The sad and vicious story behind the railroading of local people in Sarawak from their timber rich inheritance has been well encapsulated by the wrangle over the Berawan and Penan native lands at the Mulu UNESCO World Heritage site, which has now extended to the buffer lands around.
For the moment, blockades by protestors have succeeded in at least temporaily halting a determined attempt to rip out some of the remaining valuable trees left unprotected in the state in an areas used by these native folk since time immemorial to hunt and retrieve forest products.
The logging, which got going at the end of last year, represents just a fraction of a huge landmass covered in valuable timber granted as ‘oil palm concessions’ by the administration of the present Governor of the state, Taib Mahmud, to his son in 2008 for a nominal price of just RM741 per hectare, under highly dubious circumstances and amidst blatant conflicts of interest.
Despite the fact this particular 4,500 hectare concession was located in the Native Customary Rights lands of the Berawan and Penan tribes, Taib (who was chief minister, planning and resources minister, finance minister and also the head of the Land & Survey Department and Land Custody and Development Agency at the time) never even informed these people that his son had been granted the concession, let alone consulted, negotiated or compensated them for the alienation of their land (this has prompted the latest in a slew of legal cases, of which more later).
It is obvious to all that the real lure of the concession to grow oil palm has been the easy cash to be made out of felling the far more valuable timber and this is exactly the same sort of land snatch the same family and its timber cronies have performed all over the state, which was once home to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of top value tropical timber, but which now faces an imminent collapse of the timber industry owing to their rapacious and careless logging.
The son, Abu Bekir Taib, now heads up the vast business interests of the Taib family, based on these and other behind closed doors concessions and contracts within Sarawak (Taib gave an interview to the UK PR company FBC Media claiming his family only made money abroad, which caused widespread ridicule).
Abu Beker currently appears to be trying to cash in his ownership of some of these hugely valuable assets, especially in the wake of the recent federal elections, which saw the demise of the BN government that had protected the Taib family’s mafia regime for over four decades.
Back in April 2018 Abu Bekir Taib passed his 99% shareholding of this particular Mulu concession, held under the company Radiant Lagoon, to a Marudi logging tycoon named Yee Ming Seng, who locals say has close family ties to the second term MP for the area, Anyie Ngau.
The timber in the area alone (before oil palm is planted) has an estimated value of circa US100 million (Rm400,000,000.00) say NGOs, for which Abu Bekir and his partner originally had paid a premium of a mere RM3.3 million, described as ‘Payment in Kind’ according to the land registry records.
The deal was linked to a hugely controversial contract offered by the father to his son’s construction company Titanium Management to repair bridges in the state, which went heavily over budget and never made completion. Yet it was the father’s administration that agreed to pay most of the contested extra fees plus ‘compensation in kind’ in the form of vast oil plam concessions on timber-covered native lands for a derisory R741 per hectare.
How much Yee Ming Seng paid in turn to acquire the shares of Radiant Lagoon from Abu Bekir, which were placed into the ownership of his vehicle Onlyee Plantations, a subsidiary of the tycoon’s powerful Double Dynasty group, is yet to be made public. However, Onlyee Plantations took out two loans in November last year valued at US$18 million (RM75m) and RM55 million.
Sarawak Report has raised the question as to whether the sale was officially registered, given patterns of past conduct where the Taib family have acquired properties in the United States merely by registering changes in company ownership working with other friendly timber tycoons – no taxes paid.
What is clear is that the logging that ensued shortly after provoked fury amongst the local communities, many or whom started to protest and support the blockades.
“In response we filed a number of police reports, in which we criticised the local headmen appointed by the state government, who we said abused their power and were guilty of improper conduct in this matter and other matters”
says Denis Along, one of the longstanding activists, who has also campaigned against the appropriation of Berawan lands to create the Royal Mulu Hotel and airport attached to the National Park. In this case it was the sister of Taib Mahmud, her husband Robert Geneid and other family members who were the main beneficiaries of the project, funded naturally by the Sarawak Economic Development Authority (SEDA).
The various reports made by the Berawan protestors to the police and to the MACC have complained that the headmen in question at the affected villages of Mulu and Long Terawan were each paid RM400,000 each by Radiant Lagoon into community accounts, which they then partially used to circulate payments of RM3,500 to each of the longhouse families shortly after the protests began, saying that if the families did not take their chance to receive the ‘gift’ they would not see the opportunity again.
According to these complaints, the villagers were subsequently told they had signed away their rights in return for these minor sums of money and warned they had no further legal justification to protest against the logging.
