Penan win Human Rights award
By S Pathmawathy, Malaysiakini
The now-banned Hindu Right Action Force (Hindraf) and Penan activists of the Ulu Baram area in Sarawak have won Suaram's 2008 Human Rights Award.
The annual award, presented since 1999, was given to the two rights groups for their unique achievements in highlighting concerns of their communities.
The judges were Irene Xavier a former Internal Security Act (ISA) detainee, Colin Nicholas of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, Masjaliza Hamzah of Sisters in Islam, and Suaram executive director Yap Swee Seng (extreme right in picture).
Civil society movement Hindraf was recognised for being able to "captivate, mobilise and empower vast numbers of Malaysians of Indian origin" within a short period of its existence, said Xavier.
She said the judges were "impressed by the way Hindraf contextualised the current situation by bringing in colonial history and demonstrating how, even after 50 years of Merdeka (independence), the Indian community has continued to be marginalised and disenfranchised".
"The success of Hindraf can perhaps be seen in the fear it has caused the government, to the extent that it detained five of its leaders under the ISA and outlawed the organisation."
suaram human rights award 091208 rs thanenthiranAccepting the award, the movement’s national coordinator RS Thanenthiran (left) said it was an honour for all marginalised communities and noted that the struggle has been recognised for the first time.
"This shows that the banning of Hindraf does not make any sense because the spirit and the struggle are continuing. We the civil society... who are all fighting for human rights have shown that a lot of changes have to be made to the system," he said.
"You (the government) cannot control the people with ISA... they are now bolder and braver to tell the government that it is violating human rights."
Other nominees that were in the running for the award were the Coalition for Clean and Fair Election (Bersih), urban settlers of Kampung Berembang, the indigenous community of Kampung Chang Sungai Gepai in Bidor, Perak, and the Bar Council Human Rights Committee.
Asked why the Bar Council and Bersih did not win the award, Yap said these were organisations estabished by relatively strong groups.
"(Bersih) for instance was formed by opposition political parties which have a lot of support and resources, unlike Hindraf which is relatively scattered. There was no effective organising of the community," he told reporters.
"And when Hindraf came into being, it managed to capture the imagination of a marginalised community and empower them to confront, to assert and to claim their rights."
'Long, lonely Penan struggle'
The Penan activists won the award for having struggled for more than two decades against encroachment into land over which they claim native customary rights.
"The violations faced by the Penans are extreme and sometimes violent. They faced threats, killing, rapes, disappearance and hardship in their daily survival," noted Xavier.
"They have struggled against very powerful forces representing the collusion of political powers, business, police, military, timber companies and oil palm plantations."
She referred in particular to Long Kerong village headman and pioneer activist TK Kelesau Naan who went missing in October last year. His skeletal remains were found two months after his disappearance. It has been alleged that Kelesau was murdered by agents of loggers.
suaram human rights award 091208 tk tirong lawingHis nephew, TK Tirong Lawing (left), 60, the current headman of Long Kerong, accepted the award. Also present was Tirong’s son Nick Kelesau, 43.
Yap said the Penan won mainly because of their long and lonely struggle, especially given that media coverage of the issues had often been biased and limited.
"The kind of deprivations they face is also very serious because land means everything to the indigenous people," he said.
The award comprises a trophy, a certificate and prize money of RM1,000.
Yap explained that one objectives of the award is to give recognition to local communities and their collective endeavour to protect and promote human rights.
Suaram also launched its 2008 Human Rights Report in conjunction with the World Human Rights Day, observed on Dec 10 each year.
Some key trends highlighted in the report were the major losses suffered by the Barisan Nasional in the previous general election; abuse of police powers; discrimination; and obstacles to freedom of assembly and association.
(9 December 2008)
Original wording of the judges' comment:
"Out of the 6 nominees, the panel decided to present the SUARAM Human Rights Award 2008 to 2 groups, one a fairly-new mass-based movement and the other a long-struggling community. This year’s joint-winners are the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) and the Penans of Ulu Baram, Sarawak.
Within a short period of time, HINDRAF had successfully captivated, mobilised and empowered vast numbers of Malaysians of Indian ethnic origin to struggle against very powerful interests and forces.
There is also no denying that HINDRAF has made a big impact on the Malaysian political scene in 2008 and its rise has in fact surprised and captured the imagination of many Malaysians, and has also given inspiration to others.
The panel of judges was also impressed by the way HINDRAF contextualised the current situation by bringing in colonial history, and demonstrating how, even after 50 years of Merdeka, the Indian community have continued to be marginalised and disenfranchised.
But perhaps the greatest success of HINDRAF is the manner in which it has been able to embolden and give courage to a community that was seen as being fearful of the powers-that-be and unwilling to demand for change. The unleashing of the fear that shackled the community previously has led to ramifications in the changed political climate today.
The success of HINDRAF can perhaps be seen in the fear it has caused in the eyes of the government, to the extent that it detained five of its leaders under the ISA and has outlawed the organisation.
The other joint-winner of the Human Rights Award this year are the Penans of Ulu Baram in Sarawak. They have been defending their traditional lands from encroachment, especially by loggers, since the early 1980s.
The violations faced by the Penans are extreme and sometimes violent. They faced threats, killings, rapes, disappearances and hardship in their daily survival. They have struggled against very powerful forces representing the collusion of political powers, business, police, military, timber companies and oil palm plantations. They have also faced police biasedness and harassment.
The Penans are also very isolated physically and politically. Local media exposure about them is confined, censored and biased, especially in Sarawak.
The Penan’s struggle has been long, persistent and often lonely. While the government tries to paint the struggle as one that is foreign-NGOs driven, the fact is the Penan struggle was there even before some of the foreign NGOs were established.
The root cause of the Penan issue is the non-recognition of their native customary rights over their traditional lands. This was the issue 30 years ago, and it is still the main issue today. And as long as the issue of land rights remain, the Penans have struggled against all odds and have vowed to continue to struggle until justice and human rights are attained."