Kampong demolition opens villagers

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The kris-kissing, self-proclaimed champions of the Malay race were not there to protect the homes of the villagers when the bulldozers rumbled in, observes Rani Rasiah.

Malaysia has once again violated the 1993 United Nations Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1993/77 on Forced Evictions of which it is a signatory along with 52 other governments. The recent demolition of Kg Berembang makes a mockery of the resolution which strongly condemns forced eviction, urges governments to consult and negotiate with affected people and asks for mutually satisfactory negotiations with affected communities in the matter of compensation.
 
On 20 November 2006, the Selangor state government brutally demolished 65 urban pioneer houses in Kampung Berembang in Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur. Men, women and teenagers locked arms to form a human barricade and terrified children screamed at the menacing bulldozers and the hundreds of advancing uniformed. The Kampung Berembang Committee argued and pleaded for the demolition to be deferred pending a court decision due in April 2007 and for negotiations to be held instead. But after a tough seven-hour stand-off, the entire village of wooden and brick houses was razed to the ground. By evening as the enforcement officials were finishing off the last few houses, crying children and babies, terror etched all over their little faces, huddled in makeshift tents as the rains lashed down.
 
By the end of the day, 23 people, including activists from the Oppressed People’s Network (Jerit) and the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), had been arrested for blocking the demolition. The remaining villagers began picking up bits and pieces of their houses and belongings and started putting up makeshift tents for the night. As dusk set in, darkness began to envelope the village where, just hours earlier, there was electricity supply.  Bleak, wet and unlit, Kg Berembang, surrounded by the skyscrapers and bright lights of KL, was now the sad refuge for a community 350 newly homeless people trying to come to terms with the ruthlessness of the state.

The same sad old story

Kg Berembang is an urban pioneer village that came into existence about 30 to 40 years ago. Like all other urban pioneer villages, it has the same story to tell. It is the story of how rural families migrated to urban areas in response to the government’s call for cheap labour for newly industrialising Malaysia in the early 1970s. It is the same sad tale of how, because of low wages, they had to build their homes on abandoned mining land or dump-sites, in the process upgrading the quality of the land. It is a story of the tacit approval by the state which led to the provision of basic facilities such as electricity, water and even tarred roads. And in the end, it is the sad story of how,  instead of giving them land titles, the government sold off the land to private developers, in this case, Perspektif Masa Sdn Bhd.  

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In 2003, the villagers were promised low-cost houses nearby to be jointly developed and sold to them by Permodalan Negeri Selangor Berhad, Acmar International and Perspektif Masa. To date, the project has not yet got off the ground, but on 17 November 2005, the MPAJ (Ampang Jaya Local Authority) issued eviction notices under the Essential Regulations Act 1969 (Clearance of Squatters).  

The original promise of low-cost houses nearby was conveniently forgotten. Instead, the urban pioneers of Kg Berembang were ordered to rent units at a designated flat in Puchong, 30 km away. The order not only contravened the Selangor government policy providing for alternative housing to be within a  2 – 4 km radius of the original homes, but also doomed them to temporary housing with the prospect of future eviction from their rented houses.

On 6 March 2006, the villagers managed to obtain an injunction from the High Court preventing the developer from evicting them. That injunction expired on 14 November, and a fresh application to extend the injunction was filed, for which the trial date was set for 30 April 2007. Barely a week after the expiry of the injunction, the bulldozers rumbled into Kg Berembang.


PM's office powerless to intervene

What was bewildering about the demolition of Kg Berembang was the supreme power wielded by the Selangor Chief Minister and the local town council (MPAJ) despite an intervention from no less than the Prime Minister’s office to reconsider the demolition exercise. Around mid-day, two villagers who had rushed to the PM’s office in the morning returned, jubilantly waving a letter from the PM’s Senior Personal Secretary, En Ahmad Yacob, addressed to Chief Minister Khir Toyo, asking for the demolition to be postponed to April 2007 after the court decision.

Suhakam Commisioner, Siva Subramaniam, who had come to the village earlier, echoed the contents of the letter when he argued with the local authority that it was not the season for demolition as it was exam time for Fifth and Sixth Form students. People’s hopes rose, only to be dashed with the appearance of truckloads of the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) and a water cannon at about 2 pm.

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The question of who is more powerful, the PM or the Selangor Chief Minister, continues to be debated by the villagers and activists.  But then again, why was the PM’s letter a request to reconsider and not a directive to the Chief Minister? Why did protocol and correctness take precedence over people’s homes? And isn’t the brief of the human rights commissioner from Suhakam the defence of the basic right to shelter and the right of urban pioneers to their homes and the land rather than the absurd notion of a season for demolition and forced evictions?
 
Less than three weeks before the demolition, Selangor State Secretary Ramli Mahmud had promised to investigate the matter when the villagers sought his intervention to halt the demolition.  Prior to that, in early October 2006, Kg Berembang villagers facing eviction held a joint meeting with Minister of Housing and Local Government Ong Ka Ting.

What was sorely missing in all these meetings and exchanges was the lack of political will, commitment and courage by the leaders to stand up for the urban pioneers and demand that the demolition be stopped and negotiations be held. Instead, these politicians chose to play safe by hiding behind lame excuses such as ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘non-interference in state matters.’

Such half-hearted and feeble reactions are not unexpected given the fact that the Federal Government is the architect of the ‘Zero Squatters’ by 2005 policy.  Thus it has watched in silence and complicity as village after village is torn down especially in Selangor with the active participation of the local authorities and police.  Although, in principle, the execution of this policy is conditional upon the provision of adequate, ‘quality’ alternative housing, in practice, the reality can be quite different as in the case of Kg Berembang.

Shameless collusion

It appears the Selangor state government’s highest priority now is to achieve zero squatter status by the end of this year by whatever means. Whether there is permanent alternative housing that is ready and acceptable to the urban pioneers, whether such housing is fit for human dwelling and the building of healthy families and communities – these seem to be of lesser concerns.

The demolition of Kg Berembang was an exposé of the shameless collusion between government and private developers. Basically, the government through its agents, the MPAJ and the police, did the dirty work for the developer who stayed away and only had to send in his bulldozers (and later, lunch for the enforcement team!).

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Probably for the first time in their lives, the Kg Berembang villagers saw with their own eyes the government and its agencies siding openly with a private developer. There was no mercy from the government that had always claimed to be caring.  The kris-kissing, self-proclaimed champions of the Malay race were not there to defend the homes of the villagers, all of whom are Malays, and until the demolition, UMNO stalwarts.

In less than a day, decades and decades of indoctrination of race consciousness was demolished, enabling the villagers to identify their allies, and recognise that the oppressor could be of any race, as could be the oppressed. And that the only way out is to struggle together along with other poor and oppressed people regardless of race against oppression. If at all, that must surely be the silver lining to this dark episode.

 

Postscript

Since the above account was written, the makeshift homes put up by the villagers have been demolished twice by the MPAJ enforcement team. On 30 November 2006, while resisting the demolition of the surau, 11 people were arrested and many others including children were brutally assaulted. People’s belongings were bundled into a lorry and thrown outside the village, after which a deep trench was dug to prevent access to the land.

That very night the villagers filled up the trench and moved in. They have started rebuilding their homes. The support from neighbouring villagers and the general public has been overwhelming.

More than 50 police reports on the MPAJ and the state government have been lodged. Among these are reports by eight heroic children who were viciously attacked while defending their village. The youngest among them is only 8 years old.

The struggle continues.

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Aliran member Rani Rasiah, who was part of the resistance at Kg Berembang, is the coordinator of Jerit 

 

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