London Evening Standard
22 Feb 2011
In a flat above a restaurant in Covent Garden, an investigative reporter called Clare and a tribesman from Borneo covered in tattoos prepare to transmit their daily revolutionary radio broadcast deep into the Borneo jungle.
They make for an unlikely double act – she is a white, middle-aged Englishwoman, and he the proud grandson of a Dayak headhunter who broadcasts under the pseudonym Papa Orang Utan. Their aim is no less outlandish: to expose the alleged corruption of Taib Mahmud, chief minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo 6,500 miles from London, and bring an end to his 30-year rule.
“This is Radio Free Sarawak,” begins Papa Orang Utan, donning his headphones to interview a village headman who has been forcibly removed from his land and who, quite remarkably, speaks to them on a mobile phone from the edge of the Borneo rainforest. Clare briefs Papa: “Make sure you ask if he knows that it’s chief minister Taib who has stolen their land? And get who he’ll be voting for!”
Until now the identity of the “pirates” behind Radio Free Sarawak has been a closely guarded secret – and for good reason. Scandal-plagued Taib, 74, is one of the world’s most ruthless and wealthiest men – richer allegedly than the Sultan of Brunei, whose independent country lies alongside – and locals who oppose him can feel the full force of his retribution.
But today is a watershed: the duo have bravely decided to out themselves ahead of the upcoming Sarawak elections, expected in April. Indeed, the Evening Standard can reveal that the mystery Englishwoman who set up Radio Free Sarawak four months ago and who brought out the tattooed tribesman – real name Peter John Jaban – to front her broadcasts is in fact Clare Rewcastle Brown, sister-in-law of former prime minister Gordon Brown.
The last time she was in the public eye was in May 2009 when she published a letter defending the then prime minister’s cleaning arrangements in the wake of the expenses scandal. Her piece, “The true story of Gordon Brown, the cleaner and my husband”, laid out their “very ordinary shared cleaning arrangements” and explained why The Telegraph’s front page “scoop” was groundless.
“My poor husband Andrew,” she recalls, “was the face on the front page on the first day of the expenses scandal, which was pretty damn unfair given that Gordon’s arrangement with the cleaner was later judged wholly legitimate. The reporters arrived on our doorstep thinking they’d ‘got Gordon’ but they hadn’t done their due diligence and when we presented them with the truth, they didn’t want to hear it.”
Today she sees less of her husband’s older brother, “Gordon and Sarah being mainly up in Scotland”, but they are “a close-knit family” and “Gordon is hugely supportive,” she says.
Rewcastle Brown, 51, born in Sarawak to British parents in the days before the former British colony was handed over to Malaysia, lived in the region until the age of eight, and she is the author of the hard-hitting Sarawak Report, a hitherto anonymous blog that gets 18,000 hits a day.
“English is still the unifying language in Sarawak and I use my blog and broadcasts to expose the outrageous deforestation which has seen 95 per cent of Sarawak’s rainforest cut down and replaced by logging and palm oil plantations which have enriched Taib and his family,” she says. “What’s more, my investigations indicate some of the Taib family money is right here in London and includes a lucrative property portfolio in the heart of our capital.”
Her work, she adds, is also about “giving the 2.5 million oppressed people of Sarawak a choice”.
“The leader of the opposition party, a charismatic human rights lawyer called Baru Bian, inspires hope of real change in the upcoming election, but scandalously only one-third of the electorate are registered to vote and the corrupt Malaysian government turn a blind eye because Taib always delivers them Sarawak, their richest state.”
She says their decision to go public was prompted by death threats posted to the Sarawak Report website and by the mysterious fatality of her chief whistleblower in America. “Before Christmas, Taib’s disaffected US aide Ross Boyert was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel room with a plastic bag around his head. The inquest is still pending but there was a sense that Peter and I could be in danger. Rather than hide, we’ve decided to come out fighting.”
She kicks off her leather boots and laughs. “The irony is that Taib and his people think we’re a huge operation but there are just five of us with a couple of laptops and a mixer. Advances in MP3 technology mean that these days shortwave radio is cheap and easy to do. We’ve been so effective that Taib’s people believe we’re funded by George Soros, whose foundation funds Radio Free Burma.”
Her outfit – started in October from the dining room of her loft in Victoria where she lives “in shabby dilapidation” with Andrew and their two teenage children – costs less than £10,000 a month, she says. Initially she funded it herself but she’s since roped in some “better-off friends” who help out “anonymously”. “Not Gordon,” she hastens to add. “His support is strictly moral!”
Her passionate dedication to a cause 99 per cent of Londoners have never heard of sometimes causes strains, she admits, with friends and family. “But I honestly believe that Taib is probably one of the worst environmental criminals on the planet and that he has taken huge amounts from the country of my birth.”
She smiles. “He never saw me coming. When he set up his property companies in 1982, he could never have imagined that some mad woman sitting in her kitchen in London would unravel his property empire simply by scrutinising company reports online.”
As an investigative journalist who started with the BBC World Service in 1983, she is better equipped than most to uncover the wealth of the Mahmud family.
“My investigations have indicated that Taib and his family have a property empire in Canada, the US and the UK. Funds have been generated by Taib selling off rainforests with some of the money going through the British Virgin Islands.”
The Evening Standard put these allegations to those who are behind the companies and they were denied.
Rewcastle Brown’s passion for the rainforests of Sarawak was kindled as a child when she accompanied her mother, Karis, a midwife, into the jungle. Back then, Sarawak had the most biodiverse rainforest in the world with 3,000 species of trees, 15,000 plants, 420 birds and 221 mammals.
“My mother would drag me to remote clinics to show the indigenous Dayaks what a healthy baby should look like,” she recalls.
“Everyone in those villages sleeps in one long-house and my mother frequently saved the lives of their sick babies. As a kid, my first friends were the local children and we used to climb trees and run barefoot, dodging the odd scorpion.”
The family came to the UK when Rewcastle Brown was eight and she attended a private boarding school and later finished her masters in international relations at the LSE. It would be 38 years before she returned to Sarawak on a media trip where the degradation of the rainforest – so evident from the air – shocked her to the core.
In 2008 she went back to report on a by-election and secretly film companies clearing rainforest for oil palm. That was when she “fell into a peat bog and nearly died”, and it was also when she met Jaban, 46, an election monitor fired from Taib’s state-controlled radio for allowing callers to criticise the chief minister.
Last year she invited Jaban to become the voice of Radio Free Sarawak in London. It was a drastic step because it meant that while Taib stays in power, Jaban can never go back.
“I miss my four children, I miss my home,” he says, tears streaming. He looks vulnerable, like a fish out of water, but he suddenly straightens. “I am prepared to die for this cause,” he says. “In the days of my grandfather, you had to bring a decent clutch of heads as a sign of your masculinity when you got married. Today things have changed but you still have to be a man.”
What are their chances of success? Rewcastle Brown ponders for a moment. “People say our man hasn’t got a prayer in the election and that Taib will intimidate voters as he always does but I think our reports are having a huge effect and that there’s a groundswell for change.”
She smiles thinly. “You’ve got to take heart from what is happening in the Middle East to rulers who seemed equally immovable until just a few weeks ago.”