Significantly, the documentary evidence shows that not only have these payments to local village associations controlled by the headmen been admitted to, but a letter authorised by Yee Ming Seng has confirmed that the two payments of RM400,000 were indeed transferred as part of what his company considered to be a ‘settlement’ to achieve the surrender of native rights to the multi-million dollar timber reserves his company planned to log.
The letter makes clear the company was dealing only with the state government appointed headmen to act on behalf of what protestors have described as village people left ‘clueless’ about what was going on:
See the full letter:
See the full letter:
An SPRM (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission MACC) report made by Denis Along in April cites that this information about the payment being supposedly part of a surrender of the natives’ rights had only emerged at a meeting a few days before in March between the protestors, the headmen, the company and local political figures (organised and controlled by the senior local police officer ASP Cliff Emang Ngau).
As a result of that meeting and the emergence of these details the local state representative YB Gerawat Gala demanded the logging cease immediately, as is confirmed by the minutes provided by Along’s report to the MACC Headquarters in Miri.
See the full MACC report and minutes of March meeting:
Therefore by March not only had panicking YBs ordered the logging be suspended, but a report had been lodged with the MACC by angry local campaigners, complaining that the local politicians and headmen have been working in cahoots with the logging company to railroad native rights in the region.
So far, say the campaigners, the investigation agency has taken no action.
Furthermore, by this point the row had attracted the attention of international NGOs and the many prominent world scientists, who have championed the protection of the Mulu World Heritage site, resulting in a major international row and a threat to the region’s UNESCO status.
The impasse has left half of the first of the two concession lots clear felled with timber left rotting on the ground amidst the stand-off. However, at least the bulldozers are currently idle with the remainder presently defended by determined local people, who continue to man a blockade into the area.
It is at this point that a PR pushback by the company appears to have got underway, with a concerted effort to get the village folk on side by the loggers – or at least boxed in and silenced.
In late March a foursome of leading longhouse figures, described as placemen and toadies by the opposing activists, were transported to the District Officer’s Residence in Marudi to discuss matters with him on behalf of everyone else in the community.
The event is said to have been organised by the same local police bigwig, Assistant Superintendant Cliff Emang Ngau, who as his name suggests is another relative (the nephew) of the local MP.
The group of two headmen, Edmund Abang and Ugum Jalong, plus Pengulu Herbert Lawai Epoi, were accompanied by a councillor and local businessman Garry Hassim Mulu and another very influential local player Dato Robert Laing Anyie (who had acted for over 20 years as one of Taib’s 24 political secretaries – one to control each region).
These were then driven on to Miri to meet with the local MP Anjie Ngau and local YBs all part of the GPS government. Local press had been gathered and waiting for what they had to say.
Predictably, the bigwigs complained to the press that the Swiss native rights NGO Bruno Manser Fund had been ‘interfering’ to ‘prevent development’ in their villages. No mention was made of the fact that logging had been suspended by the authorities amidst evidence of bribes and misleading of local villagers thanks to deals with the same headmen.
“The Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) has been accused of exploiting villagers from Long Terawan and Mulu.During a press conference yesterday, the villagers called on the police and Immigration Department to investigate the fund’s attempt to stop development in the two areas…. Long Terawan Ketua Kaum Edmund Abang said serious action must be taken against individuals and foreigners who are against development for the people of Mulu and Long Terawan.” [Borneo Post March 22nd]
As the stand-off nevertheless continued, last week a second front against ‘foreign NGO propaganda’ opened up.
A commercial PR press release service called Newswire, which mimics the international news agencies but advertises that it will in fact circulate any story as long as it is paid to do so, promoted a press statement, supposedly written by a Miri based Pastor Lian Malang, originally from Mulu, also condemning ‘foreign NGOs’ and announcing he was lodging a police report against them for ‘holding back development':
The local media were once more naturally encouraged to take up the ‘story’ which was circulated in the handy ‘press release’ that publicised the pastor’s number, inviting journalists to call him.
Pictured in the press release and accompanying the Pastor during the statement were a group of powerful local individuals, who have been associated with supporting Radiant Lagoon and the same headmen appointed by the state government whom critics accuse of facilitating the company’s activiites:
However, when Sarawak Report attempted to phone and text this number to ask a series of questions (including who it was that had signed up to Newswire, which costs nearly US$200/ RM800 per month and paid for the press release?) we received no reply.
When we next telephoned another member of the Pastor’s congregation they explained Malang has recently changed his number, but said they did not know what the new number was. It therefore appears the pastor is no longer interested in speaking to reporters despite courting them with this press realease. However, we will update if he returns our message.
