Sarawak party leader calls on natives to fight for their rights
"This current government must be changed": Sarawak PKR chairman Baru Bian (Picture: BMF)
KUCHING, SARAWAK / MALAYSIA. In a remarkable interview granted to the Bruno Manser Fund, the new Sarawak leader of the People's Justice Party (PKR), Kuching-based lawyer, Baru Bian, has spoken out on corruption, Sarawak's failed rural development and the native population's grievances. Fourteen months ahead of the deadline for the next election in the East Malaysian state on Borneo, Baru Bian underlined the necessity for Sarawak to end Chief Minister Taib Mahmud's 28-year reign of corruption and nepotism and to tackle far-reaching reforms of the state's institutional and economic framework.
"Sarawak is living under another form of colonialism"
According to Baru Bian, Sarawak's 47-year history of being part of Malaysia has led to precisely the situation that the state's native leaders had feared most when they agreed to their territory becoming part of Malaysia in 1963: a huge share of Sarawak's wealth is being siphoned off, out of the state, to the Malaysian Peninsula. Despite its abundant oil and gas resources, Sarawak has remained one of Malaysia's poorest states. Sarawak receives only 5 percent of the royalties on oil and gas extraction, while the rest goes to the federal government: "We are living under another form of colonialism, whereby the colonial power is in West Malaysia."
Baru Bian accuses the politicians of the current state government under Chief Minister Taib Mahmud of being "under the dictate of Kuala Lumpur" and having "shortchanged the ordinary people" for their own benefit: "Taib Mahmud has acquired immense wealth and riches at the expense of the ordinary people." According to Baru Bian, the main vehicles of Taib's and his cronies' self-enrichment have been their involvement in companies that are awarded government contracts and the issue of provisional leases and timber licences to companies with which they are linked.
Stolen state assets to be restituted
In terms of the political leaders' handling of public assets, Sarawak's situation under Taib Mahmud appears comparable to that of the Philippines under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and Indonesia under Suharto. Baru Bian is thus calling for the restitution of stolen state assets in the upcoming post-Taib era: "If Taib Mahmud's wealth is found to have been obtained unlawfully and illegally, then the law must be brought into play. The Philippines did it, Indonesia did it, and I see no reason why we should not do it in Sarawak."
One key issue identified by Baru Bian is the non-respect of native customary rights (NCR) by the state authorities and the arbitrary issue of timber and plantation licences covering native lands. As a remedy, he proposes setting up a land commission that will investigate and confirm the native rights and then issue land titles in the same way as the land reform model applied in the Philippines. Baru Bian is an eminent expert on the topic, with his Kuching law office representing the collective action suits of more than 100 native communities against the Sarawak state government.
Development of rural communities to replace corruption-prone mega projects
The native politician also criticizes Taib and his cronies for their mega-dam projects that are being realized at the expense of the indigenous communities whose "very existence and livelihood is being threatened." Baru calls the nearly-completed Bakun dam a "monument of corruption" whose costs are not justifiable, compared to the benefits the state might derive from it. The PKR state leader suspects a hidden agenda behind the latest plans for the twelve new dams for which he sees no need: "The state government's plan for twelve new dams is a pretext for extinguishing native land rights in our main rivers' watersheds in the name of a public purpose."
As for the state's future development, Baru Bian proposes a paradigm shift from corruption-prone mega-projects to a form of development that comes close to the rural communities' needs. His main idea is to empower the rural population to engage in local development on the basis of agriculture. For this to happen, he envisages boosting the natives' access to the education system and improving on the rural infrastructure by developing the road network and a cost-effective power supply based on mini-hydropower plants. He intends to finance his ambitious rural development plans by renegotiating Sarawak's share of the state's oil and gas royalties with the federal government: "We are prepared to fight for the oil and gas royalties. With this money alone, we could do plenty of things for Sarawak."
Tropical forests to be protected
Baru Bian also says that he strongly favours the conservation of Sarawak's tropical forests, which is still possible: "This is a global concern, and we must take it on. I look forward to proper forest management, and we must also achieve clean rivers and sustainably managed forests once again." He is also optimistic about the feasibility of reconciling native land claims with the sustainable management of natural resources: "If we can avoid greed, this is not a big issue, because this is in line with the conservation of the environment and the land, which is good for everyone.
The 51-year old lawyer-turned-politician grew up as the son of a native Lun Bawang pastor family in Sarawak's interior. He studied law at the Mara Institute of Technology in West Malaysia and completed his studies in Melbourne, Australia. Baru Bian is a father of three and lives with his wife and children in Kuching.
(12 January 2010)
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