A coalition of nearly 30 organizations has sent a letter to top authorities in Sarawak and Malaysia warning them of possible human right violations against a group of indigenous Penan who are blocking roads to the construction site for Murum Dam. Over 100 indigenous people have been blocking a road for over a month as they demand more compensation and land after being forced to move from their traditional lands to make way for the 900 megawatt dam.
“We are writing to express our serious concern about the situation of hundreds of Indigenous Penan women, men and children who are peacefully protesting at the site of the Murum Hydroelectric Project and have been cordoned off by a barricade of armed police, as of 5 November, 2013,” reads the letter from groups such as Human Right Watch and International Rivers. “Lawyers, human rights groups, medics, media personnel and convoys carrying basic supplies of food and water for distribution all have reported that their access to the site has been blocked.”
The groups note that a number of protestors have been “arbitrarily” arrested and detained, including two minors.
“We are extremely concerned with the decision made by Sarawak authorities to isolate, intimidate and threaten the Penan families, all of whom are seeking to defend their ancestral lands, their culture, and the survival of their way of life as a people,” the letter goes one.
Indigenous people say they were never probably consulted regarding the Murum Dam and contend that even now—as the dam is being built—information is difficult to come by from state authorities. The dam will flood 24,500 hectares of native land, forcing the resettlement of seven indigenous communities. As compensation, Sarawak Energy has said it will give each family around $3,000 (10,000 Malaysian Ringgit) and 14 hectares of land, but affected indigenous communities say this is not enough. Sarawak does not recognize the land rights of the Penan people who over the last few decades have been pushed off their land for mining, logging, and energy projects. While the Penan were once nomadic, the government has forced them into settling.
“The intimidation, threats, arrests, detentions and criminalization of members of these Penan families who are seeking just remedies to their plight of forced displacement amount to clear violations of legally guaranteed rights to the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” write the NGOs. The groups demand that Sarawak remove police from the area, dismiss criminal charges against the protestors, and allow supplies and human rights observers through. They add that the Murum Dam project should be halted until the government addresses the indigenous peoples’ grievances.
Murum Dam is just one of several controversial dam projects in Sarawak. Even though the state currently produces considerably more power than it consumes, it continues to build massive rainforest dams on indigenous lands. Critics contend that the dams are largely monuments to corruption. The head of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud, is currently under investigation by the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). Taib, as he is known, is said to be worth around $15 billion despite a civil servant salary for the last 30 years. The U.S. government dubbed Taib “highly corrupt” in confidential embassy cables released by WikiLeaks, and noted that it is widely accepted that Taib and his family took cuts from commercial projects and widespread logging.
But the government says the massive dam projects are intended to attract new extractive industries, such as mining.
BMF map showing expected area flooded by the Murum Dam
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