From 13 to 24th of June 2016 Indigenous leader Jannie Lasimbang will appear in court where she faces charges of organizing an illegal assembly and failing to comply with conditions imposed by police during a peaceful protest held in August 2015. The Bersih rally brought together thousands of people who took to the streets across Malaysia to voice frustration with government corruption and human rights issues.
Lasimbang calls this a process of “selective prosecution” and does not doubt that it is an attempt by the Government of Malaysia to silence dissent, in particular at a time when indigenous land rights are increasingly under threat from palm oil plantations and hydro electric projects. Lasimbang is the Secretary General of Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) – the largest Indigenous network in Malaysia bringing together some 100 organizations from across the country who work together on land rights, cultural identity, Free, Prior and Informed Consent processes and the development of strategic alliances with at the regional and international level.
In March 2016, following over three years of resistance by JOAS members, the Sarawak Government announced the suspension of a proposed hydroelectric project called the Baram Dam which would have displaced some 20,000 Indigenous people – 90% of the 388 square kilometer area to be flooded were rightfully the customary ancestral lands of Indigenous Peoples. Its suspension was a major victory for indigenous rights and gives hope to other communities in a region where the construction of a further 12 hydroelectric dams is planned, many on customary ancestral lands.
“Indigenous organizations in Malaysia are becoming organized and much more vocal, “says Lasimbang, “They are coming together and standing against land grabs and demanding their rights. The Government does not like this and blames activists – labelling us as instigators.”
At the launch of the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights in Malaysia in March this year JOAS announced the commencement of the process of mapping Indigenous ancestral lands across the country. This will provide a very powerful tool to Indigenous communities to defend their customary land rights, recognised in Malaysian law.
Lasimbang believes that the charges brought against her are a way of intimidating her and other activists. Of the 15 member organizing committee only her and one other colleague Maria Chin Abdullah have been charged. The charges relate to an overnight rally held on 29-30 August held in Kota Kinabalu which was forced to end two hours early when a police barricade stopped some 500 assembly participants from walking towards the city. Lasimbang was questioned by the police immediately after the Bersih assembly ended, along with the other organisers, volunteers and speakers. She was not arrested and it therefore came as a surprise when she received news two months later that she had been charged. Although the organizers of the rally had submitted the form required for the 10-day notice, the failure to append a consent letter from the owner of the Likas Bay Park (City Hall) has been construed as not giving the required notice. The hearing will take place on 14 June and if found guilty, Lasimbang will appeal. If this fails she faces a US$2500 fine.
“The ongoing judicial harassment of Lasimbang and other activists only aims at sanctioning their legitimate human rights activities,” says Joan Carling, Secretary General of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact and member of the Global Call to Action Steering Group, ““We are disappointed that the Malaysian authorities are going ahead with the trial despite the global condemnation of this unjust state action of legal harassment and intimidation. We reiterate our call to drop all charges against Lasimbang and instead, start engaging constructively with the human rights activists for advancement of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Malaysia” Read the full statement here.