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Program 0125
June 19, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

CHARLES SANTIAGO: The prime minister started using race baiting as a way of trying to organize the Malays. Specifically what he was attempting to do was to tell the Malays that they are under siege.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, Malaysia’s maladies.

ZULUKFLI ALWI: Most importantly is to make sure that these displaced people are not disadvantaged. All efforts must be made to provide them with all the basic necessities.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamed Mahathir is Asia’s longest-lasting dictator. In power for 20 years, Mahathir routinely prevents peaceful demonstrations, censors the press, and jails opponents on trumped-up charges.

MCHUGH: But the opposition is making its presence known. Common Ground’s Special Roving Correspondent Reese Ehrlich takes a look at the political forces opposing Mahathir and their prospects for success in ousting him from power.

EHRLICH: A spirited crowd of demonstrators gathers in downtown Kuala Lumpur one Saturday morning. The protesters are demanding restoration of basic human rights.

[A large crowd chants political slogans, led by someone over a loudspeaker]

CROWD: We want justice!

PROTEST LEADER: We want justice!

CROWD: We want justice!

PROTESTOR: People are tired of what’s been happening in the country and the national government has not stopped its silencing of opposition in the country.

PROTEST LEADER: Preventing freedom of assembly! Number three, preventing press freedom. Investigate police incompetence.

[The crowd cheers in agreement, then applauds]

EHRLICH: The well-dressed, multiethnic crowd uses cell phones to coordinate their actions and keep watch on police. In Malaysia the revolution may not be televised but it certainly will be talked about on cell phones.

[Natural sound of the crowd]

EHRLICH: The prevalence of cell phones indicates that many of the protesters are middle and even upper class. Prime Minister Mohamed Mahathir has alienated them with his authoritarian rule. They are particularly angry at his system of crony capitalism in which Mahathir’s friends grow rich at the expense of other businesspeople. P. Ramasamy, an economics professor at the National University of Malaysia, says Mahathir regularly bails out cronies who get into financial trouble.

P. RAMASAMY: One of the major criticisms of the regime is that it only favors a small group of capitalists who are closely connected with those in power. Some of the companies lost heavily, and those companies were run by individuals who had close political connection. Now this is where I think the regime came in and said, ” OK, we need to save these companies because it’s not their fault. I think we need to rescue them.” So I think they went about bailing them out. And it happened to be one of them was Mahathir’s son himself.

EHRLICH: Malaysia’s blue collar workers face increasing unemployment and extreme poverty but few of them show up at opposition rallies. This demonstrator admits that some poor and lower middle class people are reluctant to join the opposition. She cites the example of her own parents.

PROTESTOR: My family, we were poor, and then now we’re not exactly rich but we are comfortable. So it’s like a proof that this country works. So my mother always tells me, like, ” Look at Indonesia, look at Bangladesh. I mean, what else do you want? Stay home, do your work and be happy.”

EHRLICH: Some poor and working class Malaysians are turning against the government. But many are supporting a fundamentalist group, the Islamic Party of Malaysia.

[The Moslem call to prayer]

DR. MOHAMED HATA RAMLI: We are an Islamic party, made up of Muslims only of various races. Our struggle is to uphold the position of Islam in the country.

EHRLICH: Dr. Mohamed Hata Ramli, a political secretary to the president of the Islamic Party, or PAS, insists that his group is not fundamentalist. Yet the PAS newspaper justified the destruction of Buddhist monuments by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and PAS wants to see Malaysia governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law, or ” Sharia,” that would include stoning for adultery.

HATA RAMLI: What we want to fight for or struggle for is for a nation where the Sharia is allowed to be practiced through a democratic process. The Sharia, as far as we are concerned, for a moment will affect the Muslims.

EHRLICH: Forty-two percent of Malaysians are not Muslim and Dr. Hata says PAS will not force them to accept Sharia.

HATA RAMLI: When they see the good things about Sharia applied among the Muslim they will themselves request for the same system to be applied on them. If not, well, we have still to stick to the democratic, the choice of the people.

EHRLICH: But such assurances don’t mollify many secular opposition activists.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: PAS has been issuing some ridiculous statements about women, like women who dress a certain way cause social illness, or things like that. And, you know, it just makes me sick. They have this, like big phobia against belly buttons.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don’t know why. I think they will be very selfish because at the end of the day their ideology is based on religion which means that ” My religion is right, my god is right, and my laws are right.”

