DAP calls for  a Royal Commission of Inquiry to protect the Native Customary Rights (NCR) land in Sarawak to restore justice,  settle the land claims and  respect the values and traditions  of the Iban community

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya, Monday): Last  Tuesday, in retaliation against the report that Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy that Canada would call on the Commonwealth to condemn Malaysia for jailing a Canadian journalist, Murray Hiebert,  for contempt of court, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir condemned Canada for its ill-treatment of its own natives for hundreds of years.

Mahathir said native Canadians had been asking their government to return their land but to no avail and that Canada had "oppressed the Red Indians for hundreds of years.

In response, the Acting Canadian High Commissioner to Malaysia, Otch Von Finckenstein wrote to the press about Mahathir’s information on Canada "appears to be incomplete and somewhat dated".

He said: "While it is true that in the past there was official discrimination against our native peoples, the Canadian government eliminated this discrimination long ago. Furthermore, we have worked hard in the past few decades to address the broader concerns of our native peoples.

"As part of this, we have made considerable progress in settling many native land claims. The most prominent example of such a settlement was the creation in April of the new territory of Nunavut. This vast land, which accounts for one-fifth of Canada’s land area, is governed by the 25,000 Inuit who live there, as they see fit.

"The birth of Nunavut demonstrates that Canada can adapt its governance to respect the values and traditions of our aboriginal people."

While there is still  controversy as to whether Canada has fully restored the native land rights, the sad fact for Malaysia is that the government has yet to grapple seriously with the issues of native land rights, whether of the orang asli in Peninsular Malaysia or the Ibans in Sarawak and there are areas where  both the Malaysian government and the Malaysian courts can usefully take a leaf from their Canadian counterparts to dispense  justice  in the settlement of these native land claims.

Three  days ago, for instance, the Supreme Court of Canada extended what it described as a "generous" interpretation of native rights, ruling that an Indian did not break the law by fishing for profit without the required licenses.

The 5-2 decision has the potential to give preferential treatment to natives in hunting, logging and possibly mining activity. It was also the latest in a string of court victories for natives in Canada.

The court ruled that Donald Marshall Jr. -- a Mi'kmaq Indian who had  caught 463 pounds (210 kg) of eels six years ago and sold them for C$787.10 -- had the right under a 1760 treaty to engage in commercial  fishing to provide for his family.

Marshall, from the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia, was charged with breaking three federal regulations -- selling eels without a license, fishing without a license and fishing during the closed season.

"In my view, the 1760 treaty does affirm the right of the Mi'kmaq people to continue to provide for their own sustenance by taking the products of their hunting, fishing and other gathering activities, and trading for what in 1760 was termed 'necessaries'," Justice Ian Binnie wrote for the majority.

He said this did not entitle them to set up large commercial trawlers while others sat idle, but it did go further than previous decisions, which often had allowed Indians to fish for themselves and their families but not commercially.

The Iban community in Sarawak must have hoped that the Malaysian judiciary could be as protective of their native land rights, traditional customs and way of life as the Canadian Supreme Court, especially was the entire Iban way of life and culture is being threatened by the new concept of of  the Native Customary Rights (NCR) land being implemented by the Sarawak State Government.

The deeping conflicts over  Native Customary Rights (NCR) and Practices in Sarawak have resulted in tragic clashes, and is behind the four Ulu Niah killings in Sarawak on September 1, 1999 and why over 200 Ibans from two long houses,  Rumah Busang and Rumah Bali in the Miri Division, Sarawak gathered at the Miri Magistrate’s Court  last Saturday and demonstrated their anger and frustrations for two hours when they found that the  22 men  from their longhouses who had been detained for the killings were not  brought to court as originally scheduled so that they could meet them.

Instead, the 22 were brought before the magistrate’s court one day earlier - last Friday. Three were released but 19, including a juvenile aged 17, were charged provisionally under Section 302 of the Penal Code which provides for mandatory death sentence for murder by hanging. All 19 were charged with four  offences each, because four persons were killed.

