The arrest of an Iban tuai rumah (headman) and a land rights activist is the latest of a unending saga of native customary rights (NCR) land disputes in Sarawak.
This time the incident involved the alleged burning of an excavator belonging to a company which is clearing land for oil palm in an area encompassing three Iban villages - Keniong, Sungai Raya and Tebuan - in the Simunjan district of Kota Samarahan.
Two companies - Dakar Wijaya and Stuyong Enterprise - have been given licences by the state authorities to plant oil palm and the Iban landowners claim that about 600 hectares of their NCR land are being taken over.
The two companies, said Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia) secretary-general Nichola Mujah, moved into the area a month ago and the local people have since been protesting against the encroachment of their land.
Despite several meetings in the district office in Simunjan between representatives of the companies and the local natives in the presence of government officials and warnings given against the encroachment - the companies proceeded to begin work in the disputed areas.
There are some 350 Iban families from the three villages - including Tebuan, which is made up of Iban converts - and they have banded together to form a land action committee.
When workmen form the companies moved in with their heavy equipment three days ago to clear the land, they were confronted by the Ibans and one excavator was set alight.
After a police report was lodged, two of the natives - village head Ajan Wein and land committee member Kudei Jampong - were summoned to go to the police station in Simunjan where they were subsequently arrested and detained.
Yesterday, they were brought before the local magistrate and further remanded for four more days until Monday pending the completion of police investigation, according to Mujah.
Plantation firms vs natives
The Simujan area has seen much land clearing activities and the planting of oil palm by companies with leases issued by the state government.
This resulted in increasing conflicts, as is happening in any other parts of Sarawak, between NCR landowners and the plantation companies.
This has prompted Sadia’s Mujah to advise the state authorities to stop issuing further leases to such companies and to pay serious attention to the rights of natives to their land.
Mujah said that the state government must consider the plight of those natives who have worked and tilled their land for generations.
Presently, there are nearly 200 of NCR claims in court following the disputes between native landowners and the state authorities and plantation companies which are given leases throughout Sarawak.