EHRLICH: The ruling party is quick to exploit people’s worries about fundamentalism. Zulukfli Alwi, leader of the ruling party’s youth wing, questions how PAS can be part of the same opposition coalition that includes the Democratic Action Party, a secular social democratic group.

ZULUKFLI ALWI: PAS is sworn to the establishment of an Islamic state. Whereas its erstwhile partner, which is the Democratic Action Party, is totally against that. There is reason to believe that they may not be able to rule the country in a very harmonious way.

EHRLICH: Such criticisms put opposition leaders in an awkward position. Dr. Wan Azizah heads the National Justice Party and is the wife of Malaysia’s famous dissident politician, Anwar Ibrahim. She says PAS is a moderate Muslim party that will work within the democratic system.

WAN AZIZAH: Of course there are ideological differences, but we can work together. And PAS knows that in the constitution there will not be an Islamic state.

EHRLICH: Because Muslims make up only 58 percent of Malaysia’s population, opposition leaders are convinced that PAS, whatever its desired goals, will never be able to create an Islamic state. Lim Kit Siang heads the Democratic Action Party, one of PAS’s coalition partners.

LIM KIT SIANG: Malaysia is not like the Middle Eastern counties where you have a population of over 90 percent who are Muslims. One hundred percent of the non-Muslims, the Malays, will not agree to an Islamic state. I will believe that the majority of the Muslims would not support an Islamic state, although they will not say so openly and publicly.

EHRLICH: Opposition activists are less concerned about PAS and far more worried about how the government exploits the country’s ethnic divisions. Malays constitute 60 percent of the population; Chinese 30 percent; and East Indians, 9 percent. Critics accuse Prime Minister Mahathir of fomenting ethnic tensions as a way to rally Malay support for his regime. Professor Charles Santiago is a government critic and an economist at Stanford College in Kuala Lumpur.

CHARLES SANTIAGO: The prime minister started using race baiting as a way of trying to organize the Malays. Specifically what he was attempting to do was to tell the Malays that they are under siege. That they are, there is an internal threat in the country and the threat comes from other communities that live in this country, though-specifically the Chinese and less so the Indians.

EHRLICH: In March of 2001 gangs of Malays attacked ethnic Indians in Kompong Medan, a working class area just outside Kuala Lumpur. According to official statistics, six people were murdered and 50 injured in rioting that lasted over a week. Government opponents say the figures are much higher.

[sound of street traffic]

RAJA: They passed by at 3:30 a.m. so all the Malay guys all standing here. They walloped me, my doors.

EHRLICH: Taxi driver Raja says he’ll never forget the night he was attacked.

RAJA: They throw stone and something wood. If I stopped I sure don’t know what happened to me. Yeah, I asked if, and then I told the policeman in front, the policeman in front one kilometer. I told them the incident there. So they say ” I don’t know anything. I can’t do anything.”

EHRLICH: [talking a companion] I’m glad we’ve got a guide. It would be a little hard to find otherwise.

EHRLICH: [again narrating] Walking through a maze of dirt paths and jerry-built shacks in Kompong Medan, we arrive at the home of 24-year-old printing press operator Vasu Valoo. One afternoon last March as he walked out of his house, Valoo was knifed and beaten by a gang of 20 Malays. He lost two fingers on one hand and his other hand was badly slashed. He may never work a printing press again.

VASU VALOO: [via a translator] He says that because he’s an Indian, so they attack him. They was having a knife, long like this. Parang he calls it. He says it’s organized. If they see one person walking around, so they attack. If it’s a big group they’re not attacking the Indians.

EHRLICH: Some witnesses report seeing men with short hair wearing boots, an indication of possible undercover police or army participation in the riots. Five soldiers wearing civilian clothes were arrested at a police roadblock for carrying concealed swords and knives. However, no one interviewed could offer evidence that upper-level government or military leaders fomented the violence. Professor Santiago says some ruling party politicians certainly tried to take advantage of the violence for their own political ends.

SANTIAGO: This assemblywoman said, ” The Malays have sacrificed enough and we should not be giving in any more, though.” Meaning the Malay community should not be giving in to the non-Malays, specifically Indians in this community, anymore. And this provided some kind of legitimacy to, to this group of people that were identifying Indians and assaulting them.

