200 Indigenous Leaders Demand Their Rights in Malaysia

posted by Josh Ran

Yesterday, in Kuching, our fact finding team meet with 200 leaders from Indigenous communities around the state of Sarawak. Some had traveled by boat to attend, some had traveled 8 hours or more.  The meeting was sponsored by SADIA, the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (an Indigenous peoples network), and they had only expected about 150 participants, but word got out and there was a lot of interest.

During the meeting, we presented the findings from our fact finding mission – that Indigenous people are being systematically deprived of their land and other basic human rights through collusion between the state government and oil palm companies (with support from the local police).  I spoke about many of the specific abuses that I noted in my previous blog post, and I told them that Rainforest Action Network would support them in letting people know about their struggle and in trying to put pressure on US businesses to only buy palm oil from companies that respect Indigenous People’s rights.

Throughout the meeting and in conversations during the breaks, I heard more and more examples of abuses. 

Four different people told me that their communities had signed a joint venture agreement with the state investment agency (our “friends” at SALCRA) or a private company that promised them 30% of all profits. Many years later, none of these communities have received a single payment and they worry that they signed away their land for nothing. One man told me he thought that it was only his community that wasn’t being paid.

Many people also talked about going to court to try to protect their land rights and having the cases endlessly postponed or appealed.  There are 173 land cases pending in Sarawak right now, and while the courts drag their feet the companies go on operating on disputed territory and blocking Indigenous communities from accessing their own farmland.  This is the clearest example I’ve seen of justice delayed truly being justice denied.

Examples of abuse by the police were also common.  One woman who was trying to protect her land was sexually harrassed by male police officers who arrested her, despite the fact that Malaysian law requires a woman police officer to be present whenever a woman is arrested.  Naturally, her complaints to higher ups within the police department have not been answered.

Some people brought maps and legal documents to the meeting to ask what they should do.  Everybody present was angry and frustrated, but this meeting felt like the beginning of more joint action to address all of these common issues. Hopefully, by banding together, people can stand up to their abusive government and protect their land, their livelihood and their future.

After the meeting, I felt a bit like a presidential candidate, as 200 people lined up to shake my hand. But as I looked them each in the eye and thanked them, is was coming from my heart.

This is my final post before I return home from Malaysia. The people I met here have truly touched and inspired me, and I’ll do everything I can to share their story with the world.