Friday, March 12, 2010

Land disputes at heart of PKR’s Sarawak polls bid

In the file cabinets of lawyer Baru Bian, the Sarawak PKR chief, there are more than 170 case files which he sees as a sign of the growing discontent of the state’s indigenous Dayaks with strongman Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s state Barisan Nasional (BN) administration.

These files are for the increasing number of lawsuits that have been filed in the state’s courts by Dayaks — the catch-all term for all indigenous tribes in Sarawak — against logging companies and oil palm estates for encroaching on Native Customary Rights (NCR) land.

“There are more than 200 cases filed for land disputes between Kuching and Limbang. These are very poor people so they usually collect among themselves a few thousand ringgit or whatever they can collect to retain me,” Baru told The Malaysian Insider in an interview earlier this week.

It is this undercurrent of discontent among the indigenous tribes that his party PKR hopes to exploit ahead of state elections expected soon.

Taib must call state polls before May next year, but the state BN has already begun mobilising its machinery as have the opposition.

In the 2006 state polls, BN won a whopping 62 out of 71 state seats, with its few losses confined mainly to urban areas.

But Baru is now confident that the groundswell of unhappiness over the NCR issue could finally tip the scale in favour of the opposition, and PKR in particular, in rural constituencies.

Among the 71 state constituencies, 16 are Chinese-majority, 29 are considered Dayak seats, while 26 are Malay/Melanau areas.

“If you discount money politics, we in the Pakatan Rakyat could win by a slim majority.

“But I believe that even if BN wins it will also be by a slim majority.

“Many people perceive beating Taib as quite a feat but there is now a strong undercurrent against him,” he claimed.

Baru was only appointed the state’s PKR chief last October after a revolt by local leaders against peninsular-based politicians leading the state.

Sarawak is a fiercely parochial state where the emotive issue of state’s rights have been used effectively to ensure Taib’s state BN remains in power.

Politicians from Umno, although the linchpin of BN, are used as the bogeymen of Sarawak politics, with the underlying message that a vote for Taib’s coalition ensures federal interference is kept at arm’s length.

PKR, a relative newcomer in Sarawak, appears to have now learned that lesson as well by appointing Baru to head the party in the state.

Speaking separately to The Malaysian Insider, Sarawak’s Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri George Chan acknowledged the NCR issue as a major concern for the ruling coalition.

“As far as the rural areas are concerned, NCR is still an issue.

“But the state has been trying hard to solve it. The main focus now is for the people to get income from land that has been used,” he said.

Sarawak has about 830,000 hectares in palm oil plantations. The state government hopes to increase the plantation area to one million hectares by the end of this year.

The state government has reportedly approved about 720,000 hectares of NCR land for large scale oil palm cultivation under a new development model which involves joint ventures between plantation companies and native landowners.

“There will always be unhappiness because there are still some rough edges to the state’s policies. But we are trying hard to sort things out,” said Chan.

For now, Baru is banking on the unhappiness which is keeping his law practice busy and providing him fodder on the ceramah trail.

But another simmering problem is the dispute between the state’s Christians and federal authorities over the use of the word “Allah.”

The “Allah” dispute is being seen as another attempt by federal authorities to interfere with state’s rights.

“If the SIB pastors are unhappy the message will get to the ground,” he said when asked about whether the issue would gain traction in the rural interior where he comes from.

Baru is also a devout member of the Sidang Injil Borneo which is now locked in dispute with the federal government after a shipment of imported Christian religious books meant for Sunday school children which were seized by the Royal Customs and Excise Department at the KLIA low-cost carrier terminal.

The basis for the seizure was because that the books contained the word “Allah” and may confuse Muslims although the books are meant for Christians only.

The SIB has a membership of more than 300,000 and its numbers continue to grow and expand beyond the Orang Ulu area in the interior where it is strongest.

Christianity is the largest religion in Sarawak, making up more than 40 per cent of Sarawakians.

“It is not just the SIB. The Catholics are against it (the banning of the word “Allah” for non-Muslims).

“Wherever I go I will raise the issue and tie it with the Malaysia agreement. We were guaranteed our beliefs would not be interfered with. Before independence we used the word but now we cannot?” he said.

The “Allah” issue is not likely to be a major campaign issue for the state polls as many of Sarawak’s Muslims have no issue with Christians using the word.

Privately many senior Muslim leaders in both BN and PR in the state are also appalled at the “Allah” controversy in peninsular Malaysia.

But the issue could have a major bearing on how Sarawakians vote in the next general elections even if they return Taib and his BN coalition to power.

courtesy of Malaysian Insider

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