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Senseless Arrests Reign in Sarawak, Malaysia

by PhilLee — last modified Dec 16, 2010 12:10 PM

Sahabat Alam Malaysia / Friends of the Earth Malaysia have expressed their concerns to the authorities regarding the intimidation and persecution of indigenous leaders in Sarawak. In the latest incident a community activist from the Indigenous Iban tribe was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

palm plantationPolitical tensions between regional and corporate interests in Sarawak appear to be escalating, as evidenced by the recent arrest of a community activist from the indigenous Iban tribe. Mr Liam Rengga, a local farmer, was charged with attempted murder on November 23, 2010.  


According to the police report, Rengga testified that, while posting no-entry signs on his land to discourage poachers, he encountered two men whom he believed to be palm oil plantation agents. Rengga claims to have briefly discussed the communal hunting ban with these individuals before noticing a shotgun in their vehicle and being told to refrain from causing any sort of disturbance. He was arrested on November 17 at his farm hut. Further information on the evidence behind the charge of attempted murder is not available.


Liam Rengga is a well-known proponent of indigenous land rights and has been protesting over the steady encroachment of palm oil facilities on native customary rights (NCR) lands. He is involved in pending litigation against an unnamed palm oil company, and was a leading figure in the establishment of the Sungai Senga Residents' Association (SSRA), organized to better promote locals' collective interests regarding land management.  


Since the SSRA was formally registered in July 2010, regular campaign work has been carried out, including an official letter to government and company authorities detailing the environmental and public health repercussions of plantation water pollution. 


SSRA has also issued a warning letter urging plantation company workers to refrain from using the private road that runs through his village's NCR territory, and letters on SSRA’s objectives and functions were sent to the plantation company and several government departments.


an obstacle to expansion

Recently the Malaysian government announced their plans to greatly expand palm oil cultivation; they intend to double the total plantation area in Sarawak by 2020. 


Given Mr. Rengga's role as activist and obstacle to government plans for plantation expansion, speculation regarding the suspicious nature of his arrest has proven impossible to suppress. Parallels have been drawn with similar past occurrences, such as the 2003 year-long detention of two Penan villagers or the arrest in October of seven community leaders and the secretary-general of a local NGO. 


Both cases were eventually dismissed for lack of evidence. These associations lend circumstantial credibility to allegations of judicial abuse and corporate favoritism.


Rengga has categorically denied any criminal behavior in efforts to defend traditional territories. Although he finds the charge of attempted murder extremely outrageous, he vows not to let his current predicament affect the community land rights struggle:


"I will continue championing our rights. If anything, I am more spirited now than I was before and will fight till the end." 


He added that he was prepared for an altercation due to mounting hostility between villagers and company workers, resulting from dissatisfaction over the plantation license and its encroachment upon communal land. 


Friends of the Earth Malaysia / Sahabat Alam Malaysia strongly urges that the charge of attempted murder against Mr.Rengga, who is the sole breadwinner of his family, be summarily dropped if the state is unable to provide concrete and incontrovertible evidence.  They request that the Sarawak State Government affirm the native customary rights of the Rumah Kilat community and positively engage them by providing meaningful responses to their grievances. 


Finally they strongly urge the authorities to cease intimidation and persecution of all native leaders who are fighting for their lawful rights.

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