Sarawak activists ‘walking the talk’

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Many activists spend time consulting, discussing and working with the Penan and other indigenous communities in the villages and rural settlements, says Save Rivers.

The article “Some activists are preying on the Penan, says state rep” is far from the truth.

Activists and civil society organisations (CSOs) fulfil needs in environmental, economic, infrastructure and social justice which are either neglected or abused.

The responsibility for the construction of infrastructure and providing public amenities lies with the government. For that reason, the government imposes taxes on the public and establishes government departments that handle the various sectors of the public services.

The elected representatives of the state legislative assemblies and Parliament or the government of the day are the ones who decide where and when the infrastructure should be built.

There is no denying that rural Sarawak is the most underdeveloped in the whole of Malaysia – despite the state being rich with natural resources and human capital.

The failure to bring infrastructure and development lies with the government.

The CSOs in Sarawak are mostly engaged in advocacy and minor rural projects generally on issues related to land, rivers and indigenous rights.

Penan leader Komeok Joe was reported to have said, “Why blame CSOs for helping the Penan? Dennis Ngau promised to Long Sait that he would repair the hanging bridge. The Penan were waiting for a few years for Dennis to fulfil his promise but he failed to do so. So the public and CSOs help build Long Sait a new bridge.”

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The majority of activists working for CSOs are either volunteers or are paid a nominal amount of living allowance. This is why there is a scarcity of dedicated and competent youth in Sarawak willing to serve in the CSOs.

A lot of CSOs spend time consulting, discussing and working with the Penan and other indigenous communities in the villages and rural settlements. These activists are “walking the talk”.

Saying that the CSOs are taking advantage of the Penan for their own benefit shows that Dennis Ngau does not know what is happening on the ground.

CSOs fight for the rights of the people where the government has failed. Harrison Ngau, a prominent land rights lawyer and activist since the 1980s, said: “Not only the Penan but other bumiputeras like the Malays, Melanaus and Dayaks have lost their customary land rights and continued to suffer the highest rate of poverty and environmental destruction as a result of policies and laws of the Sarawak government.”

Mark Bujang, who is a qualified geologist and an indigenous rights activist for more than 20 years, said: “Dennis should not be making sweeping statements but name the CSO whom he claims to be taking advantage of the Penan.”

Thomas Jalong, the secretary-general of Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia, said: “NGOs that we are involved in usually raise funds for capacity building programmes to empower the marginalised communities and help in advocacy work for them.”

Peter NJ Kallang is chairman of the civil society organisation Save Rivers.

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