PUTRAJAYA, March 1 — In a first, the Federal Court allowed today a group of indigenous Sarawakians the right to challenge their state government’s move to take away their homes — a case with huge implications for the impending state polls.
Chief Justice Tun Zaki Azmi, who headed a three-man panel of judges, made the decision today to hear the two civit suits together on April 28 at 9am.
Bato Bagi and Jalang Paran had previously taken the Sarawak government to court to reclaim their lost NCR lands, and failed at the High Court and Court of Appeal.
The former’s suit concerned the loss of land due to the Bakun Dam hydroelectric project that dated back to 1997.
Jalang’s suit was against the government’s sale of their ancestral land to a private company to build a pulpwood mill, also dating back some to the 1990s.
However, Zaki said the apex court will only be looking at one question: whether Sarawak’s state laws on tribal land issues was unconstitutional.
The top judge noted that there have been many NCR disputes that have been taken to court over the years and which are still pending.
He said he believed that the question on whether Section 5 (3) and (4) of the Sarawak Land Code was made beyond the powers of Articles 5 and 13 of the Federal Constitution — the highest law in the country — would be enough to deal with the heart of the NCR issue.
Lawyer for the natives, Baru Bian, told reporters today’s decision was the first time the particular statutes are being dealt with in the Federal Court and would determine how tribal lands in Sarawak are seen from now on.
“Section 5 gives the state government the power to just take away their lands,” he said.
He said some 200 NCR cases have been filed in court to date, and added that he personally handles about half the numbers.
Baru who is also Sarawak PKR chief said how the Federal Court handles the case next will have a great political impact because it concerns the very life and livelihood of the natives’ way of life.
In arguing for the natives’ right to appeal earlier, Baru’s colleague, Sulaiman Abdullah, said that NCR land cannot be seen in the same context as an ordinary land acquisition case in Peninsular Malaysia.
Sulaiman said it was because the indigenous see the land as the source of their life and livelihood and not just a place to build a house.
As such, the state government must be able to provide a suitable alternative that goes beyond monetary compensation if it wanted to take over the land for development purposes.
The Sarawak government had attempted to persuade the Federal Court to throw out the natives’ appeal earlier.
Its state legal counsel, Datuk JC Fong, argued that in both Bato’s and Jalang’s cases, the state government had already offered cash compensation and set aside another area for the affected natives to settle down.
Bato, 64, who attended the court proceedings today, related his bitterness at losing his village to the Bakun Dam project.
The village headman said he had visited the government’s resettlement area in Sungai Asap several times previously and rejected the place as a suitable habitat.
“It’s all sand,” he told reporters during a break in court proceedings today.
He said it was impossible for his people to grow anything there, which was why they had chosen to move upstream of the Bakun Dam after their former home was flooded for the hydroelectric project.
Bato’s complaints were echoed by Jaili Sulaiman, the son-in-law of Jalang Paran, the applicant in the other suit against the state government who has since passed away.
Jaili, 44, said Jalang died on November 16 last year aged 97.
The younger man said conditions in their village in Tatau, Bintulu were harsh but the resettlement area some six hours away by boat was worse.
He said the state government had offered a measly RM4,000 a hectare to acquire their ancestral land totaling 6,000 hectares.
In addition to the cash compensation, each family was entitled to three acres in the resettlement area.
However, Jaili said the soil was unsuitable for planting any kind of crop, let alone the rubber which had been the villagers’ main source of income before they were told to pack up and leave.
The father of five said some three longhouse residents numbering 1,500 people had accepted the compensation package.
But the remaining residents in the 24 longhouses — each longhouse is home to between 300 and 500 people — were adamant in staying put.
Like Baru, the Sarawak native predicts the NCR land tussle in court will have a major impact on the coming state polls.
“This will be a big issue, like Egypt and Libya,” Jaili said, linking their fight for NCR rights in Sarawak to the revolution sweeping the Middle East.