Penan child (© Robin Hanbury-Tenison/Survival, pic courtesy of Survival International)
DATUK Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil was the perfect picture of concern and care on the front page of The Star newspaper on 28 May 2009. The newly re-appointed women, family and community development minister was photographed at the Serdang Hospital with a five-year-old child who looked like he had suffered serious and constant abuse at home.
“It is so awful and very sad. Obviously the abuse must have been going on for some time,” Shahrizat was quoted as saying after she struggled to compose herself.
Shahrizat, who is also Wanita Umno chief, has rightfully demonstrated shock at such abuse. However, she has yet to illustrate the same kind of alarm and urgency towards the plight of Penan girls and women in the interiors of Sarawak who were reportedly sexually violated and abused.
Indeed, since the report first emerged in mid-September 2008 about the sexual violence towards the Penans by logging company employees, eight months have gone by. A government-led task force into the Baram district completed its investigation in mid-November and yet six months later, Malaysians remain clueless about the plight of the Penan girls and women.
Some logging company employees in Baram (pic courtesy of WhatRainforest.com)
Despite public funds spent on setting up the task force, the affected communities themselves remain uncertain about the concrete measures that the government aims to undertake, if at all, to prevent further violations.
In the meantime, Shahrizat continues to pussyfoot around questions about the report’s contents and evades questions about its status.
Why the silence?
One has to wonder, what’s stopping Shahrizat as the minister in charge, and the Barisan Nasional (BN) cabinet as the government in charge, from treating the rape and sexual harassment of Penans girls and women with more urgency?
Penan woman and child (© Andy Rain/Nick Rain/Survival, pic courtesy of Survival International)
Is it because the Penans don’t factor as a constituency? Or because there aren’t photo opportunities for the relevant minister to be seen demonstrating her care and concern? Or because the BN just doesn’t care and will only respond if there is public outrage and pressure?
To be fair, former minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen was quick to respond with a concrete measure against a backdrop of public outrage over the Penans being violated. It was she who set up a task force that included representatives from different government agencies, two women’s rights groups and the indigenous community.
Ng Yen YenAnd it wasn’t as if the task force didn’t work as quickly as it could. Additionally, The Nut Graph is told that the report isn’t about pointing fingers. It contains comprehensive measures that attempt to address, as holistically as possible, all the circumstances that make the Penans vulnerable to abuse.
However, even Ng seemed unable to commit to making the report fully public. In early February 2009, when I met her at the MCA’s Chinese New Year dinner for the media, she would not answer questions about when the task force report would be made public and why it hadn’t yet been made public.
For a government that created a women, family and community development ministry to show how much it cares about these constituencies, Ng’s and Shahrizat’s responses are, at the very least, strange. At the very worst, it reflects a government that actually doesn’t care about a marginalised community which doesn’t have the influence and capacity to pressure or shame those in power.
Attempts to reach Shahrizat for confirmation
on the report’s status were futile
The PKFZ report
Compare, for example, Shahrizat’s response after she ignored requests by The Nut Graph for a month for an interview about when the government would make the task force report public.
When she was finally met at the press conference of an event she was launching, she first said the report would be tabled in cabinet “as soon as possible” (but perhaps not soon enough for the affected Penans). Then instead of committing to full public disclosure of the report, she said interested parties could go to her ministry to discuss the report. That’s at least one hurdle for public scrutiny that the minister is definitely trying to put in place.
Additionally, it was only later when she was pressed again that she said the report would be submitted to cabinet on 27 May. However, attempts to reach her after that to confirm that the report was tabled were futile. The Nut Graph was told she was at the Serdang Hospital as The Star report and photos bear testimony to the following day. And since then, still no word from either her or the cabinet about the report’s status.
Compare this with the release of the report on the controversial Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) project on 28 May 2009. Indeed, the report is available online until 10 June.
Penan woman (© Survival, pic courtesy of Survival International)
In his blog, Transport Minister Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat boasted that the government had to “disappoint” the Opposition by “proving to the public that the new administration under our prime minister has nothing to hide and is prepared to reveal the truth as well as to take the appropriate action should there be any wrongdoing.”
Now, if we could only have the women, family and community development minister say exactly the same thing for the Penan task force report. Then, maybe the BN government would have more credibility with regard to being “transparent” and taking “appropriate action” against any wrongdoing.
Penan people in a longhouse in Long Lutin (pic courtesy of WhatRainforest.com)
The question though is why did the cabinet feel pressured to reveal the PKFZ report but doesn’t see the need to do so for the Penan task force report? Truth is, apart from the Women’s Aid Organisation and the Women’s Centre for Change, no other public interest groups are raising their voices for the task force report to be made public.
The traditional media have also lost interest. Two of the largest English dailies in the country — The Star and the New Straits Times — didn’t even bother reporting what Shahrizat said about tabling the report in cabinet and making it partially available. So is it any wonder that the government feels no need to be accountable? Hence, it looks to me that as far as Shahrizat is concerned, the public may just forget about the Penan’s plight if she keeps silent long enough about it.
Penan person standing in front of the Rukunegara scrawled
on the wall of a longhouse
(© Survival, pic courtesy of Survival International)
What was even more ironic is that on 28 May, the New Straits Times highlighted on its front page the headline Zero tolerance for terror — old and new. The report lent support to Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s actions in denying the request by former Communist Party of Malaya leader Chin Peng to come back into the country, and in incarcerating suspected terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari under the Internal Security Act.
But what about the terror of a Penan girl or woman living in the Sarawak interiors who faces the real and frequent possibility of rape and harassment?
Want to know what I find even more terrifying than that? It is knowing, as I am sure the Penans do by now, that even after a crime is committed against me, the Malaysian government can remain indefinitely silent for months about what it will do to ensure justice and prevent future violations.
Jacqueline Ann Surin wonders how come the government is so quick to take firm action against those who have no crimes proven against them, but remains silent and uncommitted about vulnerable groups who face the real terror of violence.