In bitter land dispute with state, Suhakam finding offers hope to Tongod settlers

Suhakam officer Heflin DIno (left) speaks to villagers of Kampung Bobotong, Tongod, who are trying to resolve a land dispute or risk losing their land, crops and homes. — Picture courtesy of Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, Sabah branch

KOTA KINABALU, March 24 — A glimmer of hope is in sight for the villagers of Tongod who are on the brink of losing their homes and land deep in the interior of Sabah to the state.

A preliminary report by the Malaysian Commission of Human Rights (Suhakam) found the villagers had filed Land Applications (LA) dating back to 1984, which proved their decades-long occupancy of Tongod, contrary to a recent assertion by the Sabah Forestry Department that non-natives had encroached upon the land in the 1990s for personal gain.

“According to the villagers, as an indigenous people of Tongod, they applied for a Land Application (LA) back in 1984,” said the report.

However, the resolution may not be as clear-cut. The report also noted that Suhakam was informed by the villagers that the Forestry Department does not recognise their LAs. The villagers were also accused of “having a Land Application that is not genuine”.

A standoff is imminent as Sabah Forestry officials have threatened to dismantle the homes of the villagers of Kampung Bobotong within the Sungai Pinangah Forest Reserve. The villagers have refused to budge, claiming they were the first to occupy the land, and have native rights.

Sabah Forestry had also said that villagers were offered occupation permits with conditions, which were turned down, while claiming others were “aggressive land encroachers” from outside of Tongod.

“The villagers denied the allegation made by Sabah Chief Conservator of Forest Datuk Sam Mannan that the villagers of Kampung Bobotong are illegal settlers and not the original people of Tongod,” it said in the report.

A demolition in Kampung Bobotong, Tongod was accused of being unnecessarily heavy handed with 140 personnel including a police K-9 unit and firearms. — Picture courtesy of Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, Sabah branch

Speaking to Malay Mail Online, Suhakam spokesman Heflin Dino said that although the commission could not verify the authenticity of the LA — that comes under the jurisdiction of the Land and Survey Department — it gave weight to their argument that they had been living there for some time.

“Back then, the settlers might not have known they about LAs, gazetting. They lived a nomadic life and settled in the area. They have some rights because they lived there since the 1970s, but they also brought friends from Kiulu and Tongod, and that may be why the Sabah Forestry Department says they are not from there. It gets murky,” said Heflin.

The commission’s report also said that the Forestry Department’s demolition exercise on March 16, involving 140 personnel, was heavy-handed, given the circumstances.

“The villagers claim that the presence of 100 personnel from the Destroyer Unit of Sabah Forestry Department, accompanied by police equipped with firearms and a dog tracker (K-9) unit is not necessary since the villagers bring no harm to the enforcement personnel,” said the report.

Heflin said using aggressive dogs and M16s were unnecessary, and that the district Forestry officer had brought his own firearm.

“They are just rural villagers, not criminals, I don’t see why this kind of intimidation was needed. They are government officers, why use this kind of force? There is no need to go to that extent,” he said.

Heflin rejected the department’s statement that it only demolished some 16 unoccupied huts, saying the Dusun word “sulap” could also mean “house”, and that the owners may just have been away from home when the demolition happened.

One of the demolished homes that the Sabah Forestry Department claims was unoccupied, but villagers say was their home. Some 16 buildings were demolished and 60 people affected. — Picture courtesy of Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, Sabah branch

Authorities have halted operations and given the villagers until March 30 to move out or take up an Occupation Permit (OP).

The report also touched on the Sabah Forest Department’s claim that the villagers refused to take up the OP offer, saying that some villagers could not pay the annual fee of RM250 per hectare and that it was only for 25 years.

“Furthermore, the Commission received complaints from the villagers that the Occupation Permit (OP) temporary receipt can be questionable. The Commission finds that villagers who paid for the permit have been issued a Temporary Receipt with no serial [number] and most of the villagers have not been given an official receipt, ‘Resit Am’.

“The Commission would like to recommend a proper acceptance of payment system — receipt with serial number to be prepaid only by the Forestry Department’s account section,” it said, adding that the villagers who had paid for an OP had provided the copy of the receipt to Suhakam as proof.

Helfin said that Suhakam will be following up on its preliminary report with the Sabah Forestry Department before releasing the final report with recommendations.

Sukaham will also send a letter from Commissioner Datuk Godfrey Gregory Joitol to the Sabah Forestry Department on several pertinent issues including the OPs, LAs and the demolition process, and hopes to get a response from their director.

“We hope that the demolition on March 30 can be put off until the department can reply to allegations and we can negotiate and settle this matter. Maybe we can have a dialogue with all authorities involved. Let’s not rush into demolishing those homes without an OP for now,” he said.