An on-the-ground account of the case of a “would-be arsonist” and the fight to save Sebangan rainforest. A man was arrested for arson, curiously, at the time the fire started he was some 400km away.
Mujah has a problem. He’s just been arrested along with six others on charges of mischief by fire. A logging camp in Simunjan has been burnt down and the headlines of the Sarawak print media are ablaze about how 2 million ringgit worth of logging equipment have gone up in smoke.
The curious problem is that when the fire started, Mujah was about 400 kilometers away, with me and two other colleagues, conducting fieldwork near a rural town called Daro, in the Mukah District.
The evening when the logging camp had been burnt down in a blaze of glory, Mujah, myself and two others were having drinks at Daro after a very hot day of fieldwork. I had introduced him to the local favourite dessert, “White Lady” (an icy concoction of lychee, corn, jelly) the day before, and Mujah was indulging himself with the charms of the ice cold Lady.
The hostels (all three) of Daro were packed with PBB (Barisan National Sarawak component party: Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu) delegates getting in their early rural politicking before the call of the upcoming state election, and Mujah had wandered off to the next table to say hello to a couple of his PBB friends that he had recognised.
I ended up finishing off his White Lady that was left unattended.
A couple of days later, he received a call from his wife, informing him that the police had been by his house, looking for him.
“They are looking for me, to help with their investigation”, he says in a typical unassuming Mujah kind-of-way.
The drive back to Kuching was very subdued. By then, we had already heard about the fire and that the police were looking for him and several others, including four Tuai Rumahs (longhouse chiefs) “to help with their investigation”. Three out of the four Tuai Rumahs were already arrested, along with another villager that day. Mujah was inundated with phone calls from friends and supporters who had heard what happened and were worried for him.
At one point, he said with exasperation, “Young people! They worry too much. They should be more brave.”
This relatively young person sat quietly in the back of Mujah’s clanker, wondering whether he was going to get arrested.
“Mujah, are you getting arrested?” I finally asked.
“Most likely,” replied Mujah in a calm manner.
“But you were not even there.”
“It doesn’t matter to them.”
The next day (Friday), I drove him to Simunjan, thinking that since I was his bona fide alibi, he would need me at some point in the police station.
I didn’t even get pass the gates. Young, worried-looking policemen in their blue uniforms surrounded the closed gates, and refused to let us enter. Mujah’s and Numpang’s supporters were milling around the bus stop directly opposite the police station. There was an air of quiet sadness and dignity amongst the crowd, there were no passionate slogans being shouted. If the villagers were disappointed that they could not enter the police compound to show their support for all seven being detained, they did not show it in an aggressive manner, instead they stood their ground quietly.
When Mujah, and the two others (Numpang Suntai and Tuai Rumah Sadon) had stated their names and said that they had an appointment in the police station, the young policemen looked confused and had to double-check their ICs with a list on a clipboard.
“Maybe they won’t let you in and we can just go home,” I said hopefully.
Finally, a plain clothes Special Branch officer wandered up and with some exasperation directed towards his young colleagues, ushered the three men into the police compound.
After half an hour, the three men came out to look for 10 villagers who were willing to give their statements on what happened during that fateful evening. They then reported back at the police station around 2.30p.m.
We were told that the four earlier detained, would be released on Monday, and that the other three, would be released on Tuesday. So you can imagine our surprise and relief, when we found out that all seven would be released on Monday.
The mood outside the courthouse had shifted from a somber tone last Friday, to a more excited, triumphant one. Their men were coming home. Over 200 people, more so than last Friday’s crowd, showed up in support, representing at least six longhouses. The women in particular, had prepared yellow ribbons of honour, to pin on the seven heroes.
When the seven men finally arrived, handcuffed in prison garb; the supporters shouted their support. The Sebuyau 7 (as termed by supporters on Facebook) proudly held up their heads and acknowledged the cheers. Everyone was beaming, including the policemen.
After posting bail of RM1000 per person, the men were surrounded by family and supporters who hugged them and cried. There was a convoy later to the police station, where numerous villagers lodged police reports against the logging company for trespassing and ruining their crops that they were dependent on for their livelihoods.
Under the benevolent Mona Lisa-like smile of an 1980’s portrait of Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud hung on the wall, the villagers gathered around the police station, to lodge their reports against the logging company co-owned by his sister.
There was some frustration expressed that the police had acted very quickly upon the logging company’s complaint about the fire in the camp but had ignored the numerous complaints lodged by the villagers about the logging in their Native Customary Rights(NCR) lands. The villagers had also lodged many complaints with the District Officer, the Resident of the Samarahan Division, and the Lands and Surveys Department, but time and time again, to no avail.
Of the RM2 million worth of logging equipment lost in the fire, as claimed by the logging company, the villagers from six longhouses have lost so much more through the company’s logging activities. Not by just calculating the economic value of their livelihood crops (rubber, etc.) that were destroyed, but rather the priceless value of their ancestral land, the dependence of the watershed for all communities living by the mountain, and the centuries-old belian(ironwood) trees that were toppled over in a matter of weeks. One can see the damage easily on the ferry heading out from Simunjan town: ugly brown scars slashing through the Selabu mountain.
“This is what our people are fighting for,” Mujah pointed quietly at the scarred mountain, on our way back to Kuching.
Helen, the wife of Numpang Suntai, had said to me sadly earlier at the courthouse, “How long before all this [forests] are gone? What happens then? We have to keep on fighting, no matter what.”
On October 18, 2010, after a peaceful blockade set up by the Sebangan villagers protesting against logging in 3,035 hectares of their Native Customary Rights lands, a fire broke out in the Loyal Billion logging camp. The villagers insist that they had left the area, hours before the fire started and were not involved in setting the fire.
On the 21st and 22nd of October, 2010, a total of seven villagers, including Nicholas Mujah, Secretary-General of the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (SADIA) and prominent land rights activist, were arrested on charges of mischief by fire. They were released on the 25th of October, 2010, on bail and have to report back to the Simunjan Police Station a month from their release.
The men arrested are: Tuai Rumah Philip anak Bakat (Kg Tungkah Atap), Tuai Rumah Neli ak Nipa (Kpg Bajong Ili), Tuai Rumah Sadun ak Aton (Kpg Ensika), Bawi ak Atman (Kpg Lubok Manta), Tinsi ak Gunda (Kpg Lumut), Numpang ak Suntai (Kpg Bajong), Nicholas Mujah (Kpg Ensika).
For more information, and support, please visit: sebangan.blogspot.com and its Facebook page: Save Sebangan Rainforest.
June Rubis is a Malaysian conservationist from Sarawak, where she was born and raised. Her work has taken her from commencing the first long-term fieldwork on wild orangutans in Batang Ai National Park, and Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS-Malaysia), to heading the Conservation department of the Malaysian Nature Society in Kuala Lumpur, and most recently, she has returned from an 18-month stint managing an EC-funded programme for the protection and conservation of Lamandau Wildlife Reserve, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Her professional interests include bridging the gap between conservation and indigenous communities issues, particularly in her home island of Borneo. She is also interested in building networks and facilitating relationships between local peoples (particularly women and youth) of the Asia Pacific working on conservation, environment sustainability, and indigenous communities issues. She is of Krokong-Bringing (Dayak Bidayuh) and Filipino (Tagalog) descent.