What Rainforest?

Penan Sexual Abuse News Reports By Hilary Chiew
October 6, 2008, 12:37 am
Filed under: Indigenous People, Logging, Media Reports

The following are 4 news and feature stories by Hilary Chiew. All articles were published in The Star on Monday 6 October 2008.

Penan girls claim abuse

PETALING JAYA: School was supposed to be a way for the community to improve their socio-economic situation.

However, Penan girls hitching rides to school and back have now found themselves easy victims of sexual abuse by logging company workers.

Interviews conducted in settlements in the Middle Baram area in northern Sarawak, revealed that several students had become victims of rapes by logging workers.

The students are boarders in two secondary schools in the area and only go back to their settlements during the school holidays.

Village leaders have previously appealed to timber camp managers to provide transportation for the students so that their journeys can be cut down to several hours from up to a week if done on foot.

Last year, a 16-year-old student from Long Kawi, a settlement in the Middle Baram, became pregnant after being raped while returning to her boarding school. She gave birth recently.

Relating the incident, she said she was hitching a ride with a logging company vehicle back to her school SMK Long Lama.

When the driver reached the logging camp, he refused to continue driving although the school was not much further.

She alleged that she was dragged to some bushes behind the camp and raped by a man who she believed had been drinking.

A student from the other secondary school with boarding facilities in Long San said she knew of cases of female students being driven to logging camps when taking transportation provided by companies.

Long Belok settlement headman Alah Beling believed the known cases could just be the tip of the iceberg.

Earlier reports quoted Sarawak Police Commissioner Datuk Mohmad Salleh as saying that police were prepared to launch immediate investigations into the allegations of sexual abuse against Penan girls by logging workers.

Women, Family and Community Develop-ment Minister Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen and the Human Rights Commission have said that the complaints would be investigated.

Allegations of sexual abuse against Penan girls came to light after it was exposed last month by local and foreign non-governmental organisations.

Violated By Loggers

Teenage schoolgirls have become the latest target of unscrupulous timber workers.

BLOCKADES have sprung up again in middle Baram in the midst of the padi planting season in interior Sarawak.

Several Penan communities have abandoned the padi fields to put up symbolic barricades – flimsy wooden gates across logging roads – to stop encroachment into the last stretch of remaining ancestral forest in a region that has seen extensive logging over the last 25 years.

The once-nomadic tribe, noted for their unwavering rejection of logging on their territory and synonymous with blockades since the late 1980s, is fighting a losing battle against the Government-backed timber industry.

Yet another sinister threat has crept into the remote communities €“ Penan women, especially the young ones, are preyed on by workers from logging companies.

About three weeks ago, a media release by non-governmental organisation Bruno Manser Foundation (BMF) brought to light a long-held concern €“ the sexual abuse of Penan women.

The Swiss group charged that workers from two timber companies were preying on Penan women in the various settlements within the companies’ operation areas, and targeting female students who relied on the companies’ transportation service to get to school.

Students from middle Baram are boarders in secondary schools in the interior towns of Long Lama and Long San, which could take up to a week to travel on foot from their villages. The Baram district in Miri division is almost as big as the state of Perak.

The allegations were flatly denied by Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Alfred Jabu who dismissed the NGO’s claims as baseless. Jabu, who is also Rural Development Minister, challenged BMF to name the villages otherwise “it would be a waste of time to investigate”.

Largely ignorant of their rights and not well-versed in criminal law, the Penans have long suffered the transgression against their womenfolk in silence.

The problem is further compounded by stigmatisation associated with rape in the predominantly Christian communities.

Sexual violations

A visit to several villages reveals the prevalence of sexual abuse since the advent of commercial logging. Village leaders who readily air their grouses of hardship brought by logging are hesitant to talk about the sexual exploitation by workers from nearby logging camps.

Nonetheless, at Long Pakan, Bulan Laing, a female elder claims that violation of the women began around 1996 when a Miri-based logging company arrived.

“There have been three pregnancies so far; the last one was in 2006. In one case, the woman married the Indonesian worker who violated her but was later divorced after she was sexually abused by another worker,” recalls Bulan.

