With backs to the wall, villagers demand release of 11 comrades

The folk from six Iban villages gather outside Mukah Police Station, waiting for the release of the 11 who are still in the lockup.

MUKAH, Oct 30: A group of people from six Iban villages in Ulu Kelawit Tatau are staging a two-day peaceful assembly in front of Mukah Police Station to protest the detention of 11 Ibans, including a woman, since last Thursday (Oct 25).

Peter N. J. Kallang, a spokesperson for these villagers, claimed that the arrests were made in response to a peaceful blockade to halt the operations of a rock quarry firm and an oil palm company, which the community claimed had destroyed their water source and taken their land without proper compensation.

In a press statement, Peter alleged that the police had used excessive force and were brutal during their operation to tear down the blockade, including burning cultural artefacts and handphones.


He explained that there were three companies operating in the Ulu Kelawit-Tatau area since 2012, and all three are subsidiaries of a public-listed conglomerate. One is an oil palm company, another is a sandstone rock quarry firm, and the other is into monoculture tree plantation.

Initially, Peter claimed, the oil palm company compensated the villagers for their land, but these payments had since “been discontinued”.

He narrated that after the oil palm company came into the picture, the sandstone rock quarry company started operations in the vicinity, followed by the one doing monoculture tree plantation.

“These companies, particularly the rock quarry operation, have destroyed Sungai Besangin, which is the villagers’ water source,” he said.

Initially, Peter alleged, the water in the river became so contaminated and polluted that it wiped out paddy fields and crops. The river itself eventually dried up — completely.

“Due to the loss of their water source, the villagers lost their source of livelihood, as they are no longer able to grow crops or fish in the river. They have also lost their source of food and drinking water,” he said.

When the villagers realised the negative impacts these three companies have on their lives, they wrote to their headmen and the companies to discuss how to fix the problem. Peter alleged that instead of replying to their letters, these companies lured the headmen to their side.

Early this month, the frustrated villagers decided to erect a blockade. And on Oct 20, a villager was arrested for it, but he was released four days later.

But on Oct 25, police showed up without warning, tore down the blockade, and collared 11 individuals.

Peter said disappointed villagers started gathering in front of Mukah Police Station yesterday (Oct 29) and held a prayer session and performed ‘miring’ and ‘taboh’ ceremonies (Iban rituals).

Peter claimed that the police had promised to release the 11 today, but they “continue to give reasons to delay their release”.

Villager Nasar Nawing from KM16 Jalan Tatau, who was arrested on Oct 20, wondered whether the role of the police is to protect the interests of big companies or to ensure that there is justice for all.

“We were not looting. We were not violent. We were there to protect our land and livelihood and to protect our rivers from being destroyed,” he argued.

Fellow villager Imuk Imang from Rumah Tandang claimed that the police pounced on them without warning on Oct 25.

“They took away our handphones, and they were wearing masks. One of them shouted ‘arrest them! arrest them!” she said, in disbelief. — DayakDaily