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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
08KUALALUMPUR291 2008-04-21 06:19:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Kuala Lumpur
Cable title:  

PENAN TRIBAL LEADER'S DEATH RAISES SUSPICIONS

Tags:   PHUM PGOV EIND EAGR SENV SOCI KCRM MY 
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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


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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


--------------------------



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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.

Comment


--------------------------





6. (C) At this point, we do not have any further

KUALA LUMP 00000291 002 OF 002


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.

KEITH