HE MABO RULING IN AUSTRALIA AND NATIVE CUSTOMARY RIGHTS OF SARAWAK


Dedicated to the First Sarawak Peoples, the brave indigenous peoples:

Francis H.H.Ngu, (non-indigenous Sarawakian and Malaysian).

A favourable Mabo decision by the High Court would free not only the Islander people and all Aboriginal people, but all the white people of Australia,” Eddie Mabo, initiator of the Mabo land case, prior to his death in 1992, five months before the historic Mabo decision.

Writer was in Australia doing a health services planning graduate programme in Sydney in 1982, when a Torres Straits islander and others gathered the courage and determination to take the Queensland State Government to court for denial of aboriginal land rights.

Eddie Mabo and others were defending the ownership right to their ancestral land at the northern tip of Queensland, handed down for generations according to Aboriginal legal traditions. In what was considered unwinnable, the High Court of Australia handed down an historic decision in 1992, over-turning the Terra Nullis principle, and recognizing Mabo and fellow islanders ownership rights to their own land.

At closer range , writer witnessed and continue to witness the equally courageous fight of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak for their land rights on Borneo island, and their economic rights associated with land. In spite of differences, there are compelling aspects of similarity which merit this simple narration.

The Aboriginals and the Torres Straits islanders are now acknowledged correctly as the First Australians. They represent perhaps the longest history of human civilization of some 40,000 years.

The Penans and other Dayak people of Sarawak are the First Sarawak people, and with the indigenous peoples of Sabah and of Malaya, the First Malaysians, though not generally so regarded by all of society as yet. To them, all Sarawak and Malaysian people ought to accord respect and honour, in that others later to come have been so congenially accommodated in this state and nation. Some indigenous people of Sarawak have a history of thousands of years of settlement and others a few hundred years.

There are outstanding common threads in the history and culture of Sarawak indigenous and Australian aboriginals, indeed many other indigenous peoples around the world. Apart from close kinship, what defines their existence and their culture is their sacred relationship to the land that they live on. Without ancestral land, lives and culture are in peril.

The Aboriginals live in perfect co-existence with their land from the tropical Torres Straits, to the vast desert scrubland of the continent, to the cold southern ranges. The Penans and others were, until their forcible displacement in recent history, an integral part of the Borneo ecosystem. As guardians of the Borneo tropical forests, they should perhaps also be accorded the honour of the First Environmentalists !
The close communal kinship of both groups in Australia and Borneo respectively, are enriched by unique cultures, a heritage of all mankind to be guarded, and nurtured not trampled upon by commercial interests.

The Aboriginal “dreamtime” is matched by rich Dayak imagery of folklore, both have walk-abouts, “berjalai” for adventure and opportunities in the case of migratory Sarawak Ibans.

Aboriginal paintings can be simultaneously contrasted and paralleled by Iban and Orang Ulu art on textile, both feature not only folklore but essential spirituality. Smart and effective hunting implements, the boomerang and the blow-pipe are well known respectively. One day in future, I hope, the Aboriginal didgeridoo may be merged with the Iban gongs and the Orang Ulu sapeh in a symphonic piece celebrating international indigenous friendship.

So the cultural list goes on, the rest well documented by learned anthropologists and sociologists. Suffice it to say that the rich cultural traditions and creativity can only inspire and benefit modern society. They are being constantly revived through elaborate ceremonies such as the Aboriginal coroboree and the Harvest Festivals of Borneo, the Gawai and Pesta Menuai.

Upon white settlement of Australia, the Aboriginals suffered for over 200 years from displacement, annihilation and cultural genocide through assimilation of the Stolen Generation. Land was taken over by immigrants mining and pastoral interests, as the principle of Terra Nullis states that Australia was no man’s land before white settlement and only the British Crown can lay claim on the whole continent. Aboriginals were to be confined to officially defined reserves. The historical facts of the ethnic persecution are well displayed at major Australian government museums, including the one at Perth, a commendable display of the conscience of a civilized nation among civilized nations.

The subjugation of Aboriginals haunted the 1982 Brisbane commonwealth games, as well as the bicentennial celebration of white settlement in Australia in 1988 respectively, so much so that PM Bob Hawke appeared on TV in tears to acknowledge, ”They have not been looked after (better).” PM Paul Keating, hailed the Mabo court ruling and went on to craft Aboriginal Reconciliation legislation and suggested a Social Justice package of socio-economic rights.

PM Kevin Rudd in 2008 went on to deliver an official apology on behalf of Government and Parliament for the maltreatment of Aboriginals including the Stolen Generation. Thousands of Australians, black and white, were moved to copious tears upon hearing the national apology. On that day too, Aboriginal elders also invited legislators into Parliament House, in a ceremony legitimizing the Australian Parliament even retrospectively after more than a century of Federation !

(Writer was in Australia and had the opportunity to watch live coverage of the event on ABC in 2008, at the same time thinking about the indigenous people of Sarawak.)

The NCR struggle of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, in spite of the signal victories in court since the Nor Nyawai case, has a long road ahead, a Long Road of Freedom as Mandela said.

The Native Customary Rights of Sarawak natives, in place since the rule of the White Rajahs of Sarawak, have been traded away by the Dayak leaders of Sarawak in recent history. Large tracts of native customary right land were extinguished, and Dayaks displaced by logging and plantation interests all over the whole State, these documented by a hundred cases before Sarawak courts.

Weep, weep Sarawak for pushing the First Peoples of Sarawak to the margins of society !

The full restoration of NCR is now possible only with full and broad political change in Sarawak and Malaysia. The Land Code of Sarawak awaits to be re-written.

Thousands of white Australians rallied with the Aboriginals in their struggle; tens of thousands of non-indigenous Malaysians must also stand with Penans and other indigenous groups in their stuggle for land rights and social justice.

As the Mabo victory freed the non-indigenous Australians from the chains of lies and oppression, the ultimate victory of Penans and Dayaks will free all non-indigenous Sarawak people and all Malaysians from the shameful treatment of our fellow countrymen and women, the First Sarawakians and the First Malaysians.

The Dawn must come when the new Chief Minister of Sarawak will rise in the Dewan Undangan Negri of Sarawak in the year 2013 to tender the apology of the House to the First Sarawakians, and the Prime Minister of Malaysia will lead the Dewan Rakyat and Senate in the year 2013, in tendering the apology of the Malaysian nation to Dayaks and all indigenous people of Malaysia.

Then we can be proud as One People of Malaysia, all accorded social economic justice and freedom. Agi idup agi ngelaban ! (Iban- we strive for as long as we live !)

Thoughts on approaching Malaysia Day, 16th September 2010.

---------- Post added at 03:13 PM ---------- Previous post was at 03:11 PM ----------

This may be read in conjunction with "A Flower for the Penans," by ex-MP Sim Kwang Yang at HornbillUnleashed blog.