A Brief History of the Blockades

The following is adapted from the book "Nomads of the Dawn".

By October 1987, Penan, Kayan, and Kelabit communities had shut down roads at twenty-three different sites in the Baram and Limbang Districts. In all, some 2,500 Penan from twenty-six settlements took part in the protest. For eight months, despite considerable hardship - hunger, heat exhaustion, and harassment by the logging interests - the indigenous peoples maintained their defiant, yet peaceful, blockades, disrupting the logging industry and frustrating state and federal authorities. The dramatic action electrified the environmental movement both in Malaysia and abroad and drew worldwide support.

The Malaysian and Sarawak governments responded defensively, imposing severe restrictions on the media. Military and security forces were brought into play, and police joined the logging companies to assist in the dismantling of the blockades.

In October 1987, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, citing a wave of ethnic unrest that threatened political instability, invoked the Internal Security Act of 1960 to suspend the rights and incarcerate ninety-one critics of his regime. Among those detained was Harrison Ngau of Sahabat Alam (Friends of the Earth) Malaysia, a Kayan environmentalist and the most vocal supporter of the Dayak resistance. At the same time, forty-two Kayan natives of the village of Uma Bawang were arrested. Charged on three counts under the Penal Code, they were accused of obstructing the police, wrongful restraint, and unlawful occupation of State Lands. This dramatic police action put an end to this first wave of protests.

On July 26, 1987, a Kayan charged with obstructing a public thoroughfare had been acquitted when the magistrate ruled that the man had blocked a road that was part of customary land and thus had acted in legitimate defense of his customary rights. The Sarawak State government reacted to this ruling through legislative action. In November, 1987, it added to the Forest Ordinance amendment S90B, a specific provision that made it an offense for any person to obstruct the flow of traffic along any logging road. The law also permitted forestry officials to enlist the assistance of the agents of the logging concessionaire in the dismantling of any barrier or human obstruction. Penalties for violating amendment S90B include two years imprisonment and a fine of over US$2,000. With this deterrent in place, the government believed that the blockades would never again disrupt the flow of timber. They were wrong.

In May, 1988, the blockades went up again, near Long Napir, bringing to a halt the logging operations of Minister of the Environment and Tourism, James Wong. Two more blockades sprang up in the Upper Baram in September, and four more in October, as the indigenous peoples of the Upper Limbang and Lawas areas joined the protest. Between November 1988 and January 1989 blockades occurred at seven sites, and the Sarawak Forestry Department arrested 128 Dayaks, mostly Penan. Many were held for a fortnight and then released. Some, unable to raise bail, were detained for a month.

By the middle of 1989, it appeared as if the government legislation, the repeated arrests, and the long and expensive trials, had broken the resistance of the Dayak peoples. After January, 1989, sporadic blockades, mounted by the Iban in Bintulu and the Penan in Baram, were quickly dismantled by the government. By July, the rate of logging in Sarawak had increased to over 700,000 acres a year, and in the Baram, timber operations were being carried out in three shifts, twenty-four hours a day. Then, on September 10, 1989, in a massive show of opposition, indigenous peoples in nineteen communities in the Upper Limbang and Baram, erected twelve new barricades. Five days later, the action spread south into the Belaga area. On October 5th, eleven Iban longhouse communities blockaded roads in the Bintulu District. By the end of the fall of 1989, an estimated 4,000 Dayaks had joined the protest, successfully shutting down logging in nearly half of Sarawak.

With pressure mounting, logging companies took the law into their own hands. Importing Chinese vigilantes from the city of Sibu, agents of the industry attempted to intimidate the indigenous peoples. Identity cards were confiscated, blowpipes and dart quivers thrown into rivers, individuals threatened, and in certain instances, physically beaten. A Japanese manager for a lumber company told the Penan at Long Napir: "If you don't have any food we'll provide it. But if you want compensation, I'll take your heads back to Japan. You have no right to demand anything in regard to the forest. From here to Batu Lawi, all the land is mine."

Sarawak officials did nothing to protect the indigenous peoples from harassment. On the contrary, in the wake of further protests, the government arrested another 117 Dayaks and subjected them to further human rights abuses. Handcuffed behind their backs for the river journey to Miri from the upper Baram, Penan were compelled to urinate and defecate on themselves, all the while being ridiculed as animals by their guards. Once in Miri, eighty-six Penan men were held for two months in Lambir Prison, with inadequate food and water, in overcrowded cells infested with mosquitoes. Several had to be evacuated to the local hospital. All suffered physical deprivation and psychological trauma, due not only to their confinement, but also because they knew that in their absence their families would be without food. Finally, on November 20, 1989, following an appeal to the Chief Justice, they were released. It had been the largest number of arrests to date and the longest period of incarceration. The government appeared determined to break the spirit of the Dayak resistance with increasingly harsh and punitive measures.

On June 12, 1991, in yet another effort to establish dialogue with the Sarawak government, over three hundred Penan erected a blockade near the village of Long Ajeng on a road leading into three of Sarawak's last uncut watersheds. As word of the blockade spread, hundreds of men, women, and children arrived from all parts of their territory. The logging companies responded aggressively. Food shipments destined for Long Ajeng were intercepted. In August a Penan man and woman were beaten to death by vigilantes. Nevertheless by early 1992, there were still hundreds of Penan encamped at the barricade.

Finally, after eight months, authorities offered to meet with the Penan and promised finally to issue identity cards acknowledging their citizenship and allowing them the right to vote. In exchange, the Penan were to return to their villages. Faced with hunger, many Penan complied. A hundred refused, and were soon confronted by over a thousand fully armed riot police.

On March 23, 1993, the Penan of the upper Baram initiated a third massive effort to halt the destruction of their ancestral homeland. People from twenty-one longhouses, a total of well over a thousand men, women, and children erected a peaceful blockade at Long Mobui on the upper Sela'an, a tributary of the Baram River. Five days later 20 para-military personnel arrived and forcefully dismantled the wooden barrier. An hour later the Penan erected a new barrier. Several days later fifty fully armed soldiers and police officers appeared. The arrival of a thousand more was threatened. The Penan refused to move. Within the next three months, nine were to die of sickness and hunger, including two elders and six children. Throughout the summer the standoff continued. Finally, on September 28, 1993, a force of 300 soldiers, police, forestry officials, and employees of the logging company arrived in a caravan of forty-five vehicles. Under a veil of tear gas, on foot and in bulldozers, they attacked.

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