Justice now for Penan rape victims

Finally, it is officially confirmed – Penan girls in the interiors have been raped and sexually harassed by timber camp workers.

The story first broke in October last year when some Penan rape victims came to Kuala Lumpur in the company of a few women NGOs to seek redress for their plight.

Because of the seriousness of the allegations and the publicity around the issue, a special task force was set up on Oct 8, 2008 under the then Women, Family, and Community Development Minister Ng Yen Yen. The task force also included representatives from a number of other ministries.

I know for a fact that the task force did send a delegation to visit the Penan settlements to interview the rape victims. They were helped by the local NGOs, and did not encounter much problem during their investigation. A source reported that one female official was sobbing as she was taking down the testimony of the rape victims.

Then inspector-general of police Musa Hassan took a personal interest in the matter, and invited some Sarawak NGOs and their West Malaysian counterparts for a meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Jan 9 this year.

He subsequently instructed his men and women to work with the NGOs to probe into the rape allegations. Until today, the investigation has yet to made a single trip to interview the Penan victims in their villages. It is probably not high on their list of priorities.

Then silence reigned supreme. I had heard quite a while back that the task force report had been prepared and later approved by the cabinet, but somehow it was hidden deep in the bowels of bureaucratic officialdom.

Then a few days ago, PKR Wanita chief Zuraidah Kamaruddin and her team held a protest outside the Women, Family and Community Development Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil’s office, demanding that the report be released. They were given a copy of the task force just like that, “Nah, ini dia!”

My communal blog ‘Hornbill Unleashed‘ uploaded the report on the same day, Sept 8, and it was quickly picked up by net news portals such as Malaysiakini. Three days later, it made frontpage headline in the Star, detailing all the horror the Penan women and girls had to suffer at the hands of the lecherous timber camp workers.

For once, I was pleased with and grateful to the Star, even if it is owned by MCA. I know its reporters have been under some pressure to step back a little from covering the unfolding events.

CM: Rape reports all ‘lies’

What has been the official response so far?

The Sarawak Woman and Family Council chairperson and Assistant Minister in the Sarawak Chief Minister’s Department Fatimah Abdullah has refrained from giving comments until she has read all the reports and discussed with her council members.

She said there are different investigations by different groups with their own agenda, so she had to be careful.

She is amazingly simplistic of course, despite her long title. She could have easily read the task force’s report online. Besides, there has been no investigation at all by the police or any official authorities, except that which was conducted by the Woman, Family and Community Development.

When she talked about agenda, she was probably thinking of those NGOs and foreign instigators hiding behind every tree in Sarawak’s vast jungle.

Moreover, she did not express any concern for the Penan girls who were raped.

Fatimah is just a junior member of the Sarawak state government. Let us hear what the leading lights of the Sarawak administration have to say.

When the story broke last year, the Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud said the reports were nothing but “lies” and demanded that the newspapers corrected them. “Check your information or you will be suspected by the decent people of Sarawak of trying to sabotage us when we have toiled and developed our state,” he said.

Deputy Chief Minister Alfred Jabu, who is the chairperson of the steering committee on Penan Affairs, said that it would be a waste of time to investigate. He said: “I have not heard of such complaints from the Penan communal leaders in my many visits to Ulu Baram.”

Sarawak Rural Development Minister James Masing described the Penans as “good storytellers”.Then on Sept 8, the Sarawak CID chief senior assistant commissioner II Huzir Mohamad told the Star that unless the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry can furnish them with details such as names, place, and time, the police cannot do much investigation.

This really takes the cake. The police are paid by the taxpayers to investigate the reports of crimes. A year after the police reports had been lodged, they are still waiting for the ministry to do their police job. Talk about Little Napoleons!

Police the problem, not solution

Actually, the police are the problem, and not a solution to the problems faced by the Penans.

In the past, whenever the Penans put up blockades to stop the incursion into their ancestral land by logging and plantation companies, the police would come and arrest them and break up their blockades.

Without having read Karl Marx, the naturally wise Penans have long ago realised that the police are part of the superstructure of the state out to protect the interest of the capitalists. Whatever report they make to the police will be consistently ignored.

Even if a police team were to be sent to the Penan settlements to investigate the rape allegations, the Penans have such fear and suspicion for these officers of the law that they will run to hide in the forest.

The Penans will only trust those NGO activists who have been working for a long time with them, and for them. There is a coalition of 35 Malaysian NGOs actively agitating for justice for the Penan rape victims. Since last year, they have pledged their cooperation with the police to get to the bottom of the matter. Without their help, the police may as well give up on investigating the cases.

In the end, the police have not cooperated with the NGOs. They refused to accept the NGOs’ terms of reference, their itinerary, the mode of transport, and even the proposals as to where to meet the Penan rape victims.

The police are simply not culturally sensitive to the unique Penan way of doing things. To them, the Penans are the subaltern objects of administration, and not subjects like all other Malaysians whose life and personal security the police are paid to protect.

The Penans are a small community of about 12,000 people, living in the remote upper reaches of the Baram and Rejang rivers. The so-called “development” brought in by the logging and plantation industries have resulted in endless grief for the Penan, though the opening of the rainforests has brought immense wealth to a few politically-connected individuals.

Even as you read this, there are a few Penan blockades in the Baram region where they try to challenge the might of the bulldozers with their blow pipes and their bodies. In the Bakun area in upriver Rejang, some 3,000 Penans are suffering from an acute shortage of food because of failed crops and destruction of their food source in the jungle.

The rape of young Penan girls may still be going on.

Please do not for a moment think that the Penans are far away, out of sight, and therefore out of mind. They are like you and me, fellow Malaysian citizens who should benefit from the fruits of independence and development.

The rape of women anywhere is a hideous, heinous crime of violence. To appreciate the sorry plight of the Penan womenfolk, just ask this question to yourself: “How will I feel if my young daughters are raped by total strangers who happen to be driving their school buses?”

SIM KWANG YANG can be reached at kenyalang@hotmail.com

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