Gloom, anger mars Kaamatan celebrations

Casey Lee
Free Malaysia Today
May 14, 2011

KOTA BELUD: At the foothills of the majestic Mount Kinabalu, quiet gloom sits on scenic Kampung Tambatuon.

Despite being well into the festive month of Kaamatan or harvest festival in Sabah, there is little cheer here and much of it has to do with the state government’s insidious plan to build a dam nearby.

When we decided to visit Kampung Tambatous for a festive story, we were not prepared for the air of forebrooding that assailed us entering the village from the Kota Belud-Ranau bypass.

Fresh signs and banners shouting ‘No’ and ‘Amaran!’ (Warning) littered the winding 4km drive along a narrow gravel road into the village.

It belies a suspicion rarely found in any kampong in Sabah, where one usually senses welcome and amused curiousity.

Its mid-morning in Kampung Tambatuon and as we drove into the village a middle-aged woman stared suspiciously at our vehicle while others looked at us from doorways and windows .

This is the site of the state government’s proposed Tambatuon dam.

The villagers have been up in arms against the project for two years now.

These days all strangers are suspects and we are in their crosshairs.

Suspicious community

Komisi Duraman, 51, however recognises one of us and smiled tentatively as introductions are made.

We are courteously invited to sit in a patio outside a small village shop amidst a cluster of cooking gas cylinders and a few lounging dogs.

After giving us a brief rundown about the village and its population – there are about 80 houses and between 750 to 850 people – the kindergarten teacher reveals absentmindedly that Kaamatan, the main festival of the Kadazandusun and Murut community, is far from their minds.

“The villagers have formed a committee and they have discussed this year’s Kaamatan celebration but they haven’t decided on a date yet,” she said brushing off the question whilst beckoning a friend, Luinah Sondoton, who is returning from another village shop with a packet of frozen frankfurters. It’s for the family lunch.

Then Komisi and Luinah begin interrogating us in earnest.

“Where are you from? What are you doing here? Who are you? Why are you here?”.

We explain and Luinah relaxes, but reveals a hint of suspicion and worry as she answers our questions.
It’s to be expected.

Surveyors and consultants for the dam had come unannounced before and had stealthily begun studying the site which the villagers only discovered after they left when they spotted markers at various points around the village.

Both women seem to think our questions about the village Kaamatan celebrations absurd and trivial.

Recently, the Kadamaian River flowing through the village overflowed its banks and they lost part of their paddy crop.

Adding to that small catastrophe, weighing heavily on their minds is the government’s plan to dam the river and flood the valley where the village nestles under about 100 hundred metres of water.

Against this scenario harvest festival celebrations are not a priority and hasn’t been so for two years.

Oath stone

Since 2009, the village Kaamatan celebration has not been graced by their elected representative, which had been the case until the villagers rounded on him for not fighting for them against the proposed dam.

“Last year, the director of Rukun Tetangga (Volunteer Watch) came to officiate our Kaamatan and the year before that, there was some officer from a government department. We lost our importance,” Komisi laughed.

Both she and Luinah, however, are defiant of the government’s snub. They claimed other villagers are upset too.

It’s for good reason their assemblyman, Herbert Timbon Lagadan, has chosen to stay clear of the village and not attend any celebrations with them.

He’s been pushing for the dam to be built which they said will happen only “over our dead bodies”.

They are fearful for the future that awaits them if they are displaced, after being alerted by the experience of other communities such as those affected by the Bakun dam project in Sarawak.

“There has not been one dam project in Malaysia that has meant a better life for the villagers that were relocated,” they said.

They also tell of a historical landmark that secured their land from harm and noted that life had been lost before to defend the village.

A ‘Batu Sumpah’ (oath stone) dating back to the British colonial government era was said to have been placed at the site of the old village nearby in commemoration of the ‘battle’ and as a promise that Kampung Tambatoan would be secured and those who seeked to destroy it will pay in blood as the oath was sworn in blood.

The folklore noted how four villagers were dragged around and killed by Japanese soldiers during the World War II occupation, as the village elders sought to save their homes from being burned down.

“We will fight to defend our homes, just as our forefathers sacrificed themselves to save our village during the Japanese occupation,” said 46-year-old Jahim Singkui who joined the chat.

Good life

For most of the residents of Tambatuon, leaving the village where they were raised and their ancestors have resided for 18 generations has never crossed their minds.

“Life is good here and we want to remain the way we are in the same place. We have everything we need. We have rice, fruits and rubber and we have water, electricity and telephones,” said Luinah.

“My children see the ‘Facebook’…they know how to check the news and they show us,” the 45-year-old mother said proudly when asked if she keeps in touch with the news on the internet. She repeatedly asked about when she could see this report.

Since the 1960s, the village has been self-sustaining.

