|Activists reveal Bengoh villagers puzzling voting trend|
|By Yam Phui Yee|
In rural Bengoh, Sarawak, 1,500 villagers will be displaced by the Bengoh Dam. They have to give up their ancestral land, relocate and settle for compensation they are not sure is fair and whether it will be forthcoming. Despite faithfully voting in the Barisan Nasional government for years, they still lack basic amenities. But, they still vote for the BN.
Puzzled by this voting trend, activist Ong Boon Keong and his friends set off to find out the reason for it by filming a documentary called Ulu Bengoh Darom Piin (Upper Bengoh Under Water).
“This film is to find out why despite being ‘oppressed’, they still chose the people that brought the dam and caused them troubles… Our mission is to get as close as possible to the circumstances on how they make the vote option.
“We also want to show that the distant view from outside – people who say ‘why are you so stupid to vote the same people that caused them problems?’ – is a very superficial one. They don’t understand that from the villagers’ point of view, they don’t have a choice; the (candidates) don’t even come in front of them for them to ask questions,” said Ong, an award-winning filmmaker who has been banned from entering Sarawak since May.
The Malaysian Election Observers Network coordinator is easily recognised by his trademark long, white beard and has been exposing vote-buying and abuse of power, particularly in Sarawak, the state with the most election seats.
Indigenous people forced to leave their ancestral land is a typical issue in Sarawak, Ong explained, and events in the interiors often do not reach local newspapers' pages.
Deep in the jungles
Located deep in the jungles about 45 minutes away from Kuching, Ulu Bengoh is only accessible by foot. The Bidayuh villagers here carry heavy loads, including gas tanks and rations, across 10- to 15m-high ingeniously-crafted bamboo bridges into their longhouses.
First-time film director Joachim Leong recalled the villagers living in extreme economic poverty, with some homes having only solar energy enough to power one light bulb.
“We have taken a lot of things for granted… they have very little yet they are very happy,” said Leong, adding that the villagers, who are mostly Christians and Catholics, would give thanks before meals.
Four villages in Ulu Bengoh will be affected by the Bengoh Dam. Kampung Rejoi, Kampung Saba Tait and Kampung Bojong/ Pain will be fully submerged, while Kampung Semban located on a higher ground will be partially affected. The dam, costing RM310 million, was completed last year and is expected to operate next year once all compensation and free houses are given to the villagers.
Raw water from Bengoh Dam will overcome water shortage in the greater Kuching and Samarahan areas until 2030. However, it will destroy forests, habitats and longstanding cultures that cannot be replaced.
The plight of the Bidayuhs in Ulu Bengoh has been documented in Australian multimedia artist Andrew Garton’s short video series where some villagers interviewed said they were reluctant to evacuate and were unsure if the government would keep their compensation promises.
The indigenous people’s lives are closely tied to their land, including those for houses, farming, foraging, cemetery and communion, but the state government would only compensate selected parts of these areas, claiming that the rest are government reserve land.
Soon, some 1,500 villagers will be displaced when the dam is impounded. According to Leong, about 20 families have filed a lawsuit to assert their right and declare the land as Native Customary Land, even though this will not stop the reservoir project.
Some 60 families out of over 200 have decided to move to higher grounds instead of leaving their land. Those who choose this will not be compensated.
Even villagers in the higher areas of Kampung Semban who are not affected by the dam impoundment have been asked to evacuate.
“When we were in Semban, someone said the houses will be left intact for homestay. So there is suspicion that they (the government) want to use it for an eco-tourism resort. So the question is also ‘Why do you chase out the villagers instead of helping and empowering them to run the homestay?’ ” said former lawyer Leong, 24.
Ong observed that the same thing also happened around the Bakun Dam and Batang Ai Dam, both in Sarawak.
Against the landscape of concerns surrounding the dam and relocation, Bengoh was a hot seat that pundits said BN may lose during the Sarawak state election in April. Still, incumbent Dr Jerip Susil from BN won a four-cornered fight to become a three-term assemblyman, pledging to settle all outstanding issues, including compensations for those leaving Ulu Bengoh.
Many people do not know that in Peninsular Malaysia, one-third of the population live in urban areas while two-thirds of the state seats are in rural places.
According to Ong, the picture is even more skewed in Sarawak: one-third of the population are urbanites but four-fifths or 79 per cent of the seats are in rural areas.
“If you want better democracy, it cannot be that the urban people don’t want to know about rural area (issues),” he said.
Ong has brought some 80 volunteers in small groups from all across Malaysia to register voters in rural Sarawak prior to the state election and monitor the election. Some of these volunteers, like Leong and another youth, Lee Weng Yow, joined the film crew afterwards.
Lee noticed something peculiar while monitoring the election in rural Sebuyau. “I was astonished by how little communication there was between voters and candidate. They can have no event during the campaign period or they just come for five minutes, and still the votes go to BN.”
Ong explained that in rural areas, it is often a “one-party-campaign”.
Ulu Bengoh visitors have to walk for hours to the villages and Ong believed none of the four candidates went in during the campaign period, except BN candidate Dr Jerip who flew in with a helicopter. An independent candidate was said to have visited the constituency but Ong could not verify whether it was during campaign period.
He refused to reveal further what caused the voting pattern but only smiled and said, “You have to come and watch it” when the film premieres at the Freedom Film Fest 2011 in Kuala Lumpur.
Making a difference
The film crew, comprising East and West Malaysians including a geologist, an animator and a retired engineer, braved challenging terrains while shooting in Ulu Bengoh. Lee nearly fainted while hiking up an almost vertical slope in the rain to reach Kampung Semban.
Lee and Leong walked for almost two days to cover the four villages. They had to build rapport with the Bidayuhs quickly to get a real picture of the voters’ dilemma.
“They have a lot to say but they don’t say it to outsiders,” said Lee, whose experience working with villagers in Sebuyau came in handy.
The film’s blog called See Bengoh When It Is Still Dry (www.bengohdry.blogspot.com) chronicles the team’s journey and has photos of the beautiful forest and its people.
The film crew enjoyed the pristine jungle in its last days and spent time with the villagers in their homes. They also noticed that the education level is low, unemployment is high and youths as young as 17 years old have to leave to seek jobs in the cities, returning occasionally, mostly for holidays.
For Leong, a Sarawakian based in Kuala Lumpur, engaging directly with the subject this time was a change from his usual commenting on online reports and blogs about the state.
“Anyone can make a difference. Be the change you want to see,” he said.
"Ulu Bengoh Darom Piin" will be screened at Freedom Film Fest 2011 in Kuching on Oct 29 and Miri on Oct 30. Visit www.fredomfilmfest.komas.org for details. Proceeds from DVD sale of the film will go towards villagers who choose to remain in Ulu Bengoh.