Meanwhile, our further enquiries have revealed that this is not in fact the first police report that Pastor Lian Malang has filed over recent months and years.
Indeed, documentation shows a very strange pattern of changed behaviour, in that this self-same Pastor until very recently acted in an opposite capacity, as one of the key leaders of the protests against the alleged abuse by the headmen and government appointees in Long Terawan and Mulu with regard to the community’s rights, including concerns about the logging and payments to trick villagers out of their land rights.
One such protest letter, clearly signed by Pastor Lian Maling, was sent in August of last year to the Resident of the Miri Division and copied to the YB Gerawat Gala, in which he specifically criticised the headman of Long Terawan, Edmund Abang, on several counts and asked for his removal, owing to what he complained was a consistant abuse of his position and his failure to hold legally required elections for new committee members for the entire 14 years since he had been appointed.
Indeed, several of the members of that committee, which this headman is legally supposed to consult have died or are sick, the letter signed by Pastor Lian Maling said, and no one in the community could recollect the single time that the committee had actually been convened.
This headman appointed by the state government back in 2005 runs his community in an “autocratic and stubborn style”, the Pastor and his fellow signatories complained in their devastating letter sent to the Resident of Miri and copied to YB Gerawat Gala himself, the State Secretary of Sarawak and to Malaysia’s human rights agency Suhakam.
Instead of caring for the villagers, Edmund Abang directs all his energies towards promoting his personal business interests at the expense of the community the letter signed by the Pastor just a few months ago went on:
Read the whole letter:
There is more.
Continuing in this same theme, the Pastor who was to complain of ‘foreign NGO interference’ just a few weeks later, was one of three people who signed a second letter to the same Miri Resident, dated 25th January this year, directly complaining about the conduct of the same headman over a number of specific issues of alleged corruption.
These included earlier logging by Pusaka KTS plantations (a scandal already covered by this portal) saying Edmund Abang had failed to properly distribute an earlier promised payment by this other timber raider – headed by Taib’s former head of Forestry and the present ‘Environment’ minister of Sarawak, Len Talif Salleh:
Pusaka promised to pay goodwill money (saguhati) of RM2 million to the people of Long Terawan however a balance of RM300,000 is still outstanding….KK Edmund has not kept a proper records of all payments received from the disbursements made to the people from PKTS. There are many complaints regarding how the RM1.7milion has been used due to the lack of transparency. Due to the lack of proper accounting records and no audit has been done, there is a widespread suspicion that the funds had been misused by KK Edmung Abang….”
The letter goes on to lament how the folk of Pastor Lian Malang’s region were also similarly done over by another of Taib Mahmud’s top timber cronies from Rimbunan Hijau – they only found out about its palm oil plantation project 6 years after its inception his signed complaint explains. Rimbunan had paid fines, but all the money had gone to the same odious headman in his sites, Edmund Abang, complained Pastor Malang:
“Rimbunan Sawit signed an agreement with KK Edmund to alllow the company to open up its plantation without the knowledge of the people of Long Terawan!
Until now KK Edmund Abang has kept this secret and not inform (sic) the people of Lond Terawan about this. Why is he doing this as a Ketua Kaum [headman]? Is this not a clear case of abuse of power and criminal breach of trust on the part of KK Edmund Abang? The people of Long Terawan has not received a single cent of money from Ribunan Sawit Bhd even though it has been operating for about 7 years. Can we conclude that KK Edmund has made a deal for himself without the poor and ignorance folks of Long Terawan Knowledge (sic)?”
The letter is therefore extremely strong stuff and very much in line with the concerns expressed by global NGOs and environmentalists, who have raised deep concerns about the management of the region.
Pastor Malang’s tirade then specifically goes on to make a third complaint directly relating to the conduct of the despised headman in the present case of Radiant Lagoon:
“This is the latest oil palm plantation company to open up its plantation operation in our area. Again, KK Edmund Abang is actively involved as a facilitator in getting the company to set up its operation….”
fumes Pastor Lian Maling (continuing his brave role as a veritable champion of his people). The letter goes on to describe the dirty financial deal involving the RM400,000 payments to headmen in the two villages already explained above and produces worrying financial information about the allegd mis-management of the community finances by this allegedly autocratic headman appointed by Taib Mahmud all those years ago.
