Saturday, October 16, 2010

Where life and death hang in the balance

THE disturbing reports of the death of Ross Boyert (in montage) and the pollution of the Rajang River have sent ripples through the placid pool of Sarawak life.

Ross Boyert, 60, was a business partner of Sulaiman Taib, son of Chief Minister Taib Mahmud. He became chief executive officer in Sakti International, the property empire Taib started in the United States. Boyert was found dead with a plastic bag tied around his head, in a motel room in Los Angeles last week.

Earlier this year, Boyert told journalists from the Sarawak Report website that he had written to Taib in 2006 to ask to keep his job. Boyert had been sacked by Sakti’s new president, Taib’s son-in-law, Sean Murray. Boyert had then sued Sakti for a share of profits he claimed Sulaiman had promised him.

According to Sarawak Report, Boyert’s court documents proved Taib had started the enormous Sakti property fortune, now worth at least US$80 million (RM240 million). This caused a “furious reaction”, Boyert said, and a “relentless, well-funded campaign” to destroy him financially.

Sakti’s lawyer firm, Howard Rice, hired a private investigator to approach Boyert’s business associates, asking them about unsubstantiated claims of embezzlement against Boyert. Boyert said he and his family had been followed and harassed by hostile men. Boyert became unemployed, went bankrupt and eventually lost his home.

“I was incredibly naive. I should have realised by showing all I knew about Taib’s involvement in the company I would pose a threat in his eyes and invoke his revenge. We never reporrealised Taib’s wealth was illegitimate,” Boyert told Sarawak Report.

The Taib family are unlikely to shed many tears over the death of their former property manager. There may even be a sense of relief he is gone. But the damage has already been done.

Sarawak Report has published documented evidence, supplied by Boyert, showing that Taib himself had set up Sakti. Boyert had apparently provided Sarawak Report with inside information on the Taib family’s business dealings. Scoops included photos of the Taib family, hanging inside a mansion in Seattle handed over to the family by timber conglomerate Samling, at a reported cost of US$1.

Sarawak Report has also followed up leads and exposed property owned by Taib’s family throughout north America and Britain. News of Taib’s obscene wealth has spread to every corner of Sarawak.

A pressing question is now, will Taib sue Sarawak Report? With Boyert gone, any defamation action would not have to deal with the well-informed insider as a witness for the defence. But given the wealth of documentary evidence Sarawak Report appears to have, it seems unlikely Taib will take the risk of even more adverse publicity.

The fact that Taib has remained silent about these allegations, so far, implies he lacks confidence to win any suit or obtain a court injunction against the allegations of his family’s property fortune.

Boyert’s death may have been suicide. This remains to be established by the California authorities. But even if Boyert took his own life, the “relentless” campaign to destroy him must have taken its toll on him, even if Boyert’s pursuers did not tie the plastic bag around his neck themselves.

Boyert was receiving medication for depression, so Taib’s supporters will dismiss Boyert as a lunatic. But ordinary Sarawakians will smell a rat. This death is a blow to Taib at a time when he is gearing up for state elections.

Worse still for Taib, it comes immediately after the horrific sight of tonnes of logs clogging up the Rajang river. The logs and debris left destruction, dead marine life and pollution in their wake. Sarawakians are already incensed with Taib, and they will continue to blame him during every subsequent flood in every town along the Rajang, from Sibu to Kapit.

Sarawakians living along the entire length of the Rajang will have seen this ecological vandalism with their own eyes. They do not need illustrated reports from green NGOs to understand the terrible destruction caused by uncontrolled logging along the upper reaches of the Rajang.

They will blame the logging companies, and most Sarawakians already understand the cosy relationship between Taib and the timber tycoons. Many Sarawakians are also aware of the links between the vast fortunes made from the devastated forests and the property empire in rich western countries.

We must remember that many other lives have been lost, thanks to the damage visited by logging and corruption on Sarawak.

There have been reports of rural villagers dying at blockades against logging companies because of tear-gas and violence, used by police in support of the timber tycoons and their political masters. A Penan girl of 12 was raped at a logging blockade by uniformed men carrying live ammunition, according to the girl and her family, and many other Penan girls have reported sexual abuse at the hands of loggers.

Penan chief Kelesau Naan was found dead under mysterious circumstances after leading a campaign for a decade against Samling. Kelesau had been waging a legal battle against the loggers and the state government. Penan advocate Bruno Manser disappeared 10 years ago in Sarawak’s forests and is presumed dead.

Taib’s government and logging companies had made Manser a target of hate.

Every day, poor people die all over Sarawak, because they receive substandard medical care, or drive on dangerous roads, or suffer ill health simply because they are poor. The wealth of Sarawak has been stolen from these people, ripped away and deposited overseas.

How much lower would our childhood mortality rate be, if we had good nutrition for all rural children, adequate education for all their mothers, and easy access to decent medical care for all their families?

When we vote in the upcoming state election – and in following elections – we must realise we are voting for our lives, and the lives of other Sarawakians. Voting in Sarawak is a matter of life and death. — Hornbill Unleashed

* The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysian Mirror and/or its associates.

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