The four Ulu Niah killings occurred on 1st September, 1999, at about 3.00 p.m. when  a violent clash between Iban natives from two longhouse communities, namely, Rumah Busang and Rumah Bali in the Miri Division, Sarawak and workers of a contractor company, ie, a contractor to Sarawak Oil Palm (SOP) Berhad resulted in four workers of the contractor company being killed and three others injured.

SOP is a Sarawak government-owned company involved  in oil palm plantation development in various parts of Sarawak.

According to the Ibans, the Sarawak government had issued a provisional lease to SOP over the land cultivated and occupied by them. SOP then engaged the contractor company to clear their  land.

The Ibans protested against the clearance of their  land as it would completely destroy their crops such as pepper, fruit trees, rice farms and other trees thereon on which they solely depended on for their livelihood.

When the company ignored their protests, they sent letters of appeals to all the authorities concerned. The Ibans also sent their representatives to Kuching, the State's capital,  desperately wanting to meet and appeal to the  Ministers including the Chief Minister, Taib Mahmud over their plight. However, none of the Ministers would meet them nor responded to their appeal letters.

The Ibans also met with the police several times on their problems with the company but also without success.

The Ibans alleged  that the contractor company kept bulldozing their land and crops, and when  faced with continued protests from the Ibans, the company brought several "gangsters" armed with weapons such as the Japanese sword, Samurai, knives and steel bars who repeatedly tried to threaten them.

Several reports lodged  by the Ibans to the police at Batu Niah Police Station on the threats by the "gangsters" against them met with no action whatsoever from the police.

On 1st September 1999, the Ibans said they  discovered that workers of the company accompanied by the same group of "gangsters" were bulldozing their land and gardens near Rumah Bali. They asked the work to stop immediately but their appeal was not only ignored, the gangsters all of a sudden also attacked the Ibans with their weapons.

The Ibans said they had no choice but to defend themselves in the attack which ended in the killing of four "gangsters"  and the three who fled the scene injured.

Similar incidents  involving clashes between the Ibans and the "gangsters" over  the dispossession of the NCR land  by oil palm plantation  had also occurred in other areas such as in Bakong and Tinjar in Baram.

In December 1997, a similar violent clash occurred between the Iban natives of Rumah Bangga in Bakong Baram, Sarawak where three members of the longhouse were shot by the police and one, Enyang anak Gendang, died.

It is clear that the root cause of all these conflicts is the continued arbitrary action of the Sarawak government issuing leases to oil palm plantation companies which covers or includes native customary land of the Sarawak indigenous communities.

The time has come for the Federal Government to intervene in the worsening controversy over the NCR land undermining the very way of life of the Iban community, which is not going to give Malaysia a good international name in terms of protecting native land rights.

Although indigenous land rights in Sarawak were  initially accorded  full legal efficacy, they are relentlessly and systematically  undermined by new Sarawak state land legislation,  a process  typified by:

DAP Member of Parliament, Chiew Chiu Sing, who was present at the Miri Magistrates’ Court on Saturday, had raised the injustice of the deprivation of the NCR land of Ibans in Parliament numerous times, but he did not get the support of the other Sarawak MPs, whether Iban or non-Iban, who are all from the Barisan Nasional.

The insidious Sarawak State legislative process, which have rendered indigenous land rights increasingly  restrictive, obscure and meaningless to the extent that  the indigenous communities can no longer rely on customary rights to protect their land from  encroachment, their heritage and  their  way of life.

DAP therefoe  calls for  a Royal Commission of Inquiry to protect the Native Customary Rights (NCR) land in Sarawak to restore justice, settle the land claims and respect the values and traditions  of the Iban community.

The Cabinet, at its meeting on Wednesday, should set up such a Royal Commission of Inquiry as the last bastion of the rights and traditional way of life of the Iban community, particularly with regard to NCR land, and the  sole Iban Cabinet Minister, Datuk Leo Moggie should be frank and forthright with the other Cabinet members to impress on them the importance of setting up such a Royal Commission of Inquiry to give justice to the Iban community in Sarawak.


*Lim Kit Siang - Malaysian Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Democratic Action Party Secretary-General & Member of Parliament for Tanjong