Survival International say that thousands of Penan tribespeople will be unable to vote in crucial elections in Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, because they do not have identity cards.
The elections will take place on Saturday (16 April). They will determine whether or not Sarawak state's Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, already in power for 30 years, will stay in office.
Taib Mahmud’s government has sold the Penan’s land to logging companies. Survival International say that this has destroyed much of the rainforest they rely on to live. They add that many Penan have no say in whether Sarawak will keep him as leader or kick him out.
Identity cards are free to Malaysians who apply before the age of twelve, but most Penan apply as adults and face penalties.
Corrupt officials and middlemen are said to routinely charge Penan people fees of up to US$100 when they apply. Many Penan say they have applied several times, making long, expensive journeys to the towns each time, before giving up.
One Penan man told Survival International, ‘It’s very difficult for us to own an identity card. We don’t know why, but it’s not that we don’t apply. We have applied so many times, but we never see the identity card itself.’
The hunter-gatherer Penan are fighting to keep their last remaining rainforest safe from the logging companies. Penan have repeatedly told Survival that logging makes it difficult to feed their families, as the animals and plants they eat have been decimated.
Penan without identity cards are not recognised as Malaysian citizens, and are consequently charged much higher fees at public hospitals. Lack of documentation also makes any dealings with authority, including the police, very difficult.
“The Sarawak government is denying the Penan the rights to citizenship and health, insisted Survival campaigner Miriam Ross today (13 April).
She added, “Its abject failure to include the Penan as citizens of Malaysia makes it hard not to conclude that Taib Mahmud does not want the Penan to vote”.