Following the swell of public information about corruption in the Borneo states of Malaysia, human rights observers and indigenous communities have taken action to demand a due response on Native Customary Rights issues.
Written by Simone Adler, Communications and Events Intern
Recent revelations of corruption and abuse of land rights in both Sarawak, currently amidst its general election, and Sabah have put government ministers in a defensive position. A video investigation by the NGO Global Witness exposed the illegal land-swapping deals that have occurred between logging and palm oil companies and the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Taib Mahmud, and his family.
The Global Witness video went viral as some of the most detailed and indisputable evidence of corruption. Taib’s reaction was defensive indeed – he blamed the NGO and the ensuing investigations by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) for trying to frame him. Yet, what was revealed in the video was clear: Taib and his cronies believe that the indigenous peoples living in the rainforests of Borneo are “squatters” on their land.
Prime Minister Refuses to Release Report on Human Rights Violations
What’s more, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, SUHAKAM, wrote a detailed report investigating the treatment of these indigenous communities in Sabah, Sarawak, and the Orang Asli of the peninsula who are suffering a lack of legal protection for their native land on which their history and culture has survived.
Yet the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, has withheld the release of the SUHAKAM report, clearly in fear of how Malaysians and the international community will react to the shocking details of how the ruling party, Barisan National (BN), has violated the human rights of native peoples over the last 5 decades.
The independent Sarawak Report accessed a leaked copy of the SUHAKAM report, and posted the report in full on its website on 21 April.
One chapter of the report titled “Non-Recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Land” sums up the sentiment echoed in the Global Witness video – that natives are belittled, treated like “squatters” and “coolies” and lack proper acknowledgement from the government. The report states:
“Economic Impacts, 9.11: Non-recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to land has displaced some indigenous peoples from their customary land and deprived them of their livelihood. Economic self-reliance has been progressively reduced, making indigenous communities dependent on government subsidies and handouts and vulnerable to exploitation, forcing them to become coolies on their own land. This will make it difficult to attain the international commitment made to the Programme of Action for the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People.”
The SUHAKAM report calls for a full restitution of land rights, the formation of an Indigenous Land Tribunal, and access to legal aid for indigenous peoples so that their rights can be finally recognized and addressed in accordance with the international declarations on their rights.
As stated in the recommendations of the report:
“Remedy and Loss, 10.17: Deprivation of indigenous peoples’ right to land in order to carry out poverty eradication schemes, economic development and conservation efforts, or by fraudulent means through the use of powers of attorney and other forms of illegal land transfers, has occurred without adequate mechanisms for complaints and redress. Remedying past wrongs and instituting redress mechanisms will not only restore faith in the government and reconcile conflicts, but also ensure justice and fairness to those whose land has been taken.”
“Redress Mechanisms, 10.19: The Inquiry strongly recommends the establishment of an Indigenous Land Tribunal or Commission composed of retired judges and experts on indigenous customary rights to resolve issues and complaints related to indigenous peoples’ land claims that are brought before it. The Tribunal or Commission should be empowered to decide on these complaints and issues, including appropriate settlements or redress related to a case.
Lim Kit Siang, a member of the DAP (an opposing party to the ruling BN) demanded that PM Najib make the SUHAKAM report public. “I call on Najib to give his personal attention and within 24 hours, state that he has no objection to the immediate release of the report,” Lim told reporters on 25 April. In an article by MalaysiaKini, Lim stated that this is not the first time that SUHAKAM has been ignored.
Anti-Corruption Commission Doing Its Job?
Following the release of the Global Witness video, the MACC director, Mustafar Ali, said that the MACC would act accordingly on the information revealed in the video. Ali noted that a file had been opened based on previous corruption allegations against Taib.
However, the MACC has not advanced much in its investigation, and skepticism has been brewing about the effectiveness of the MACC in combating corruption.
On 18 April, protests took place outside the MACC office in Miri. Led by Sarawak Native Customary Land Rights Network, TAHABAS, people came out to demonstrate that they want action on the part of the MACC in prosecuting Taib for the allegations of corruption. TAHABAS submitted a letter outlining their demands to the MACC prior to the protest.
The MACC may be hindered by its own political hang ups as PM Najib holds sway over the commission. Therefore, the MACC suffers a lack of independence from the government it should be holding accountable. The MACC has come up with several reasons why it has been unable to move forward on its corruption investigations, including its inability to access any paperwork declaring political leaders’ assets. But online media (such as Sarawak Report and MalaysiaKini) have not only been able to uncover a wealth of this financial information, they have also posted it online.
Monitoring Human Rights During Election
The terms for the current SUKUHAM commissioners ended midnight of 25 April, meaning that the human rights commission will not be active during the current election. Polling will take place on 5 May and political violence has already become an issue less than a week into campaigning. SUKUHAM will not be able to act on any matters brought to its attention.
The report, though still not made officially public, will be tabled in parliament and the outgoing SUKUHAM president hopes it will be debated.
The following key findings in the SUKUHAM report (outlined in chapter 7 and summarized in an article by Sarawak Report) are of great importance to the indigenous communities hoping to be heard during this election:
- Sarawak state government has ignored Malaysian court rulings which have upheld the rights of indigenous peoples.
- Sarawak state government has failed to make available information that should be public and easily accessible.
- Responses to cases and complaints have been delayed, inconsistent, and dissolute.
- No due notice is given to natives when their land is handed over to timber and plantation companies.
- Communities were left to negotiate with heavy handed logging and plantation corporations without any information being given to them about their rights and without any access to legal support.
- Taib made the decision that his own Land Custody and Development Authority (LCDA) could act as a “trustee” for the natives’ interests – yet he uses this authority to take their land and hand it to companies in so-called state sponsored ‘joint ventures’.
- Failure by the police to assist native communities when their rights are breached or when they are intimidated/attacked by gangsters working for timber and plantation companies.
- Environmental Impact Assessments have been knowingly overlooked or inadequately carried out by the Taib administration.
- No attempt at consultation with affected peoples when licences are handed out on their lands. Or if there was consultation, it was inadequate. This is a violation of the human rights and indigenous rights of the people’s whose land he has been grabbing.
- There have been no dividends from any development projects given to the indigenous communities. Instead it has all gone in the pockets of Taib’s family and his cronies.
- Compensation for displacement from native land has not been granted to the indigenous communities.
- Delays in processing legal complaints from natives allowed Taib to continue with his development projects even while disputes are being settled. This has resulted in natives becoming ineligible for compensation for their losses.
- Authorities have bullied, intimidated, and threatened indigenous peoples when they were seeking assistance, forcing them to surrender their rights to Taib’s business interests.
It seems as though the MACC will not have much clout in taking action, and without an active SUKUHAM, it is unclear if the elections will reflect the concerns of indigenous communities and their Native Customary Rights.