The letter ends by recommending that the Miri Resident ought to set the SPRM/MACC onto an investigation of this headman and it is copied to the chief minister of Sarawak, YB Gerawat Gala, the State Secretary of Sarawak, the District Officer of Marudi, the SPRM [Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission] Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur and Police Headquarters at Bukit Aman:
Read the whole letter here:
Yet, bewilderingly, just three months later, the very same brave campaigner against leaders he alleged were totally corrupt betrayers of the people’s interests has now come out to defend the men he had so denounced and criticise environmental and human rights NGOS who’d supported his position from abroad.
So, what could possibly be the explanation for such a volte face on the part of this man of God, who is reportedly now regarded as a bit of a traitor by a good segment of his Miri congregation?
More to the point, why ever would his targets in the timber companies have thought it a good idea to get him to walk over to their side, given how such a change of tune would inevitably appear if anyone made the slightest investigation into the background of the case?
The pastor’s former co-campaigners claim that the explanation for the ‘change of heart’ appears once again to lie with the influence of the senior police officer ASP Cliff Emang Ngau, nephew of that local MP.
ASP apparently warned the Pastor that all his activism could jeapodise his freedom, unless he cooperated in the way he did. Says one:
“I feel sorry for the Pastor, who is a good man. He of course did not write that Newswire press release or the police report. He was just told he needed to cooperate and do a photo holding the piece of paper and then he would be off the hook. He did not expect to be in the papers quoted saying things like that”
Sarawak Report is in contact ASP Cliff Emang Ngau, but so far has not succeeded in gaining comment and will update on any feedback on this matter.
As for the decision to ‘turn’ such an exposed ‘convert’, Sarawak Report can only assume that the hardmen of Sarawak have got so used to getting away with blatant thuggish tactics that they failed to realise how unconvincing such a hamfisted piece of bullying would look, once properly exposed by news organisations no longer enslaved as propaganda tools of the Taib family empire.
Ask about, and you will discover that this Mulu Pastor’s decision to jump ship is considered highly logical to very many residents of Miri and other regions of Sarawak, where those who get in the way of the timber mafia have shown a depressing tendency to end up dead in the path of gangsters.
For example, one of the key native rights campaigners, who had also lived in Miri, was Bill Kayong, a close associate of the team protesting against the Mulu and Long Terawan landgrabs – which once included Pastor Lian Maling as one of its most prominent personalities.
Bill Kayong, regarded as one of PKR’s most hopeful young local politicians, was shot dead through the window of his car in the middle of Miri by a motorcyclist at a traffic light.
The motorcyclist has now been caught and sentenced to death, however he has refused to divulge who paid him to pull the trigger. A local ‘Dato’ – a timber boss locked in conflict with Kayong over a separate local logging concession – was also put on trial as the prime suspect for ordering the killing, having fled to Australia straight after the murder (from where he was later arrested and deported) and been discovered to own an arsenal of weaponary in his mansion back in Sarawak.
Despite being put to trial, as everyone in Sarawak knows, the ‘Dato’ was acquitted before the last election, not least owing to the silence of the shooter, leaving the judge to delcare the evidence was insufficient.
Meanwhile, the forest that Bill Kayong had passionately struggled to protect as his last act on earth has now been clear-felled and converted into an oil palm plantation. That is indeed a bitter lesson for those still brave enough to campaign against the state government connected timber companies in Sarawak.
No one should therefore under-estimate the bravery of those continuing Mulu and other native activists, who are now being villified by Sarawak’s timber mafia establishment. But, where is the law when they win their cases?
A group of those activists, including Willie Kayan and Denis Along from Mulu, won a great moral victory for their fellow villagers way back in 2015, when after years of legal action in the courts they won their case against the state government for having taken their land to build the Mulu Hotel and airport, operations which this time were put into the grasp of Taib’s sister Razia and her Lebanese husband Robert Geneid.
The court eventually justly found for the native landowners, although these were understandably disappointed at the derisory compensation awarded by the judge at a mere RM1.00 per square meter (given the hundreds of millions involved). In total that pay out represented a pitiful RM173,000 for the 17.5 hectares taken for the projects to be divided amongst the entire community. “At the very least we need the money to pay our lawyers” says Denis Along.
However, the Sarawak State Government and the Taib family have long since acted as though the law is not designed to apply to them and this case seems no exception.
Four years on, despite numerous legal reminders, requests and demands, the struggling native victors in this case have yet to be paid a single ringgit of even that derisory compensation, awarded against the state which is run by super-wealthy politicians who have made themselves some of the richest people on the planet by logging the lands of Sarawak’s impoverish native communities.
People that include the people of Mulu and Long Terawan, who are still campaigning to get proper sanitation for their longhouses.