Behind the iron gates

By June Rubis
May 05, 2011

We stand separated by an iron gate.

Concerned villagers and relatives of Numpang Suntai are quietly gathered outside the gates of the Simunjan magistrate’s court. The rest of us, carefully picked by the police, are standing on the grounds of the court with his lawyers.

The day is February 16, 2011, and Numpang is on trial for criminal intimidation. He, along with five tuais rumah (Iban longhouse chiefs) and a prominent land rights activist, Nicholas Mujah, were previously arrested and detained a few months prior on suspicion of burning down a timber camp that stood on their native customary land.

The man of the hour stands quietly in the rain in solidarity with his supporters who came far and wide to be by his side. So does lawyer Edmund Bon who refused to step inside court grounds.

I had taken Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan pass the iron gate because she wanted to discuss with the lawyers regarding Numpang’s case. My job was done, and I stood uncertainly with the heavily-armed police and lawyers, wanting to be on the other side of the gate.

The villagers, locked out of the court grounds and standing without protection from the pouring rain, look sad and defeated.

The mood was a far cry from the night before, where about 1,000 rural indigenous people from all over Sarawak descended onto a longhouse in Simunjan for a very spirited rally on land rights issues, and in support of Numpang.

Brave Sarawakian activists spoke up against the injustice of his arrest, and arrests of others over the years. Then it was our honoured guests’ turn; guests who have come all the way from Kuala Lumpur.

Ambiga and Edmund both gave passionate non-partisan speeches, in their own inimitable way, about our constitutional rights, and how in their own backyard, the Orang Asli are facing the same land rights issues. They spoke about how the Orang Asal of Sarawak did not have to stand alone in their fight, and that they would not stand neither behind them, or in front of them, but rather side by side in support.

The tuais rumah quietly cried to hear such heartfelt support from two strangers from Peninsular Malaysia.

When it was Numpang’s turn, he spoke about being a “coward” because he was scared of what was going to happen to him. In all honesty, nothing could be further from the truth.

For the several months that I have gotten to know Numpang and his wife Helen, I have been struck by their combined courage and their quiet determination to save their native customary land from logging.

The fight wasn’t just for their land, but for the combined land of other afflicted longhouses. They did not plan to be activists in any way, they just wanted to save their forests from logging. Helen once spoke sadly to me about how eagles used to nest in their lands, but now they have all but disappeared because of the logging disturbance.

Prior to this, Numpang and Helen had led very quiet “respectable” lives, not wanting to be in the spotlight of a very controversial matter until they were forced to do so.

How many of us would give up our comfortable middle-class lives to defend something that we feel very strongly about? At the cost of possibility being incarcerated? Few of us would have Numpang and Helen’s courage.

I walk to the other side of the gate, and ask Edmund why he won’t join the rest of the lawyers in the court grounds where he could get out of the rain.

He looks at me with some exasperation, and explains: “Once we are separated, we have lost. We ALL should have just remained outside the court grounds and not let ourselves be divided.”

He was right.

For all the strength of the solidarity we had shared on the previous night, we had allowed ourselves to be diminished in power when we obediently followed police orders that only certain individuals were allowed into the court grounds. We had lost our bargaining chip.

We should have decided that none of us, including the lawyers, activists, supporters, would step one foot into the court grounds until all of us were admitted. The court grounds would have been large enough for everyone to gather, and it was a public place anyway.

On that day, we lost that brief struggle and it was our fault. The police played really well.

I think often about that fateful day and the important lesson I had learnt about solidarity, especially when I think about current Sarawak politics.

For all their combined desire to replace Barisan Nasional as the ruling state government, Pakatan Rakyat and SNAP allowed themselves to be divided.

And it is their fault. Sarawak Barisan Nasional played really well.

Yet it is just one state election, and who knows how much Pakatan Rakyat and SNAP have learnt from this experience.

As I drop off Ambiga and Edmund at the Kuching airport, and thank them for accepting my invitation to speak at the rally, I wondered about the impact of their speeches.

We spotted several Special Branch officers milling around the local NGO office that I had brought them to, and I am certain that they were also present in the rally.

I can attest that both Ambiga and Edmund spoke neither in favour or support for any political party on that night. The only misfortune was that PKR politicians had turned up, and what was supposed to be a non-partisan indigenous people rally turned into a political rally towards the end.

Needless to say, I was frustrated, and worried about the consequences for Ambiga and Edmund.

That day was Ambiga’s last day in Sarawak before she was banned from entering once more into our state.

We may be divided by the South China Sea, or by a government restriction, but in solidarity we stand side by side, neither in front or behind you.

The iron gate will not stop us.

On March 10, 2011, the magistrate discharged and acquitted Numpang on the grounds that the prosecution had failed to make up a prima facie case against him. He and his wife recently celebrated their daughter’s wedding.

  1. #1 by dagen on Friday, 6 May 2011 - 8:37 am

    No need for all that show. There is an easier route. Just vote umno out of putrajaya in GE13. Bravo anyway for that very commendable effort.

  2. #2 by mauriyaII on Friday, 6 May 2011 - 9:55 am

    So long as the Tuai Rumah of the long houses are willing to sell their customary and traditional rights for a few hundred ringgit, it is going to be an uphill task to dislodge the Barisan Neraka from Sarawak. It is the same in Semenanjung Malaysia where the village headmen and penghulus are minions of the BN. One way to break this strangle hold is to have the Tuai Rumah, village heads and the penghulus elected rather than being appointed by BN.

  3. #3 by monsterball on Friday, 6 May 2011 - 11:35 am

    ah..June Rubis..did you get the DAP toy?

  4. #4 by monsterball on Saturday, 7 May 2011 - 1:11 am

    Calling Sarawak DAP Chief!!
    Have you deliver the DAP toy or doll or whatever you call June Rubus as instructed by Lim Lim Siang?

  5. #5 by monsterball on Saturday, 7 May 2011 - 1:16 am

    I am willing to pay it plus what ever servives charges… promised by me.
    But it seems DAP is giving it FOC to her.
    Come on Sarawak DAP Chief!!
    Do make a habit to read blogs…especially from your legendary leader. Don’t make him remind you.

  6. #6 by monsterball on Saturday, 7 May 2011 - 1:34 pm

    They say no news is good news but this silent is surely not golden.
    Are we playing a guessing game?

  7. #7 by tak tahan on Saturday, 7 May 2011 - 1:53 pm

    Common,we all are expecting the news.Anyone concerned will do.

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