"They change their stories, and when they feel like it. That's why I say Penan are very good storytellers." - James Masing, Sarawak cabinet minister for land use (BBC Today, Dec 7, 2009)
COMMENT With all due contempt, James Masing has got it wrong. The good storytellers, the self-confessed storytellers, are the propaganda arms of Umno.

Specifically with regards to the Penans whose women have seen their allegations of rape (which have turned out to be true) mocked by their Umno allied custodians, and who have had to suffer the added indignity of concocted "incest" stories by Metro Ahad, which later admitted that the stories were false.

I suppose if you can't inform your readership of the plight of an indigenous group (a bumiputera group, lest we forget) to get interlopers off their lands and people, then the next best thing is getting your readers off. As they say, journalism is a sleazy business.

NONEFormer The Starjournalist Hilary Chiew's outstanding work (and one of the few instances of journalism in Malaysia) on the incidents of rape among the Penans (and governmental indifference, which is criminal or if not borders on the criminal in my opinion) has been completely obliterated by the out-of-court settlement with the Sampling Group, which was implicated in her articles.

Only The Star could turn a bright Malaysian moment into a fetid miasma of governmental and corporate collusion seeing as how peninsular politicians happily basked in the public relations "goodwill" of the "corporate social responsibility of Samling" that The Star had to apparently highlight as part of the settlement.

Readers should not be distracted by the fact that the Norway government has excluded Samling Global and two Israeli companies from its state pension fund.

Of Samling Global, Finance Minister Sigbjoern Johnsen said, "The Council on Ethics has assessed Samling Global, and concluded that the company's forest operations in the rainforests of Sarawak and Guyana contribute to illegal logging and severe environmental damage."

I would address the allegations of the Sarawak chief minister's links to the group and the allegations of illegal logging, but I would hate to have Malaysiakini run a series of articles highlighting how much Samling cares for the Penans, Malaysians and Mother Earth.

Dismal reality of Penan women 

When it comes to Umno, any comfort is cold comfort. The long-delayed government report confirms that those natural storytellers were indeed victims of sexual abuse or more specifically "allegations of sexual abuse of Penan girls and women by outsiders dealing with the Penan, including logging company workers and merchants, did indeed take place".

ulu baram sarawak 110307Why this report was delayed and the fact that BN politicians have no problem swimming in the fetid waters of Samling's public relations swamp gives weight to the allegations of governmental collusion with corporate powers that nearly always mean harm to the bumiputera populations of Malaysia.

This tragic state of affairs says a lot about the "special position" of the natives of Malaysia as enshrined in the constitution. Where is Perkasa chief Ibrahim Ali and his ilk when bumiputeras and their rights are being assaulted and in need of defending?

Or maybe these "bumiputera defenders" understand, like Prime Minister Najib Razak, that there is no need of a women's movement here in Malaysia because women have been given "rights" from "the beginning".

All this talk of "rights" gets confusing for someone like me. Does this fall under "women's right" or "human rights" or "Malay rights" or whatever rights that are being neglected by the government which Malaysians are constantly being told by various special interests groups or political parties that we need to sustain because of our special social contract?

Anyway, I don't blame the federal government for taking their time in acknowledging the truth. This comes hard for an alliance which is mired in various corruptions scandals and besides, who cares of the dismal reality of Penan women who are most probably your safe deposit vote? As long as they can walk to the voting booth, who cares if they are raped or their lands seized along the way?

NONEAs usual, it's up to the non-governmental and other watchdogs to highlight the failures of the current regime. This is reason why said groups are targeted as "government destabilisers" funded by foreign (mostly Jewish, I suppose) money by Umno.

In July of 2010, coming after the Sarawak police failed to investigate claims of sexual violence against Penan women and other indigenous folk, documented in an earlier report by the federal government (which the Sarawak political leadership described as "untrue"), the Penan Support Group, a coalition of 36 Malaysian non-governmental organisations (NGOs), released their report entitled ‘A Wider Context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls in Middle and Ulu Baram, Sarawak, Malaysia'.

I know readers must get tired of me urging them to read reports but the reason I do this is because if Pakatan Rakyat ever comes into power, these reports are possible concrete solutions as to how to solve specific problems.

Systematic patterns of violence
To give an idea of the scope of this fact-finding mission, here is a brief synopsis from the press statement when the report was released.

"The mission found that women were willing to share their stories, but they did not want to go to the authorities owing to the police's lackadaisical responses in the past and further obstacles including the lack of identity cards, language barriers and the prohibitive cost of travel."

NONESeven previously undocumented cases are described in the report. The cases all point to systematic patterns of violence. Themes include harassment, abduction, rape, physical assault, emotional abuse, coercion into marriage and desertion upon pregnancy.

The documentation of these cases refutes those who in the past rejected the veracity of the Penan women's claims. The purpose of the report is not only to record instances of sexual violence and rape, it is also to contextualise these crimes in the political situation in Middle and Ulu Baram.

This report further confirms that the treatment of the Penan people is intrinsically tied to the wider political situation and demands a political solution. This wider context within which the sexual violence has taken place includes the systemic undermining of the autonomy and sustainability of the Penan people, which is caused by:
  • the denial of their land rights;
  • the denial of basic citizenship rights for many through a failure to register and issue identity cards;
  • state neglect of their welfare including a failure to guarantee adequate access to basic services such as education and healthcare; and state failure to provide a supporting environment of the right to redress.
Is it any wonder why these rape survivors don't want to go to the authorities when we have a self-described "anthropologist-cum-politician" James Masing who advocated that the police should get a warrant of arrest from the courts if the rape survivors refuse to cooperate with the authorities?

At the end of the day, all this will be forgotten with the arrival of the next corruption scandal that will enrage a certain demographic of the Malaysian voting public.
If we have no one else to blame for the survival of BN and its allies all these decades then what the Penans have reaped is far more horrific than what the rest of us have sowed all these years.