The police and the Penans
Sim Kwang Yang | Oct 25, 08 1:54pm
The brief uproar over the alleged rape of Penan school girls in the national media has died down, while the white-wash campaign in the Sarawak media continues unabated.
Recently, Sarawak Police Commissioner Mohamad Salleh reportedly said that a four-man team under his supervision went to Baram to start investigations. He announced that the team would investigate an alleged rape in 1994. He said, “Although the incident took place 14 years ago, I want to assure the public that are will investigate without fear or favour”.
I remember that old case well, as I was directly involved in having the police report lodged-at the central police station (CPS) in Kuching.
I was still the sole opposition MP from Sarawak then. While attending Parliament sitting in Kuala Lumpur in 1993, I was pressed quite a few times by my then colleague the MP of Petaling Jaya Dr Kua Kia Soong to look into the allegation of rape of a 15-year-old Penan girl in Baram. He had heard about it from some Australian NGOs.
On returning to Kuching, I decided to send my personal assistant See Chee How to Baram and visit the Penans. The 2000-mile journey to and fro would take two weeks, requiring Chee How to fly from Kuching to the town nearest the Penans in the inhospitable rugged and torturous terrain of the great upper Barram headwaters. From the town, Chee How would then have to travel by longboat in the treacherous Baram rapids and walk for days in the jungle before reaching his destination.
I was already physically weakened by my diabetic conditions while Chee How was young, fit, and very well-trained.
When Chee How returned to Kuching, he confirmed that the local Penan communities did tell him the story of a 15-year-old girl raped by some security personnel, and a six-year-old boy had also died from a tear gas attack upon a blockade put up to resist logging operations.
Penans brought to Kuching
Apparently, the Penans had made the long-trip downriver to Marudi and even Miri, trying to make police reports against the crimes committed on their children. But the policemen on duty in these places simply refused to accept their police report. (It is against the law to refuse to take a police report, but if you are meek, shy, and respectful Penans, what can you do?)
We then decided that perhaps it would be better to bring the Penans to Kuching to lodge the police report. I was a serving MP, and had a little clout with the police, the media, and government departments and agencies in the capital city of Sarawak.
It must have been a logistics nightmare, a huge financial burden, and a communication cul-de-sac across 1000 miles of the dense forest in Sarawak. But with the help a group of very supportive friends, Chee How pulled it off.
Many months of hard work and thorough preparation later, the Penans walked into my office in Kuching one bright morning, in a single file, as they are won't to do in the forests. They wore street clothes and looked rather smart, though I surmised that they could not have felt very comfortable in them. Apart from their short stature in their physique, they looked no different from any other group of Sarawak natives.
There were 18 Penans in the party, including four tua kampong (village chiefs) village elders, women, and the rape victim whose identity was never revealed. They settled down on two rows of long benches and faced the excited crowd of reporters who had turned out in full force to attend the first press conference by some Penans in their lives. Even reporters from a TV station were there!
I still remember it as if it was yesterday.
A reporter would ask a question in simple Malay, such as “How many Penans in your area have been affected adversely by the logging?”
Apparently, the idea of a single spokesperson was (and probably still is) alien to the Penan culture. A Penan man would turn to his nearest neighbour and a brief consultation in their Penan language would ensure in a soft murmur.
That neighbour would turn to his nearest neighbour in turn, for a soft conference lasting a minute or two. The process would continue down the line until it returned to the first Penan who initiated the process. He would then give an exact number of Penans affected by bad logging in his area.
Despite the reporters impatience for quick, shot-gun responses to which they were used, the Penans answered their every question with this languid laborious and amiable process of group consultation in low whisper!
Naturally, there was little press coverage of what the Penans said at the press conference the next day. The media organisations in Sarawak were all either owned directly or under the thumb of the elite group who control political power and the logging interests in the state.
Perfect hosts, perfect guests
That evening, i invited all my visitors from the Upper Baram forest to my house for a meal. I had prepared a huge pot of pork-leg-peanut stew, knowing the Penans' partiality for pig meat. I was sure my farm pig was nowhere in taste near their wild boar, but then wild boars must have disappeared in their over-logged jungle. After the meal, we sat around in a big circle on the cement floor and chatted, as was the fashion with friendly gatherings among fellow Sarawakians. A good time was had by all.
Bright and early next morning, we proceeded as a single group to the Kuching central police station looking out to the Central Padang, where the Merdeka celebration is held annually.
I had made an appointment with the commanding officer at the CPS, and he was prepared. We were invited to sit round a large oblong table in a conference room. We had prepared a long report of the rape of the 15-year-old girl and the untimely death of the six-year- old boy at the blockade. While the long report was copied dutifully word for word into the brownish official police report book, the visitors from Baram were treated to coffee or tea, and cakes. The hosts were perfect hosts, and the guests were perfect guests.
During the remainder of the day, the Penan visitors made a few trips across town, trying to see officers in the Health, Education and other departments, and even the Chief Minister's office. It was no surprise to me that everywhere they went, the door was slammed shut in their face.
The transport and communication infrastructure in the vast remote rural area of Sarawak is so primitive that progress in working with the indigenous communities would take years where it would take mere weeks or months in the urban centres.
Unfortunately, my time ran out. In 1995. I was defeated in the parliamentary contest in Kuching. I was compelled to retire from politics because of my bad health.
(Fortunately, my friends in Sarawak continued to work hard in their lonely cause of defending the rights of the Sarawak indigenous communities. Chee How had since qualified as a lawyer and he joined Baru Bian's law firm. Between them, they now have over 100 cases in court, representing various indigenous communities all across Sarawak against encroachment upon their customary land rights by the state government, loggers, and plantation companies).
I tell this tale not for the self-serving purpose of showing how heroic I was in trying to bring justice for the Penans. I merely want to show how hard it is for the Penans just to make a police report if a Penan girl is raped, and a Penan boy, killed.
That is the sort of injustice that cries out for the total overhaul of our political culture. Surely, the greatness or meanness of our Malaysian society is judged by how the weakest members of our Malaysian body politics are treated by the institutions of power?
Since then, I have thought about that poor Panan girl often.
Rapists are the real culprits
In my book of crime against humanity, rape is very near to the top of the list. I am not merely being self-righteous. I just have to think of the numerous beloved female members of my extended family.
I also agree with most women NGO's that rapes are not caused by women who are beautiful or who wear sexy clothes. Rapes are not crimes of sexual passion; they are crimes of violence. The rapists are the real criminals. They leave incurable and life-long psychological scars on their victims, who probably would never recover from their ordeal of being violated.
Chee How told me a few days ago that the Penan rape victim has since moved from Upper Baram to Middle Baram. She has never married and led a normal family life. She should be 29 this year.
So now, the Sarawak police chief wants to pursue this case 14 long years later - “without fear a favour”? One can only be “cautiously optimistic” about such a declaration of intent, which is the same as saying that one is down right cynical about the outcome of the police investigation.
Meanwhile, in the last 14 years, how many Penan girls and women have been raped by outside parties in the remote hostile and god-forsaken forests of Sarawak? We will never know. Even making a police report on such a heinous crime is so difficult for the Penans!
I have been cautioned many times not to reveal the identity of any rape victim. I will just say that the initial for that poor Penan girl 14 years ago is “S”, in case the police needs reminding.
I am very fond of her.
Happy Deepavali. May good triumph over Evil!