PENGERANG, Sept 30 — The sleepy hollow of Kampung Sungai Rengit came alive this morning with animated chants and blares from portable air horns as green-clad protesters streamed in by the bus loads to rally against a RM60 billion petrochemical project that will see thousands of villagers lose their homes and livelihoods.
The highly-anticipated Himpunan Hijau Pengerang Lestari protest kicked off peacefully to a bright and early start despite earlier fears of possible police blockades to prevent protesters from attending the mass rally.
From 25 different locations across the country, including the east Malaysian state of Sabah, rally participants arrived from 9am onwards, all dressed in Himpunan Hijau’s signature neon green T-shirts and bearing banners that detailed the rally’s three protests — to protest the land grab, to protest the loss of livelihood, and to protest environmental destruction.
As at 10am, the small village square where the township’s landmark steel lobster structure is located was flooded by nearly a thousand protesters.
By noon, event organisers had number the crowd to a generous estimate of 7,000.
The atmosphere was peaceful and almost carnival-like with some rally-goers erecting small booths to sell items like T-shirts, umbrellas, face masks and light snacks, while only a handful of police personnel were seen keeping an eye on the cheerful rally participants.
Seen among the crowd were known Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leaders like PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayub and Johor DAP chief Dr Boo Cheng Hau, as well as Bersih 2.0 steering committee members Wong Chin Huat and Hishammuddin Rais, who was the emcee for the event.
The vocal activist, Hishammuddin spurred the crowd on by teaching them cheering signals and a song “Suara Rakyat” (voice of the people), which was sung along to the tune of the famous American folk ballad “Oh my darling Clementine”.
Banners and placards condemning Petronas’ Refinery and Petrochemicals Development (RAPID) project, which will see the relocation of over 3,000 people from seven villages girdling the shore of Pengerang, have also been erected across the small Chinese-majority Kampung Sungai Rengit, the only village that has escaped the government’s relocation plans thus far.
According to rally organisers, the government has refused to acquire land from Kampung Sungai Rengit residents due to the high value of the commercial property here.
But a Pengerang PKR leader Taufik Jahir claimed the objective was to “force the villagers from their homes” as Kampung Sungai Rengit will turn into an island once all phases of the Pengerang Integrated Petroleum Complex (PIPC) is completed in the years ahead.
RAPID is set to occupy over 6,424-acres of PIPC’s 22,500 acres, which is home to some 28,000 Pengerang parliamentary constituents in the southernmost tip of Johor. PIPC is a massive RM170 billion project that is expected to turn Malaysia into a mega petrochemical hub.
“Once they have been turned into an island, the Kampung Sungai Rengit property values will drop and the residents will be forced out, having lost their means of living,” Taufik told The Malaysian Insider.
Taking the stage during the rally later, a few local residents sought to condemn the multibillion ringgit petroleum project, telling the crowd that “we are not Taiwan’s dustbin”.
They were referring to KuoKuang Petrochemical’s reported involvement in the project, which villagers have condemned as the firm reportedly had to abandon its plan to house a petrochemical project in Taiwan following concerns that those living in close proximity to such developments would see their lifespans reduced.
“We will stand to protect our land. We will throw them into the dustbin,” said one villager.
NGO Pengerang chief Anis Afida Mohd Azli later described the rally as a historical event for the local folk of Pengerang, whom she said had dared to stand up to express their disdain with the government.
“As I stand here on this stage, I feel so much pride because I have managed to become a part of history, a history charted today that proves Malaysians are rising against cruel leaders.
“Look around you and see how your fellow Malaysians are with you. We are not alone. We need not be afraid to defend our own lands,” she said.
She said since RAPID was given the go-ahead in May last year, local NGOs opposed to the project, and have been “on our knees” before the people, hoping for support to keep the issue alive.
“This October 8, we will go to the mentri besar’s office to voice the people’s wishes. Today, I think, was enough to send a message to the government that Pengerang folk want to be able to enjoy their God-given blessings,” she said.
The protest today ended peacefully shortly after noon. There were no untoward incidents reported.