Asked if the cases were reported to the police, Bulan appears not to know that rape is a criminal offence.

“We complained to the camp manager. He assured us that they would take action against their men but we’re still suffering.”

Her husband, headman Pada Jutang, says: “We’ve lost hope in the police taking any action. So we stopped going to them.”

The village’s nearest neighbour, Long Item two hours drive away faces a similar predicament. Headman Balan Jon reveals the modus operandi of unscrupulous timber workers.

He says the workers come to the village in small groups of not more than five, either on motorcycle or by company vehicle, with alcoholic drinks and entice the young men to join them for drinking binges at night.

“They become bold after several drinks and will coax our boys to bring them to houses with young women or girls.

“Or they bring along instant noodles and persuade the victims to cook them a meal on the pretext that they have not yet had dinner. They then hang around and wait for the chance to strike after other occupants of the house turn in for the night,” adds Balan.

Bulan explains that young Penan men are curious about “anything from the cities” and are easily influenced despite advice by village leaders to be wary of these outsiders. She also suspects that the victims could have been drugged.

Balan laments that complaints to the company’s managers on the ground are not taken seriously.

“There are always new workers showing up. They are also good at covering their tracks and the camp manager refuses to investigate or take action,” he says dejectedly. Like Pada, Balan says he has given up on the police.

Further north in the Apoh region, Long Belok’s headman Alah Beling recalls no less than four cases of sexual violation. The latest incident resulted in a baby born last December. He reckons that the known numbers could just be the tip of the iceberg. Victims who do not end up with unwanted pregnancies may choose to remain silent to hide their shame.

Easy targets

It appears that schoolgirls are the latest to be preyed upon, according to villagers at Long Kawi, next to Long Item. They complain that timber workers come to the village during the day to identify the young girls and return later at night to carry out their plans. The harassment gets worse during the school holidays when the girls are around.

But the latest revelation of female students being made to stay overnight in logging camps, thus exposing them to sexual abuse, has plunged the Penan community into despair.

The Penans have abandoned their nomadic lifestyle so that their young ones could get an education and have a better life.

“If we don’t send our children to school, we are blamed. But providing them transportation is beyond our ability. We are at the mercy of the timber companies. We’ve to beg them to ferry our children to the secondary schools which are far away.

“I walk my younger children to Long Kevok (a four-hour drive away) to attend primary school. This problem was discussed at the school’s parent-teacher association meetings a few years ago. The school asked us to get help from the Government. There were promises but we’re still waiting,” says Galang Jutang, Pada’s younger brother.

Principal of SMK Long Lama, Ng Cheng Soo, acknowledges that transportation remains a huge problem for Penan students who make up about 12% of the 945 pupils.

“We put in a proposal for a transport allocation in 2006 to the Resident Office in Miri,” says Ng. Resident Ose Murang could not be reached for comment on the status of the proposal.

Ng adds that Penan students are catching up in their studies as shown by their better examination results and lower dropout rates.

“We hold special remedial classes and show them that we care for them. They appreciate it and they like coming to school. Penan kids are the first to volunteer for any gotong-royong events,” Ng says, adding that being rather timid, Penan students are easily bullied.

Instances of students trekking in the jungle for days to get to school and even missing major examinations when company transportation fails to materialise, are common. Hitching a ride by the side of dusty logging roads makes teenage girls especially vulnerable.

Following recent publicity of the alleged sexual abuse of Penan women in the local media, Sarawak Police Commissioner Datuk Mohmad Salleh says the force needs a police report to be lodged to facilitate investigations.

Dismayed by the police response, the Women’s Centre for Change pointed out that according to the Child Act 2001, the authorities must take action if they suspect child sexual abuse has taken place. Under the Act, anyone below the age of 18 is a child.

The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and the Human Rights Commission have announced that they will investigate the claims.

Against their will

ON a sunny Sunday morning last year, 16-year-old Cynthia (not her real name) boarded a four-wheel drive dispatched by logging company Samling to ferry students to SMK Long Lama from her longhouse in Long Kawi, middle Baram, Sarawak.

