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Penans, Hindraf win Suaram Human Rights Award

From left: Irene Xavier, TK Tirong Lawing, Hindraf national coordinator RS Thanenthiran, Hindraf national event coordinator
R Kannan, Nick Kelesau and Suaram chief executive officer Yap Swee Seng

KUALA LUMPUR, 9 Dec 2008: The Penans of Ulu Baram from Sarawak and the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) received a major boost when they bagged the Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram)’s Human Rights Award today.

The two local communities received the award, which comes with a RM1,000 cash prize each at the launch of Suaram’s annual human rights report.

“This proves that oppressed people should not be stopped by anyone and that human rights must be preserved,” said Hindraf national coordinator RS Thanenthiran.

Nick Kelesau, 43, who represented the Ulu Baram Penan community, said they needed cooperation from all quarters to continue fighting for their rights.

“We have been fighting for more than 20 years but we need the support from all,” said Nick, who came from Ulu Baram with his village head, TK Tirong Lawing.

Four other nominees for the award were Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih), Urban Settlers of Kg Berembang, Komuniti Kg Chang Sungai Gepai in Bidor, Perak and Bar Council Human Rights Committee.

Irene Xavier, one of the four judges, said Hindraf led a mass struggle while the Penan community represented the smaller struggle.

She said Hindraf, which was outlawed by the government on 15 Oct, had successfully captivated, mobilised and empowered large group of Indian Malaysians to struggle against powerful interests and forces.

Irene Xavier

“But perhaps the greatest success of Hindraf is the manner in which it has been able to embolden and give courage to a community that was seen as being fearful of the powers-that-be and unwilling to demand for change,” said Xavier.

On the Penan community, Xavier said they had been defending their traditional lands from encroachment, especially by loggers, since the early 1980s.

“The violations faced by the Penans are extreme and sometimes violent. They face threats, killings, rapes, disappearances and hardship in their daily survival.

“They have struggled against very powerful forces representing the collusion of political powers, business, police, military, timber companies and oil palm plantations,” Xavier said, adding the Penans had also faced harassment from authorities.

Earlier, Suaram concluded in their annual report overview that the general trends in the state of human rights this year were racial and religious intolerance, the continued use of Internal Security Act and the culture of impunity in the police force.

(Left) Nick Kelesau giving a speech after receiving the award.
Next to him is TK Tirong Lawing

They added that Malaysia’s drop in the international media freedom ranking from 124 to 132 this year was made worse by the persecution of critics of the government.

There was also selective harassment of groups and the double standards practiced by the police in recognising the right to freedom of assembly.

Suaram also pointed out the non-recognition of rights of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers caused mass arrests, deportation and inhuman detention conditions.

They also noted that the public has lost their confidence towards the judiciary as there were no substantial reforms, while the downgrading of Suhakam showed the loss of credibility of Malaysia in protecting human rights at the international level.

“Suaram also noted the failure of the government to respond to calls for reforms, democratisation and greater respect of human rights, which contributed to Barisan Nasional’s loss in the electoral history in March,” said Suaram executive director Yap Swee Seng.

Yap said the full report would be launched in April next year. TNG

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