SEB?

Ominous sign at the site of the new planned reservation ‘put aside’ for the Penan.

Indeed, who would trust Taib one single inch after reading the leaked Resettlement Action Plan produced by his own government, which we published last year?

That document admitted how shamefully the Penan have been treated at Murum since Taib first permitted logging in their territories and revealed how their lives have got far worse as a result of this so-called ‘development’ of their lands, for which they received nothing.

Memorably, the report acknowledged how many Penan are now living in abandoned chicken coops at Sungai Asap, which is the only housing made available for families seeking to be near the only school in a hundred miles of their customary lands.

The Penan don’t need instigating when they have numerous examples such as these from their own experiences.

They also have the experiences of others to remind them never to trust the promises of Taib Mahmud and his agents, especially when it comes to paying compensation for dam building.


After all, the plight of the people who trusted the Sarawak State Government’s promises and Taib Mahmud over the resettlement of the Bakun are a warning on offer to anyone faced with a similar situation.  More than a decade on Taib has still failed to provide the land and compensation promised.

Worse, his officials had the cheek to start asking for huge payments for homes that had been promised for free in replacement for the communities’ flooded longhouses.

And exactly the same tricks and lies were perpetrated earlier in the case of the Batang Ai dam, according to angry locals. So why would the people of Murum agree to walk into the same traps without even a signed document to secure their interests?

Why no legal representation?

PR by Sjotveit – No substitute for proper legal procedures, genuine negotiation and cast iron guarantees, as the Norwegian should know full well!

The Sarawak State Government and SEB have given no indications whatsoever that they are acting in good faith.  Woolly promises that change day by day, depending who is being addressed, are simply not good enough.

If there was any honour in the proceedings the state government would have provided the natives of Murum with fully paid for legal advice from a team of lawyers of their own choice.

Instead, they have left these vulnerable tribes in an unequal battle, facing teams of lawyers who represent only the company and the state.

Likewise, if they were acting in good faith, the government and SEB would have conducted open and sincere negotiations from the very beginning and taken into account the requests of the local people.

Instead, they secretively produced an extraordinarily mean series of compensation arrangements, which they then kept hidden in an unpublished Resettlement Action Report, which the local people only learnt about when Sarawak Report leaked it last year.

It was the discovery of these secret plans, so different from the vague promises that had been bandied about, that provoked the first Murum blockade back in October.

No way to treat the vulnerable.

SEB have now supposedly revised the compensation to a more generous terms, which they have negotiated with carefully selected “native leaders”.

Yet, it seems after all that these ‘leaders’ do not represent their people after all.  And why should the mass of people be represented by a few hand-picked and pampered individuals by the state?

After all, would you agree to vacate your home and move into a new place on the basis of some verbal promises, without any signed legal document or terms and agreements at all?

Would you agree to the government going about such matters entirely in violation of all international protocols on dams and indigenous rights, just because Taib’s negotiators told you not to worry?

Of course you would not.  And nor will the Penan and Kenyah of Murum agree to it either.




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