Once docile Sarawak native villagers turning anti-BN activists

by Sheridan Mahavera
The Malaysian Insider
2 November 2015

Iban farmer Jimmy Saban did not care much about politics until the day government men, some of them armed with guns, came to take away the land that’s been in his clan and family for generations.

Saban is one of the growing numbers of unassuming farmers, foragers and peasants who are now anti-Barisan Nasional activists, and whose fervent talks against the Sarawak government could be a factor in the coming state elections.

What distinguishes 61-year-old Saban from the middle-class, urbanised opposition activist is that he is a farmer, just like those he speaks to.

Most importantly, he has seen first-hand how tribes people lose their lands in shady deals by private companies who are often backed by the state authorities.

Saban’s story of how tribal lands are still being unscrupulously taken away counters the narrative that is being churned out by chief minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem’s administration and that of the federal BN.

Ever since taking office, Adenan has won praise from Sarawakians for saying he wanted to recognise ancestral claims or native customary land rights (NCR).

In the 11th Malaysia Plan and the recent Budget 2016, Putrajaya also earmarked money for what they claimed as measures to secure NCR land.

Saban and many other farmer-activists are out to challenge these claims and show that Adenan and Putrajaya do not mean what they say.


Three of the activists interviewed are from different tribes in different parts of Sarawak. But their stories are remarkably similar.

They were either apolitical or BN supporters, until they claimed the Sarawak government betrayed them.

Saban and the residents of three longhouses along Sungai Pandan claimed that in 2007 they were duped by state government officers into relinquishing their claims to their ancestral lands.

“They told us to fill and sign these forms to confirm our lands these belonged to us. We signed. One week later they came and seized our land. They took the land for an acacia plantation company,” claimed Saban, whose longhouse is three hours by boat from Bintulu.

The villagers believed the form was altered after they signed it to show that they had relinquished claims to those lands.

He said the 46 families lost about one third of 4,000 ha which they claimed was theirs. The land seized was planted with oil palm, pepper, fruit and vegetables, all of which was destroyed.

“This land is what I survive on. The crops feed me, my wife and my grand-daughter,” said Saban.

In a video recording the farmers took of the 2007 land seizure, men in dark blue uniforms of the Sarawak local council were seen tearing down storage huts the farmers had built.

The officers went about their work as men in light blue police uniforms stood guard with M-16 assault rifles.

Female villagers cried and pleaded with some of the local council officers to stop the demolition and have pity on them.

‘My toe nails got ripped out for BN’

In Bengoh, some 45 minutes from Kuching, Bidayuh villager Gracey Kibik became an activist when she saw how her community was being duped in negotiations to resettle villagers in the Bengoh dam project.

“(Sarawak government) first told us we had to move from our old villages to higher ground to make way for the dam. But when we set up a new settlement, they told us we could not stay, we had to move again. That was when I knew there was something fishy,” said Kibik, 48, of Kampung Muk Ayun.

Far in the northern highlands, Yaris Semayong (pic, right) related how he had been a committed BN supporter and activist and had canvassed for votes for Sarawak BN in the 90s.

“During one of the campaigns, I walked so much that I ripped out one of my toe nails. That’s how dedicated I was,” said the 54-year-old Lun Bawang farmer from Kampung Long Sukang.

Semayong was slowly turned off by BN when he saw how the Sarawak government did not deliver on its promises and that their state assembly representatives were self-centred.

“Then I started supporting (Sarawak PKR chief) Baru Bian, who I knew since he was little and who helped a lot of people with NCR cases.”

Changing sentiments

These days, Saban, Kibik and Semayong are active speakers and campaigners in the ceramah and programmes of Sarawak’s opposition parties and non-governmental organisations.

Kibik gives talks all over Sarawak, Sabah and to peninsular Orang Asal communities who are in conflict with their respective local governments or private companies.

Her experience in the Bengoh dam project is widely sought after by other communities in East Malaysia who are being displaced by similar dam projects.

Saban travels the length of Sungai Pandan to share with other longhouses the experience of how his longhouse lost their land and how they can prevent it from happening to them.

Semayong, meanwhile, helps bring small infrastructure projects, such as gravity feed water systems or micro-hydro schemes, which are sponsored by opposition parties, into villages in the Lawas highlands.

“Small projects help people see that the PKR or DAP can deliver,” said Semayong, claiming that in the surrounding villages, only their chiefs remained BN supporters. Everyone younger than 50 is an opposition voter, he claimed.

Although rural sentiments towards the BN and opposition have gradually changed, the three activists admitted that support for the opposition was not necessarily a sure thing in the coming state elections.

When asked what would really determine how the villagers would vote, all three responded the same way.

They frowned, held up one hand, and rubbed their thumbs against their index and middle fingers. – November 2, 2015.

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