Wednesday 1 June 2011

Mourning dims Gawai celebration

For many residents of Sarawak, grinding poverty provides little to celebrate during their annual Gawai Dayak tradition.

The celebration, originally gazetted in 1964, falls every June 1 and 2 for the Dayaks of Sarawak, similar to Ka'amatan on May 30 and 31 for the KadazanDusunMurut grouping in Sabah.

These public holidays, at the state level, form part of the Malaysian government's 'national unity' strategy to persuade Sarawakians and Sabahans that they are not left out of the 'nation-building' project. The endless campaign, punctuated by cheerful jingles and slogans, runs in inexhaustible loops on state-owned television and radio channels.

Sabahans and Sarawakians certainly need the 'feel-good factor' these annual celebrations bring. Sabah and Sarawak are the poorer cousins of peninsular Malaysia, ranking as the country's poorest and second poorest states respectively, according to the World Bank.

Gawai and Kaamatan were co-opted into the official calendar based on the harvest festivals of the largely agrarian Dayak and the Kadazan Dusun and Murut. These two terms are ethnic shorthand, fixed by successive state administrations. Dayaks refer to the Iban, Bidayuh and the Orang Ulu (including the Kelabit, Kayan, Kenyah and Penan).

Dayaks comprise of more than two dozen other ethnic groups, with diverse languages and customs or adat. Dayaks contribute approximately half the population in Sarawak, with many tens of thousands working in peninsular Malaysia, because of Sarawak's poverty and high under-employment rate.
NONEIndeed, different Dayak communities hold the traditional sacrifice or Gawai ceremonies all year round. 

The different Iban rituals include, for example, Gawai Kelingkang (feast for war heroes), Gawai Antu (festival for departed souls), and Gawai Sakit (a ritual to restore health). These ceremonies have traditionally been called following a success in battle, a portentous dream or a bad omen.
Since 1965, the only officially recognised Gawai has been fixed on June 1, to celebrate the rice harvest.

Dayaks have been struck by the twin blows of culture shock, gradually losing their mother tongues and trying to survive in the modern cash economy, as well as a demographic upheaval, with most of their young having left the traditional longhouses in search of work in towns, or in peninsular Malaysia or Singapore.

The iron grip of Sarawak's ruling elite on the political economy, and the elite's ensuing capital flight, has left little money for the mainstream economy. Even the neighbourhood coffee shop, once an even more popular meeting place than Facebook, is struggling to attract customers, throughout the state.

The poorest and most marginalised Dayaks are the Penans, living mostly along the upper reaches of the Rejang River in Belaga, and the Baram and Limbang Rivers. Their forests are under constant threat from loggers and plantation companies.

'Absolutely no development'

"When the (timber) company came, they said they will surely go ahead (with their logging), because the government has already paid for this land, and the company has the receipts," said Pior Lasu, 40, a veteran of a succession of Penan blockades against loggers in Long Nyakit around 2004.

"No matter how much you protest, we will go ahead. If you carry on protesting, we can bring in samseng gangsters, or the police," she recalls. The company eventually brought in both to break down the blockades.

The semi-nomadic Penan from Long Nyakit, Long Pusit and surrounding forests stood behind branches, crisscrossing logging roads, in an attempt to stop the advance of loggers, and to persuade the company, Lee Ling Timber, to negotiate with them.

Lee Ling is a subsidiary of Quality Concrete Holdings, a conglomerate listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange. Quality Concrete boasts Roziah @ Radziah Mahmud, sister to Sarawak's powerful chief minister Taib Mahmud, and their cousin Hamed Sepawi, listed by Forbes as one of Malaysia's billionaires, as significant shareholders. Taib is the minister in charge of awarding timber concessions.

Change bulldozes on 

The peaceful protests at the blockades were met with violence.

"We had women and small children at the blockade. We were all afraid, but those using the bulldozers didn't care," Pior told Malaysiakini. "They just bulldozed on, even through our ancestors' graves."
Pegak Beluluk, 55, from Long Nyakit, described how loggers attacked him.

"Lee Ling timber brought in samseng (thugs). I heard they were from Sibu. Some brought guns, some brought samurai swords. The camp manager, Ah Neo, didn't stop to talk. He wanted to bulldoze through the blockade and the cemetery. He stabbed me in the foot with a blade, the one people use to strip tree bark.

"He drew his samurai sword and wanted to strike me down," he recalled. "Along (Sega) grabbed him, wrapped his arms around him and stopped him." 

azlanAlong Sega was the nomadic leader of the Penan protestors. Along settled eventually in Long Pusit, and died in February. The Penans in the area still mourn the death of a courageous organiser and leader.

"We protested because the company came to take over our land by force. We had to defend our rights, our ancestral forest. The water was polluted. The tall trees were destroyed, the fruit trees, the animals were gone, and they can never return. We have no other means besides our forest to find food, medicines, to survive," explained Melai Beluluk, also from Long Nyakit.

The villagers had to abandon the blockades after three months, to find sago or uvut to feed their families.
Now the logging road has arrived nearby, a couple of hours' walk from Long Nyakit.
hear the government say that logging helps us, logging brings development, schools. But we are still waiting. There is no development until now. The company has already come. After they did their logging, they left. There has been absolutely no development," Melai said.

Follwing Along Sega's death, the loggers have been emboldened. Another company, Samling, has also begun helicopter-assisted logging in the surrounding forests.

"Before the logging, the rivers were good, the water was clear. When we went out with our nets, it was easy to find fish," Peguk said. "Now the water is cloudy and brown."

The Penan, mostly converted to the Sidang Injil Borneo Christian church, do not celebrate Gawai. Most are unaware of the state-wide holiday.

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - 'anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia'. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at

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