PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHKL #0291/01 1120619
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 210619Z APR 08
FM AMEMBASSY KUALA LUMPUR
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0853
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 KUALA LUMPUR 000291
STATE FOR EAP/MTS AND DRL -- JANE KIM
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/21/2018 TAGS: PHUM PGOV EIND EAGR SENV SOCI KCRM MY SUBJECT: PENAN TRIBAL LEADER'S DEATH RAISES SUSPICIONS
Classified By: Classified by: Political Section Chief Mark D. Clark fo r reasons 1.4 (b and d).
1. (C) Penan tribal members in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak found tribal headsman and anti-logging activist Kelesau Naan dead on December 17, 2007, after he went missing for two months. Police initially refused to open an investigation until Malaysia's Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) intervened. Kelesau's death has raised Penan suspicions, as yet unsubstantiated, of possible logging industry involvement and left the indigenous ethnic group without a strong leader to protect their traditional land rights against ongoing logging efforts. End Summary.
Death of a Tribal Leader
2. (SBU) Kelesau Naan, a Penan tribal headman in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak was found dead, on December 17, 2007, at a riverbank near his village after missing for two months. Kelesau was active in protecting indigenous people rights to customary land for over twenty years. He was a lead witness against the logging industry's efforts to encroach into protected lands. Kelesau, one of the Penan headmen in the Ulu Baram district of Sarawak, often erected barricades preventing loggers from entering the Penan tribal homeland. In 1998, several land rights activist persuaded Kelesau and other Penan elders from Baram to file a land rights suit against the state government and Samling, a prominent timber company. The lawsuit remains pending in the Miri High Court. Tensions between the indigenous people and logging companies escalated in recent months over logging issues in Upper Baram region.
3. (C) Kelesau's skull and bones were found on the rocky banks of the Segita River. He disappeared two months earlier while checking on an animal trap. His family identified his remains based on Kelesau's traditional bead necklace, watch, and sheath of his machete, found on his body. Villagers of Long Kerong previously searched the area without finding his body and suspected he was murdered and his remains later placed in the area to make it look like an animal killed him. An official from Borneo Resource Institute (BRIMAS), a Sarawak-based human rights NGO, told poloff villagers' suspicions were strengthened because several weeks prior to his disappearance, a senior member from the Samling company visited the village. The company representative offered money to the villagers for their cooperation with the logging company. After they refused to take the money, the representative warned villagers they faced "dire consequences".
Police Don't Investigate; Family Asks SUHAKAM for Help
4. (C) Kelesau's son, Nick Kelesau, lodged a police report in Marudi, two weeks after the recovery of Kelesau's skeletal remains. The BRIMAS official told poloff that police at the district nearest to the Penan village were initially reluctant to accept the police report, which forms the basis for a police investigation. Police tried to persuade the villagers to drop the case and consider Kelesau's death an accident. Nick insisted and the police subsequently accepted the report. However, neither police nor government officials investigated the case. Instead, police classified the cause of death as "sudden death."
5. (C) Unhappy over the initial police response, Kelesau's son lodged a report with SUHAKAM. Nick also claimed a person representing logging companies offered him up to 25,000 Ringgit ($7,820) to retract his statement in which Nick claimed his father was murdered. The BRIMAS official believed SUHAKAM's intervention, and calls from local NGOs to investigate Kelesau's death, caused Sarawak state police headquarters to take over the investigation from the local police district. State Police Commissioner Mohamed Salley announced the reopening of the investigation and exhumed Kelesau's remains for analysis on February 29. Police released the postmortem report on March 17, which stated death resulted from unspecified natural causes. The pathologist assigned to conduct the autopsy told reporters it was difficult to ascertain the cause of death because the skeletal remains were incomplete.
6. (C) At this point, we do not have any further
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information to suggest foul-play in Kelesau's death, but the circumstances of the case and the local police's initial poor response naturally raise suspicions among the Penan. The logging industry is politically very well connected in Sarawak. During the 1990s, two other Penan villagers, both anti-logging activists, similarly disappeared after threats by logging company representatives. Kelesau's death may well take the wind out of the sails of the Penan's effort to protect their traditional lands. It remains unclear if other Penan tribal elders or Kelesau's son will take up the mantle.