Denounced by relatives, ex-engineer battles on for indigenous S’wakians

The Borneo Project has been pleased to work with activist and SAVE Rivers Chairman Peter Kallang for several years on issues pertaining to indigenous rights in Sarawak. Read this activist profile published by Malaysiakini to learn more about Peter.

Peter Kallang receives BMF award

Of all the hardships faced by former oil and gas engineer Peter Kallang in his quest to fight for the rights of indigenous Sarawakians, their land and rivers, nothing was as painful as having been denounced by his own flesh and blood.

As it came to pass, some of his own close relatives had filed police reports against him, calling for his arrest.

“The saddest day of my life was when my own relatives lodged complaints against me, because they claimed that I had no right to talk for the people, especially on behalf of those against the dam.

“It hurts me, it affects my relationships, they are my flesh and blood,” said the 66-year-old indigenous rights activist.

However he is not totally unused to skepticism and bad-mouthing from others, in his years as an activist.

Even as he made a lot of friends along the way, he made a lot of enemies as well.

Nowadays, besides seeing some of his relatives turning away from him, he sometimes finds a cold reception from many he once considered friends, as they are no longer comfortable hanging out with him due to his strong views and native-rights advocacy.

“Some old friends don’t want to go against the government, hence they don’t want to be close with me. Maybe they are afraid of being arrested,” he said.

Though despite such challenges, Peter still plans to go on with his activism against the building of the Baram dam which will displace hundreds of native Sarawakians.

As far as he is concerned, nothing will stop him from pursuing rights of indigenous people in Sarawak and Malaysia.

And it was for this tireless and relentless activism that he was recently honoured with the Bruno Manser Prize for Moral Courage in Switzerland.

This is his story, in his own words:

I WAS AN EMPLOYEE IN THE OIL AND GAS BUSINESS. I worked as an engineer for Shell. At the same time, I did some part-time jobs in some other companies.

A KENYAH, BORN AND BROUGHT UP IN BARAM, I was the secretary of the Sarawak Shell Employees Union. I am also involved a lot in church youth training and seminars. I am active in a number of Orang Ulu and Kenyah associations. I was appointed as a branch president back then. My job is to fight for their rights and to preserve the people’s culture.

IN 1999, I LEFT THE OIL AND GAS FIELD, AND GOT INVOLVED IN NETWORK MARKETING, recruiting and training people under me all around East and West Malaysia. Then, I decided to go back to engineering and partnered with a friend. After four years, I felt out of place and want to do something for other people. So I accepted the offer to be chairman of Save Rivers in October 22, 2011.

WE HAVE BEEN WORKING HARD TO OPPOSE THE BARAM DAM, because it is the next dam to be built after the completion of the Murum dam. Some of us were involved in opposing the Murum dam. Unfortunately we did not have good coordination in our struggle against the Murum dam. We learnt our lesson.

SAVE SARAWAK RIVERS AND THE BARAM PEOPLE ACTION COMMUNITY were formed to look after Baram. We ask them to form their own community, we need them to work on the ground. We need people to know them on personal basis.

BALEH DAM IS THE NEXT DAM WE ARE TARGETING. We have a problem here because above the dam, there are very few people living there. We don’t have enough people to mobilise. We are working on it, but we are not really sure if it’s going to be built. The government is not transparent with its plans yet.

I AM REALLY HONOURED TO GET THE AWARD but it is not I alone in this struggle. The grassroots who support us are very essential. This is not my effort alone. When we first started, no one came when we call for a meeting. But eventually we succeeded in stopping Baram dam.

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE FACE ENCROACHMENT OF NATIVE LAND, many developers are cutting timber and taking over their native custom land. In both West Malaysia or Sarawak and Sabah, they depend a lot on land. Outsiders are encroaching on the livelihood of the Orang Asli. The government has to resolve this. In the UN declaration on right of indigenous people, it stated that they have rights to keep the tradition, land, custom and languages.

WE ARE ALSO CONCERNED ABOUT MIGRATION TO THE CITIES. Many indigenous people who migrate to cities don’t have jobs, they become squatters, because they don’t have a livelihood. Hence, we should take rural development very seriously. The government is raping all the resources, timber and dams. They people who are directly affected by the development, they are not benefitting. We will have a lot of slums in cities if we don’t take this seriously.

LAND IN SARAWAK IS VAST BUT SO MUCH IS NOT DEVELOPED. Land provides an alternative livelihood for people who live there, who also maintain the flora fauna. The indigenous people in these areas, they are very small minorities, they are almost an endangered species. Thus the government should look into their rights seriously.

WHAT STILL REMAINS OF SARAWAK’S ONCE VAST PRIMARY FOREST, we are proposing the government keep safe from exploitation. Even though the government has the right to give out development licenses, we want them to revoke the licenses. It is necessary that the forest is jointly managed by the government and people who live in the area. They should be allowed to take the non-timber products. We have some good news as the director the Sarawak forestry authority has received the proposal very positively.

MY ASPIRATION IS FOR SARAWAK TO BECOME MORE DEMOCRATIC than it is now. The only time they recognise democracy is during elections, but democracy does not stop with the ballot box, it must be a continuous process. There has to be transparency in the government. They should involve people in decision making. Big dam or big development, consultation and agreement with all parties are needed. Development in Sarawak should not be about destruction.

EDUCATION SHOULD BE UP TO INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS. In my own village, we have ten students there, and 11 teachers, it is a very small community. When the results come out, it is very bad and I don’t understand why 11 teachers can’t teach ten students. Facilities are very bad, some schools have no water, no electricity, no access to amenities like the internet.

MEDICAL CARE ALSO IS NECESSARY. The standard should be above international standards. If you go to one of the villages in Baram, Long San, you will see there is a clinic, but with not enough facilities. They have one nurse, but it is so hard to get there as access is via timber roads. People have died on the way to getting treatment.

SHARING OF THE WEALTH IN COUNTRY IS IMPORTANT. Our timber has been extracted, our land developed for oil palm. And who are the owners of these companies? They are just tycoons living elsewhere. People living here don’t benefit from that. Where is the money? Some of them even donate money to Australian universities, whereas standards are still low in local universities.

SOME PEOPLE IN WEST MALAYSIA DON’T UNDERSTAND the situation in Sarawak when it comes to elections. Here in Sabah and Sarawak, especially Sarawak, we are so undeveloped, some do not have amenities like water, electricity, good roads and good schools.

When the election comes, when BN come and promise them goods, good school and what not, this is something very important for them so they can easily accept this. They believe the BN will stick to what they said. You can’t blame them. The people are at the level where it is all about bread and butter issues.

THE GOVERNMENT IS DOING THIS INTENTIONALLY to make the rural people poor so that they are always dependent on the government. The people are cut off from the social media. They don’t know about the scandals, about 1MDB. The only news they have now is from RTM, the radio. They get information from these media which portray the government in such a good way. Why we need freedom and full democracy.


This article was written by Chris Lau and was originally published on July 17, 2016 by