ALWI: I regret the statements as very mischievous.

EHRLICH: Ruling party youth leader Alwi scoffs at the idea that the government tried to foment violence.

ALWI: Certainly the incident did nothing to help our cause. As to allegations that the police did not do enough, I think these were wild allegations that should have been backed up by the facts.

PROTEST LEADER: [Shouts a slogan]

CROWD: [Shouts the slogan back]

PROTEST LEADER: [Shouts a slogan]

CROWD: [Shouts the slogan back]

EHRLICH: Many Malaysians are fed up with the dictatorship of Prime Minister Mahathir. But the opposition is divided. Some opposition parties represent the big business elite who have been shut out by Mahathir’s crony capitalism. PAS, the one party with a growing mass base among the poor, has a Muslim fundamentalist platform. The next big test of strength for both the ruling coalition and the opposition will likely come in the parliamentary elections set for 2004. Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang predicts Mahathir’s ultimate defeat.

LIM KIT SIANG: I see this as the end game for Dr. Mahathir. But it is going, it can be a very tough times for the country and for the people. It could be his last spasm, but it could be a very protracted last spasm.

EHRLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

CROWD: We want justice!

PROTEST LEADER: We want justice!

CROWD: We want justice!

PORTER: Malaysian energy alternatives, next on Common Ground.

JOSEPH RICHARDS: In a rural setting like this, where we don’t have any infrastructure development, I believe the opportunity exists to be able to bring in renewable forms as opposed to traditional, conventional energy means.

MCHUGH: The Malaysian government recently announced that it would resume construction of the Bakun Dam, a controversial hydroelectric project in Malaysian Borneo. The government has already displaced thousands of ethnic minority villagers.

PORTER: And as Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich reports, the dam remains highly controversial. And now, American environmentalists are helping one village build a mini-hydroelectric system to show there are alternatives to large-scale dam projects.

[sound of ethnic Malaysian music]

EHRLICH: Seventy-year-old Sian Enjau performs a traditional headhunter’s dance to the music of a Sape, a guitar-like instrument. His earlobes are cut and distended with heavy earrings in the Kenyah tribal tradition. He performs the dance in part to keep Kenyah culture alive here in the resettlement villages of Asap and Koyan.

[sound of ethnic Malaysian music]

EHRLICH: Enjau and some 10,000 other ethnic minorities were forced off their land over the past few years in order to build the Bakun Dam. He says the dam will flood an enormous area, destroying virgin rain forests and causing massive environmental damage. He was happy in his old village of Long Gang.

SIAN ENJAU: [via an interpreter] This is wrong for this Bakun Dam to be built, in my opinion, because our place in Long Gang is a beautiful place. The river is beautiful for my livelihood before. And I really protest it. If the government wants to ask everybody before implementing the Bakun, they should ask everybody’s opinion. So I think it is a majority of us who don’t like the Bakun to be built.

EHRLICH: As the largest hydroelectric dam in Southeast Asia, Bakun will produce far more electricity than this part of Malaysia can use. Enjau and others say that while the government has given them compensation money, they’re having a hard time living in the resettlement villages. The rural tribal peoples used to plant rice, gather vegetables in the forest, and hunt wild boar. They lived off the land and didn’t handle a lot of cash.

SIAN ENJAU: [via an interpreter] The many people don’t like it in Asap here. But I, the way I see it, that this is good for the rich, for the rich people only. For the poor people like me it is not good because it makes me more poorer because I have to hire people with money. Not like at the long house, I don’t need money at all. I can do the work. I can have my own transport, a long boat, or we can have come here and work with the long house people. But here there is no work. We get money, everything is money and this is what I don’t like.

[sound of men talking in a bar]

EHRLICH: Here in a small bar in a Asap and Koyan, men start drinking beer at 9 a.m. Former villager Baya Asan says alcoholism has become a major concern and some kids are using drugs, a problem that didn’t exist in their old village.

BAYA ASAN: [via a translator] Kids, here when we move to Asap, they are, they have new environments, here. They are taking pills, Ecstasy. And then they didn’t, they doesn’t want to go to school. They fight each other. Since we leave we just have our, what you call it, meeting, with this, another long house there. ‘Cause the kids come and fight our kids here. They have a new environment that they cannot adopt themselves. You see, they are bad result on our kids. My kid doesn’t go to school now.

