Speaking to the BBC, James Masing, Sarawak Minister for Land Development, dismissed claims by Penan girls and women who said they had been sexually abused and raped by logging workers in a remote jungle area.
BBC reporter Angus Stickler was investigating well-documented allegations of rape and abuse by logging-company employees in Sarawak’s Middle Baram region when he met one of the apparent victims.
I spoke to Mary, a teenage girl who was tending to her baby daughter amid swarms of flies. The child’s legs were covered with running sores. It’s a desperate scene. Mary fell pregnant after she was raped.
With the help of a translator she tells her story. How she was hitching a ride to school and was
picked up by a logging company driver and two other men. They stopped off overnight. She was
dragged from her room, beaten unconscious. She awoke naked – left in the dirt.
Her story was one of several documented in a 110-page report published in September 2009 by the Malaysian Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development.
When Stickler confronted Masing, who heads the agency that grants logging licenses in the area, the minister said “Penan are very good story tellers.”
“They change their stories, and when they feel like it.”
Bruno Manser Fund, a group that works with the Penan, is now calling for an apology from Masing.
“The Bruno Manser Fund is dismayed that Sarawak officials continue to deny the results of the Malaysian Federal Government report on the sexual abuse of Penan girls and women and asks James Masing to apologize for his unacceptable statement,” the NGO said in a statement.
The Penan, some of whom still live as nomadic hunter-gatherers in the rainforests of Sarawak, have been battling loggers since the 1980s, when large-scale industrial logging commenced in the Malaysian state. At times they have faced intimidation and violent crackdowns at the hands of security forces hired by logging firms and Malaysian police. In January 2008 a Penan chief, Kelesau Naan, was allegedly murdered for his longtime opposition to logging.
The plight of the Penan made international headlines in the 1990s due a campaign by Bruno Manser, a Swiss national, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 2000. Since then the cause has been championed by the Bruno Manser Fund.