The villagers live on the rice they plant on the paddy fields that are irrigated by the river.

They sell the fruits grown in their orchards and the rubber tapped from the trees cultivated on the slopes of surrounding hills at Kota Belud town about 30 km away.

Proudly speaking of the villagers’ independence, Jahim said: “We have even used our own funds to build roads and other infrastructure without government help.”

The number of vehicles, both locally made Proton Sagas as well as the larger Japanese four-wheel drives, attest to their relative prosperity and wellbeing.

The village, which now has a community hall, a church, a primary school, a kindergarten and some rest-houses that act as home-stays for tourists is growing year by year.

“Since we started our protest, our state assemblyman has not come to our village once,” said Jahim, settling himself on a broken plastic chair and launching what appeared to be his favourite topic.

“We were not told that a dam would be built until two years ago when consultants disguised as tourists came to stay in the rest-houses.

“They came and pretended to be studying birds and animals and they spoke with some of the villagers. After they left, we discovered that they have left rock markers in certain areas.

“After that, a large earth-boring machine was brought near our village and when we questioned the drivers for the reason all they could tell us was that they were told to come here. So we sent them away.

“After that, the consultants returned and showed us the plans that a dam was to be built near the village and that was when we first knew about it,” he said.

Foiled attempts

The villagers, led by Jahim’s father Singkui Tinggi, who was then the village chief launched a protest against the dam and was sacked for it by the state government.

In the meantime, opposition figures found out about the protest and a string of high-profile leaders including Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) president Yong Teck Lee, United Borneo Front (UBF) chairman Dr Jeffrey Kitingan have since visited the village to lend support to the residents.

Even national opposition party leaders like Lim Kit Siang spoke out against the dam which is expected to cost the government around half a billion ringgit.

Despite the embarrassing high-profile protest, numerous attempts have been made to sneak in heavy machineries through surrounding villages but all attempts were foiled.

According to Jahim, who is now the chairman of an anti-dam committee, its proposed construction would affect the livelihood of some 10 villages and thousands situated near or along the 50km long river that starts at Mount Kinabalu.

He and his committee have been too busy preparing memorandums and gathering signatures from hundreds of affected villagers to be submitted to parliament, to spare much time to plan the village Kaamatan celebration.

The memorandum has already been given to deputy chief minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan and Yong, a former chief minister, when they visited the village.

Sabah DAP chairman Jimmy Wong has also visited Kampung Tambatuon on hearing of the residents’ plight.

Marked man

Now Jahim and his committee are shrewdly deliberating ratcheting up the pressure on the government by inviting PKR de-facto leader Anwar Ibrahim to the village as a guest of honour for the yet to be decided Kaamatan celebration.

“We are planning…we believe that Wan Azizah (PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail) would be around Kota Belud on the 28th but we want Anwar to come to celebrate Kaamatan with us,” said Jahim with a grin.

Knowing that he could be a marked man for saying as much, Jahim nevertheless said that Anwar’s presence would show the BN government that it could lose this constituency (N7 Kadamaian) both at the state and parliamentary (P169 Kota Belud) level in the next election.

The same unhappiness and worry is being felt in other villages in Penampang district where more dams have been proposed.

Villagers surrounding the proposed Kaiduan dam are threatened by displacement while in Tampasak, which was affected by the Babagon dam, villagers are waiting for compensation.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Sunday, 15 May 2011 - 8:31 am

    ” No” to the proposed Tambatuon dam?

    But your great Huguan Siou of the Kadazandusun says ‘Yes’!

    You reap what you sow.

  2. #2 by Bigjoe on Sunday, 15 May 2011 - 9:04 am

    They may be ready to vote BN out BUT if the current fiasco of right-wing rhetoric continues, Najib may NOT go for GE because a less than stellar showing in the GE in such an environment would lead to his ouster. Its not good for him of course as the economy is slowing down and inflation continues unabated. If he raises petrol prices, we know the election will be off for a while..Otherwise, it will happen soon.

    Again, clearly Najib is not sleeping well these days..

  3. #3 by Sallang on Sunday, 15 May 2011 - 4:13 pm

    Jeffrey, where are you?

    I have only been to Sabah once, KK to be exact, and I took a drive from KK to Tuaran, and then to the Kinabalu foothill, and the popular hot spring.
    To drive back to KK, the locals told me to leave before 1.00pm, otherwise I may find it difficult to drive through thick fog.
    Through enough, I had that experience of my life.
    1.00pm. Thick fog!
    I cannot see the need to build dams in Sabah. With all the beautiful hills around, water is ever flowing, and the land is so rich.
    Whoever is governing Sabah, please do not exploit the State for money. Value the beautiful country side. Develop the main towns, and improve on the roads and everything will fall into place.

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