OPINION The Penan are subject to intimidation, violence and exploitation. They struggle to provide for themselves. Their womenfolk and young girls have been sexually abused and raped. They feel hunted, just like the game they seek in the forests of Borneo.
On Tuesday, Taib Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak, had a dose of his own medicine when he had to escape the clutches of demonstrators in front of the Said Business School, at the University of Oxford. He was there to address the “Inaugural Oxford Global Islamic Branding and Marketing Forum”. The protesters held placards reading ‘Penan tribe say NO to logging’ and ‘Malaysia: Stop destroying the Penan tribe’.
At the opening session, Taib’s address was “The Role of Muslim Nations in Rebuilding Today’s Global Economy”. This was followed by the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Nor Mohamed Yakcop's, address “The View from Muslim Southeast Asia.
Little did Taib guess that he would have people demonstrating about the Penans and the destruction of the rainforest. The grand welcome he is used to, fizzled into nothing. His luxury car, carried a decoy to fool a group of protestors at the side entrance. Taib was probably transported in an embassy van, with diplomatic number plates and spirited via the kitchen, into the building.
A man who claimed he was in charge of security and who refused to give his name and the company he worked for, said, “We don’t care what the principal wants, we bundle him in, even if he does not like it.” He was suggesting that Taib may have probably wanted to make a grand entrance, but was prevented from doing so by the security detail.
Inside the conference centre, protesters were barred from entering the foyer to present their list of questions to Taib. A scheduled press conference at 12.30 p.m. just before the special speakers’ lunch, was cancelled possibly because of the risk of having to answer awkward questions.
A demonstrator who entered the foyer tried to take a photo of Taib but was immediately surrounded and forcibly ejected from the premises. She successfully took photos of him through the glass but this enraged members of Taib’s delegation who then lowered the blinds or placed screens against the glass-fronted building, to prevent Taib from being photographed.
Taib seemed like a wounded animal as he walked with Nor Mohamed Yakcop, who looked visibly angry that the demonstrators had hijacked Taib’s big day in front of the delegates who had paid £1,000 (RM 5,100) each to attend this Forum.
Evidently, Taib is surrounded by ‘yes’ men who cocoon him from dissenting views of the real world. He must have found it galling that thousands of miles away from the safe confines of his tropical riverside mansion, the Penan problem and the destruction of the forests would be haunting him in this centre of learning.
Instead of being able to sell Sarawak to the British, Taib has to justify his actions to the chairman of the British parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group for Tribal peoples, MP Martin Horwood. The British MP has written to him about the serious allegations of the Penan. Instead of a warm welcome, Taib received a cold reception from the demonstrators and a letter from the MP whilst his host, will receive letters of protest and condemnation.
Taib may wish to reflect how it is to feel rejected, just like the Penans are rejected by their own leaders who continually thwart their attempts at seeking justice. For several years the Penan and other indigenous people have tried to seek peaceful methods to maintain their way of life. They have been harassed because they stood in Taib’s way and his get-rich schemes.
The large delegation accompanying Taib seemed bemused by the demonstrators. What they are used to is a violent reaction from the Malaysian police who are intolerant of protests, even peaceful ones.
One lady who was part of Taib’s delegation said that a child who held up a banner at yesterday’s demonstration was being subjected to “child labour.” Is she aware that Penan girls are being raped and the police in Malaysia are slow to act?
This demonstration has rattled Taib. If this seminar had been arranged during term-time, Taib would have been assured of a larger, more vocal and highly organised group. He is lucky. The police said the demonstrators were ‘well-behaved’ but the behaviour of members of Taib’s delegation was aggressive, in comparison.
Nevertheless, several questions remain unanswered.
Why did Oxford University embrace Taib with open arms knowing that his reputation is tarnished at home and abroad?
Why are his crimes - corruption, plundered wealth, destruction of the forests and land, not highlighted abroad? None of the UK national newspapers (UK) covered this event. Only the local Oxford paper attended.
How is it that the Kagame government or even the Mugabe regime can get centre-stage in the foreign news section of the UK national newspapers? Is Malaysian news insignificant? Or have Sarawakians more serious lobbying to do?
A few of the demonstrators were contemplating making a Serious Fraud Office (SFO) report against Taib. This apparently was how the British arms dealer BAE systems was prosecuted in the Saudi arms bribery scandal.
Pressure from the international community can only be effected by Malaysians when they bring it to the attention of the rest of the world. Naturally, Taib does not want to be in the news for the wrong reasons, as he has a very cushy number.
* The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysian Mirror and/or its associates.