However, the driver did not send the passengers “two boys and three girls” to the school directly. He dropped by a logging camp and told the students that they had to spend the night there.

“It was around 4pm. Although the school is not far from the camp, the driver didn’t want to continue the journey. The boys and girls were separated into two rooms. I was with my younger sister and another girl. When night fell, the men in the camp were drinking. In the middle of the night, several men came into our room. One of them dragged me from the room and took me to the bushes behind the camp,” Cynthia recalls her ordeal. The other two girls were not harmed.

The Form 3 student became pregnant and delivered a baby girl a few months ago. Cynthia, who harbours hopes of being a nurse, is now unsure of her future as she has been absent from school due to her pregnancy.

The fair-skinned, soft-spoken girl had previously been harassed by workers from a Samling camp but managed to elude them.

Samling, when contacted, says the camp implicated in the incident may not have belonged to the company and urged those making the allegations to contact the police and provide accurate information to enable criminal investigations.

Samling’s head of corporate communications Cheryl Yong says: “We are very concerned over the latest allegations even though we do not operate in the Temela Camp (where the alleged sexual assault took place). We do not condone any criminal acts within our premises or by employees.”

Yong explains that Samling has a zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol consumption during work hours. Furthermore, alcohol sale is unavailable on its premises and anyone found consuming alcohol while working will be dismissed.

At Long Belok, Rina (not her real name) who was raped in her house and delivered a baby girl in May 2005, is fearful of timber camp workers. “If I see them in the village, I will run and hide in the forest.”

She is glad that she did not have to marry the man who raped her despite persuasion from her parents and neighbours’ unkind remarks.

The youngest in a family of two boys and two girls, Rina, 20, says life is difficult with an extra mouth to feed. At times, she confesses that she feels like running away.

Mindy (not her real name) of Long Item, recounts the intimidation, deceit and harassment of a 40-something man who works for Interhill.

“We know him as Ah Heng. My parents and I got a ride in his vehicle from Ba Abang sometime in 2005. Shortly after that, he came looking for me in the village. He offered to take care of me but I declined. He then said I should give in or he would hurt me and my family,” says the 21-year-old woman who eventually acceded to his demands and has since borne him two girls, one in 2006 and another in February.

Ah Heng now rarely visits nor provides maintenance for the family after his wife found out about his activities and accused Mindy of seducing her husband.

“I don’t want him to come here anymore; I will raise the kids myself. I don’t even love him,” says Mindy.

A neglected people

THE Penan’s protracted resistance to deforestation and the international attention the tribe continues to receive must have irked the Sarawak government.

The state government continues to dismiss their concerns over the loss of forest resources brought on by industrial logging that degrades the forest and pollutes the rivers.

At the height of the international anti-tropical timber campaign in the late 1980s, the state set up a Penan Affairs Committee to help the nomadic tribe to lead a settled life with promises of socio-economic development. The state announced allocations worth millions of ringgit.

Two decades later, the benefits remain elusive for many Penans. The rapid expansion of acacia and oil palm plantations eats into their ancestral land. To top it off, the natives are becoming illegals with many not having official documents.

The Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) has raised the issue of poor MyKad registration which complicates the issuance of birth certificates.

Suhakam has thus far failed in persuading the state government to resolve the land rights issue inflicting every native group in Sarawak.

In recent years, the Penans are turning to the court of law to stop further encroachment.

But the nomadic Penans face a tough battle in claiming native customary rights (NCR) as the Sarawak Land Code 1958 states that one cannot stake a claim for NCR if one had not cultivated that piece of land before Jan 1, 1958.

In May 2007, further restrictions were imposed when the clause “any other lawful method of establishing land claim” in Section 5(2) was dropped. Lawyers had previously used that provision to argue for a broader interpretation of land use.

“When environmental groups suggest setting aside forests for wildlife, the state will agree but when we demand for our forests to be protected, we are ignored. It seems that the wildlife living in the forests are more valued than us humans,” notes a young Penan.

Although disillusioned, the Penans remain hopeful.

As Balan Jon of Long Item puts it: “It’s not only our livelihood but our culture and survi val as a tribe has been affected for so long. We’ll die if we continue to be neglected.”


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