EHRLICH: The government says it’s trying to address such problems. Officials handed out the equivalent of $2,800 for each family member, a large amount of money in rural Malaysia. Zulukfli Alwi, a high-ranking official in the government’s ruling party, says the dam will help bring new industry and much needed economic development to this neglected part of Malaysian Borneo.

ZULUKFLI ALWI: The state government of Sarawak is making strenuous efforts to attract new and bigger industries that will need a very high energy input. Most importantly is to make sure that these displaced people are not disadvantaged. All efforts must be made to provide them with all the basic necessities, as well as opportunities of partaking in the business opportunities.

EHRLICH: The government has made efforts to improve the lives of the displaced villagers. Medical Director Rob Chok explains that the government established two modern medical clinics here.

ROB CHOK: If a really serious case we get the, call for medivac, can take the helis, to come and fetch the patient.

EHRLICH: And the government has opened up two elementary schools.

[sound of children playing in a large gym or auditorium]

A TEACHER SPEAKS: All of you, page 39, what is the answer class?

ELEMENTARY STUDENTS: [The class answers in unison]

EHRLICH: Local resident Norita Uluk, age 21, attended elementary school in the old village and has seen the new schools in Asap and Koyan.

NORITA ULUK: [via a translator] So in terms of education it’s much better here than a lot of villages like this. Proper trained teachers and the electricity are here, so. In our former place it was far upriver, so it’s very hard for, for the people to bring us the textbooks or some sort of quality, quality things that we learn.

EHRLICH: Maria Kiin, age 20, agrees that the new resettlement areas offer more opportunities for young people. She has mixed feelings, though, about leaving her traditional village.

MARIA KIIN: [via a translator] Really miss our last place because we were born there and so we were used to the place and we miss it of course. Where our ancestors and our grandparent lives. But we think it another way that we are, we should look for what to, some of this development where we can develop ourselves to a better life.

EHRLICH: Kiin says the resettlement villages of Asap and Koyan offer mixed blessings as well.

KIIN: [via a translator] The good part is that for the people who are educated, they have the job opportunities, those who are educated. But the bad part of it is that for those who are not educated, like our, the middle-aged men who have come from our village there, is not educated, they, I think they don’t have jobs. And this is a problem, so they have to depend on the land for making a living.

EHRLICH: Kiin’s friend Norita Uluk is one of the fortunate ones. She attends a local university several hours away by river boat. She receives a special government scholarship set aside for people displaced by the Bakun Dam. Uluk Says while people were justified in opposing the dam in the beginning, villagers have to face the reality that the dam is going to be built.

NORITA ULUK: [via a translator] Since the Bakun Dam has been, has been implemented and we people here have been shifted here, there is no reason why it has to be close, it has to be, go on. And then I think it can provides a lot of jobs for the people who is affected here. So they have to give us priority, is what they have promised us for. I think it is good for them, them to be, for it to be completed.

EHRLICH: Uluk Is referring to a government promise to give displaced villagers first priority on getting jobs at the dam. But hydroelectric dams employee very few people and almost no unskilled workers. Far more tribal peoples will have lost their livelihoods from displacement than will ever get jobs at the dam. Many of the tribal peoples will end up as low-paid agricultural laborers and factory workers, if they can find jobs at all. So some 400 of the Kenyah tribal members decided to set up a new village in an area high above the Bakun Dam in an attempt to maintain their traditional way of life.

[sound of a pouring tropical rain]

EHRLICH: The rain comes in torrents almost every afternoon here in the Kenyah village Long Lawen. Farmers trek home from their rice paddies over muddy roads. Villagers here are building something that will offer a viable alternative to massive dam projects like Bakun.

[sound of a crowing rooster and the sound of someone walking]

EHRLICH: Walking up a winding, muddy road, a small river suddenly appears. Straight ahead there’s a beautiful rain forest waterfall, with a 100-foot drop. American environmentalists have helped the Kenyah install a pipe that will divert a small amount of the water to an electric turbine down below.

JOSEPH RICHARDS: The power house is going to be installed just right over here.

EHRLICH: Joseph Richards is a civil engineer and community organizer helping to install the mini-hydroelectric project, financed by the Borneo Project and Green Empowerment, two American environmental groups. The power house will generate 10 kilowatts of electricity for Long Lawen.

