Thu, Dec 12, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Caught between two worlds

The once-nomadic Penan people are struggling to find their place in modern Malaysia

By Dan Martin  /  AFP, LONG KELUAN, Malaysia

“It is a problem in communities that have not adjusted well. Change is coming so fast. It’s a very big challenge for them.”

Sarawak has launched programs such as encouraging Penan to cultivate rubber but Jayl said implementation is poor.


Complicating matters, the Penan’s past logging resistance has created tense relations with the state government headed by Chief Minister Taib Mahmud.

In power since 1981, Taib is accused by critics of corruptly profiting from the rainforests’ destruction and callously marginalizing Sarawak’s dozens of tribal groups, which he denies.

Taib, 77, is pushing huge plans for up to a dozen hydroelectric dams on ancestral tribal lands.

Scores of protesting Penan, upset with relocation terms, blockaded access to a newly completed dam at Murum in late September.

Activists said they had to abandon the effort this week to salvage belongings from rising waters.

Straumann said he suspects Taib deliberately withholds rural investment.

“If they remain dependent and uneducated, they are easy to manipulate. It is a kind of ransom,” he said.

Murum Penan had rejected government offers of resettlement money and land as too little and say promised schools and clinics in a relocation area have not been built.

Taib in November called their demands “unreasonable” and defended his policies toward the Penan, saying rural living standards had “improved by leaps and bounds” under him, according to Sarawak media.

His office did not respond to requests for comment.

All that Murum resident Layu Karang wants is enough money to start a new life in a modern area with schools for her 10 children.

She was among a group of Penan brought to the Malaysian capital by activists last month to highlight the Murum dispute.

It was the first time Layu Karang had left remote Murum, and she wore a cheap, ill-fitting red dress purchased by activists for the trip.

Overwhelmed by Kuala Lumpur’s bustle and iconic twin Petronas Towers, she said it has further fuelled her desire for a more modern life for her children.

“I hope they can become educated and live differently than I have. I will go back and tell them what it is like. I could see them living here,” she said.

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