Indigenous Communities in Sarawak Express Outrage at Derogatory Remarks – Potential Influence on General Election

Offensive commets made in a recent video expose on land-selling corruption in Malaysian Borneo has provoked reaction from several indigenous community organizations throughout Sarawak. Their solidarity in opposition to the ruling state government could influence the outcomes of the upcoming General Election in Malaysia. 

Written by Simone Adler, Communications and Events Intern

Read more about Human Rights and Stopping Timber Corruption in Sarawak

The Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia (Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia, JOAS) confirmed its solidarity with the Dayak community in a press release announcing concerns over derogatory and offensive remarks made by family members of the incumbent Taib administration. 

In the recent Global Witness video, “Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State”, which went viral for exposing the corrupt land deals made by Taib’s family and cronies at the expense of Borneo’s rain forests and indigenous peoples, the Abdul Rahman sisters demeaned Sarawak natives as “squatters” who were “naughty” for wanting compensation due to land grabbing of their customary land that has belonged to them for generations. 

JOAS stands with the Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU) and its women’s wing, Sarakup Indu Dayak Sarawak (SIDS) who have demanded a public apology for the remarks made in the video. 

“JOAS views such remarks as insinuating and deplorable and shows total disrespect to the indigenous Dayak communities as citizens of this country and that our customary rights to our lands, territories and resources are not given due protection by law,” states Thomas Jalong, President of JOAS.

SDNU Vice President, Anthony Banyan, commented “The SDNU and SIDS  detest certain contents  of the Global Witnesss’ video…that insinuated the Dayak as a community are easily manipulated by the business community due to perceived hardcore poverty and low intelligence.” Banyan adds, “The Dayaks are civilised people with dignity and respect. Therefore, we request the persons who uttered the remarks to issue public  apology and own up their doings in disparaging the image of the Dayak community.”

In addition to the demand from SIDS and SDNU, the Dayak Chamber of Commerce (DCCI) and Sarawak Dayak Graduates’ Association (SGDA) are speaking out against claims that natives can be easily exploited and manipulated. 

In the DCCI annual meeting held this past week, bringing together over 500 Dayak entrepreneurs and professionals, the offensive comments in the Global Witness video were at the forefront of discussion

“We firmly believe that the natives have rights in our land. Our rights in land have been well entrenched in our laws, culture and customs which are duly recognised and accepted by our courts. These rights should be respected by all,” said DCCI secretary-general Libat Langub in a statement issued after the meeting.

Similarly, SGDA president Dr. Dusit Jaul questioned the legitimacy of calling natives ‘squatters’, when it was the native ancestors who pioneered new lands in Sarawak. 

“How can anyone claim that the natives are occupying land illegally based on a land code which was only legislated in 1958?” asked Dusit. “They have been occupying and opening up virgin forests for hundreds of years.” 

Protest from Jalau

People in the Sarawak district of Jalau have come out to protest the disposal of their Native Customary Rights to land by Taib’s family members, as revealed in the Global Witness video. A demonstration took place on 26 March, just after Andy Wong, front-runner of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) issued both a police report and a report to the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) requesting investigation into the governmental land-grabbing corruption. 

The Chief Minister has decided to not cooperate with the MACC investigation, calling himself a ‘victim’ of graft claims and labeling the MACC as ‘naughty and dishonest’. 

How will this influence the upcoming 2013 General Election? 

In their demand for an apology, the indigenous organizations (JOAS, SDNU, SIDS, DCCI and SGDA) and the Julau protestors bring attention to the federal government’s negligence at recognizing Sarawak’s native customs, culture, and circumstances in carrying out land policies. 

The translation of the Global Witness video to Iban, an indigenous language in Borneo, has allowed further  exposure to the corruption endemic in Sarawak. This may strengthen opposition to Taib’s Barisan National (BN) coalition, which faces reelection this year. Dayak communities may be the toss-up for the BN and the opposition. So far, there has been no public reaction (or apology) from Taib’s BN partly leaders in regards to the Global Witness video, which will continue to be circulated in Iban to communities. 

As one opposition leader requesting to remain anonymous expressed, “Perhaps they agree with the remarks that the Dayaks are poor, of low intelligence and can be bought over easily with RM30 or RM40.”

It is clear that the election will be a tight one, and the support for the BN among Dayaks is declining. Yet, solidarity among the JOAS network is growing as people use evidence of corruption in the Global Witness video as their tool this election and perhaps beyond as a means of communicating that indigenous communities in Borneo will not tolerate belittlement or corruption – they will stand up for their Native Customary Rights to land.