RICHARDS: Ten kilowatts. It would be about, for a house [laughs] in the US, you know. But here we’re gonna have 67 homes. So it’s a small power facility, but for residential lighting purposes it will work quite well for this community.

EHRLICH: Right now villagers either have no electricity or rely on expensive diesel generators. The mini-hydro project will provide enough power to light the village homes in the evening and run other equipment during the day. Richards says the project will also help develop the village economy while maintaining Kenyah cultural values.

RICHARDS: We’re also trying to help the community to empower themselves, and I mean not with lights essentially, but with being able to upwardly mobilize themselves to be able to have small cottage industries within their community, to be able to give them more viability on the land and be able to really legitimize themselves here. Because for them to be able to have this energy project, it gives them a reason to be here. Now all of a sudden they have an energy project which helps them to be able to stay on this land.

[sound of a pouring tropical rain]

EHRLICH: Long Lawen villagers gather one night at a traditional long house, safe from the pounding rain. A long house is a large wood structure built on stilts and divided into separate living quarters, the ancient Kenyah equivalent of an apartment building. At night everyone comes out onto the verandah to chew the fat, or at least munch on wild boar cooked with spicy chilies. They have a long tradition of communal work. Translator Saging Anyi explains that if villager Gara Jalong, for example, got sick, the whole village would come to his aid.

SAGING ANYI: If Gara himself, he got problem within his family, if his wife or his daughter got sick, so it happened to be during the harvest time, so he spent two or three weeks at the hospital, then the villagers, see, go and harvest his patty field. And that is what we usually do.

EHRLICH: Umm hmm. And this is just, nobody gets paid for it.


EHRLICH: This is just what you do for the community?

SAGING ANYI: No, no, no. No, nobody gets paid. It’s just to render your help.

EHRLICH: Gara says villagers want the new electrical power system to carry on Kenyah communal traditions. Families will use the grid for lighting at night. But during the day electricity will be used for cooperatives enterprises.

GARA JALONG: [via a translator] We can use it for community rice, rice meal. We can use it for community ice, to run the ice box, to make ice. And then we can use it for other thing like other electrical appliance, communal one, like a saw, sawmill, sawmill, there is hope of doing that thing.

EHRLICH: With only 10 kilowatts, the Long Lawen mini-hydro system is dwarfed by the 2,400 megawatt Bakun Dam, which could power entire cities. But Richards says even in the US such huge dams are proving to be a bad choice.

RICHARDS: If you take California, for instance, right now, and the model that we have in the United States, which would be similar to the Bakun Dam project, where we have 2,400 megawatts. We have had a real problem there because we have power shortages. So any time you have a large industrial complex that you’re trying to power, in that type of situation you need to have more. But at the same time, these large distributed power systems like we have in the United States are really proving to be short-sighted in that if there is some problem with the environment or there’s some new regulation or something that comes into play, all of a sudden you don’t have enough power to be able to distribute to all your customers. So really in the United States even, the thinking is that going to these small power systems at an industrial site or specific to a neighborhood and being able to supply power is a much stronger way of doing it.

EHRLICH: Richards argues that many miniprojects are a viable alternative to gigantic dams. He says hundreds of them could provide enough electricity for rural development, be environmentally friendly, and help maintain traditional cultures.

RICHARDS: In a rural setting like this, where we don’t have any infrastructure development, I believe the opportunity exists to be able to bring in renewable forms as opposed to traditional, conventional energy means, which decreases greenhouse gas emissions and really in Asia and in other developing countries it’s a tremendous opportunity not to have the conventional energy infrastructure ever developed. So it helps us all as a community.

EHRLICH: So far the Malaysian government has neither supported nor opposed the mini-hydro project in Long Lawen, which is scheduled to begin operation in late July. The Bakun Dam generators, if installed on schedule, will start up in about four years.

[sound of ethnic Malaysian music]

EHRLICH: One night the Kenyah villagers gather to play the Sape. A single man dances, looking skyward to see the movement of the birds, and then shouts loudly before pouncing on his imaginary human prey. The dance portrays the ancient headhunting wars of the Kenyah. Their battle today is far tougher, however; stopping the construction of the Bakun Dam and maintaining their traditional culture while adapting to the modern world. The Kenyah remain quietly optimistic. For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich in Long Lawen village, Malaysian Borneo.

[sound of ethnic Malaysian music]

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