On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

We must right the wrongs


IT’S refreshing. The decision by the Women, Family and Community Develop­ment Ministry to come out with a report that at least seven Penan girls and women were raped is another step towards the culture of transparency in Malaysia.

The report that these Penans were sexually abused by timber company workers confirmed what this newspaper reported last year.

It is a tragic story of neglect. We should be outraged with what has taken place but it may not evoke the kind of emotions that we ought to have because Baram seems such a distant land.

Let’s face it. Many ordinary Malaysians do not even know the existence of the Penans. But we should nevertheless be very angry. When this newspaper first reported this case, we were threatened with suits and one newspaper sent a reporter to the area to refute our case.

Although two victims, aged 17 and 21, had taken the trouble to lodge police reports in Bukit Aman alleging they had been raped, the police asked for more details.

The Sarawak police say they cannot nail the loggers who raped and sexually abused the Penans unless the ministry can provide detailed information that could lead to their arrest.

The state police have asked for detailed and specific information like names, dates and places. Sarawak CID chief Senior Asst Comm II Huzir Mohamed said the police needed accurate details. So it doesn’t look like the Penan girls and women will get the justice they seek.

Easy targets

Members of the committee who travelled to numerous Penan settlements in Long Item, Long Kawi, Long Luteng, Long Belok and Niah reported they had difficulties in getting details.

The report described the testimonies of a 17-year-old who said she was raped when she was 12; in another case, the girl said she was raped twice by a logger and became pregnant in 2005.

The findings of the committee are shocking – a lorry driver tried to molest a group of 10-year-old girls but they escaped.

The Penan girls are a target because of their dependence on timber vehicles to transport them to and from school.

Worse, the timber tracks are often the only means of access to their villages with schools and clinics at least four to six hours away.

The villagers are literally at the mercy of these timber companies. They cannot go anywhere unless the timber operators allow them through.

Imagine the plight of these rape victims who are now staying at such isolated villages. They have no one to protect them and now that this report has become newspaper headlines, how will they carry on with their daily routines if there is no support from the authorities?

Why have these sexual abuses been overlooked and why was no action taken even after they were reported by The Star?

Now that we’ve got reports by The Star and the ministry, where do we go from here? The lack of response seems to indicate that nothing is likely to change and the reports will merely gather dust.

It is disheartening to note that the ministry’s report has no legal implication. The police have already said their hands are tied and there is nothing they can do in the absence of solid information.

But we hope the sad stories of the Penans will wake people up. 1Malaysia isn’t just about the major races but also the “yang lain-lain” category. In fact, the Penans are classified as bumiputras too.

They may lack political clout but their plight must be given immediate support as the Sarawak interior has remained loyal supporters of the ruling coalition.

The ministry’s committee reported that the Penans have little access to registration, health care and education due to poverty and the remoteness of their settlements.

“All these issues are closely related to imbalanced development. The lack of infrastructure such as roads and public transport make it difficult for the Penans to communicate with the outside world, including the government agencies,’’ it added.

Leading the charge

The report, we hope, will wake the Govern­ment up. Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil must be credited for taking up the case and coming out with an honest report.

It certainly wasn’t easy as the team had to travel over difficult terrains to speak to these Penan girls and women who had to be reminded of their sad past.

The ministry did not take a defensive approach but kept an open mind and sent its investigators to Baram and other Penan settlements. More importantly, Shahrizat initiated a serious investigation, like Transport Minister Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat who launched a crusade against those who stole public money of up to RM1.5bil in the PKFZ scandal.

His bold move has irked business personalities whose cosy relationships with political figures have been affected. Malaysians want to see leaders who dare to expose the ills of the country, even if it means stepping on powerful toes.

Certainly, powerful politicians and timber operators in Sarawak would be upset with the findings of the report but Shahrizat has taken them on.

In the New Malaysia, the people want to see new approaches being taken to uphold transparency and accountability.