Government brands critics unpatriotic and ‘foreign agents’ in its frenzy to implement the Bakun mega-dam project

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Kuala Lumpur Correspondent, Our Special Correspondent in Sarawak

Dhu al-Qa'dah 12, 1416 1996-04-01

South-East Asia

by Kuala Lumpur Correspondent, Our Special Correspondent in Sarawak (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 25, No. 2, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1416)

In what is a major blow to the Malaysian government’s democratic pretentions, the country’s High Court declared on June 19 that Malaysia’s controversial Bakun Hydro Electric Dam project invalid. The court ruled that the decision to implement the US$5 billion project was not reached through any form of public participation. But the government’s reaction was a non-challent indifference. Not surprisingly, the media was again used to disseminate government propaganda defending the project’s ‘usefulness’ without any concrete evidences.

It was yet another proof of the Malaysian government’s total contempt for the public opinion. The prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad on his return from overseas on June 27, defended the project and claimed that it was the ‘government’s way of helping the poor’. He lashed out at critics of the project and denounced them as unpatriotic and irresponsible , throwing out the usual accusation blaming ‘foreign’ hands. In other words he holds the people of Malaysia are incapable of having their own views on anything, an insult to the intelligence of the people. According to Dr Mahathir these ‘extremists’ (the NGOs against the project) are hated around the world. He insisted that it is a ‘national project’, undertaken by the private sector because the government had no means to finance this massive project. Two days later, the country’s notorious Home Affairs ministry said it was ‘monitoring the activities of those against the project’, implying that the government would use its unlimited powers under the Internal Security Act to stop the NGOs. The public is, however, in the dark how a huge dam will help the poor as claimed by Dr. Mahathir except that the electrcity in the future will be slightly cheaper. But the critics had already given incontrovertible evidence to show that in the long run the project will not be even commercially viable - the cheap electricity will prove to be just a mirage.

Earlier when speaking to reporters in Kuching, the capital of the state where the dam is being constructed, Mahathir’s deputy Anwar Ibrahim dismissed the court decision as merely `technical’ and insisted that the project will continue despite the judgement. Later, Anwar said that it was up to the contractor to decide whether or not the construction works should stop. This was in contrast to the contractor’s claim that any decision to stop the project was up to the government. Amid these contradicting statements came the gibe that the word ‘construction’ has not been defined clearly in the judgement. On June 27, the contractor announced that all ‘real’ construction work have stopped. As we went to press, the contractor is being taken to court again for committing contempt of court.

The controversial Bakun Hydro-Electric Dam project had come under severe criticism from non-governmental groups and environmentalists, but the Malaysian government was bent on implementing it. These groups have raised important and pertinent questions on the need for viablity and safety of this multi-billion project. The government approved the project in September 1993 and awarded it to Ekran Berhad, a company owned by a Malaysian Chinese businessman who is closely linked with Malaysia’s top political leaders. The manner in which the decision was taken to implement the project raises serious questions on the link between big business and government, public participation in the decision-making process, accountability, and the conflict between the private economic interests of political leaders and public responsibility. More importantly, regardless of its devastating ecological consequences, the decision to implement the project reveals the levels of commercialism and lack of values of the ruling UMNO leaders.

The issue was brought to the court by three members of a native tribe who will be the direct victims of the project. Analysts say the judgement has vindicated the critics of the project that the government was manipulating the now invalid Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report to hide the real impact of the project from public scrutiny. In issuing the EIA report, the government ensured that it could be inspected only in Kuching, the state capital of Sarawak, and two small towns in the vicinity of the proposed dam, shutting out those campaigning against it from having access to the report, which was also made available in these three centres at an exhorbitant cost. There has been no public input into the government’s decision to embark on this mega project, neither any serious consideration of the objections to the project.

On the other hand, the government launched an explosive ‘public relations’ campaign to convince the public on the soundness of the project.

The Bakun dam project will turn the Bakun forest area into an environmental nightmare. When completed, the dam will occupy an area of more than 70,000 hectares - the size of Singapore. Virgin forests which existed for millions of years, will be cleared, flooded, and forcing nearly 10,000 indigenous residents to evacuate and live as labourers in oil-palm estates. Furthermore, some 50 million cubic metres of vegetation will be removed. Rivers will be sifted, resulting in climatic changes and diseases in the wetland habitats. Experts say the dam will only give an extra 8% electricity, and its life-span would not exceed even 50 years. Many have also warned of a “spill over” of earthquakes into the western peninsula of Malaysia, which is currently located in an earthquake-free zone.

Meanwhile, the general feeling is that the Department of Environment (DOE) will ultimately pass any newly submitted EIA report. ‘We think the DOE is just a toothless tiger’, said a spokesman for the committee against the Bakun dam project at a protest held in front of the deputy prime minister’s office on June 25.

The natives are taking the contractor to court for not stopping contstruction work on the project. To this, the contractor threatened to claim for damages from the public. ‘I will appeal and if I win, I will ask for damages amounting to RM9.5 million (US$4 m) a day’, added the Ekran boss. In the government’s frenzy to implement the project, the Sarawak state’s chief minister even insulted the natives who are against the project. “These people are being used by the NGOs but they are ignorant about the whole thing. They have never been to school [uneducated] and probably don’t even know what the whole case is about,’ he told reporters, ignoring the fact that the natives had no choice but to depend on the NGOs as they did not have the means to take up the case themselves. This arrogant statement came from a chief minister!

Analysts however do not forsee the devastating project will be cancelled. ‘If the government says be, then it is’, said a local resident. One thing the judgement might have done, however, is to restore public confidence in the country’s judiciary. Malaysia’s judiciary has recently come under fire. Thousands of ‘poison letters’ containing detailed documentation of government officials’ meddling into judicial affairs and of corrupt judges were circulated throughout the country.

Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996

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