From Papan-Bukit Merah to Lynas (Part 2 of Interviews with Dr. Hezri Adnan)

In this series, we interview Dr. Hezri Adnan, a prominent researcher in the area of sustainable development and environmental policy, Senior Fellow at Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. This is the second in a multi-part series on Dr. Hezri’s take on the environmental movement in Malaysia.

In this article, Dr. Hezri leads us through the people’s struggles from the Papan-Bukit Merah issue in the 1980s, to Lynas in the 2010s. He analyzes the development from various angles such as ethnic segregation in green issues, how the environmental movement took a hit during Operasi Lalang, the difference between environmental movements in East and West Malaysia, the importance of political representation when championing environmental issues, as well as the social learning when it comes to fighting for similar causes, as with the case of Papan-Bukit Merah and Lynas.

Continued from Part 1:

More landmark cases of conservation-development conflict occurred over the years. Of course, the campaign against Bakun Dam was a major one. The protest against logging in Endau-Rompin was predominantly a green issue. And so was the Temenggor Dam campaign, another green issue. The logging in the Penan area was a high profile a green issue in East Malaysia. The Bakun case was a mix of green and brown issue, because the inundated green areas was supposed to produce energy. But the landmark case really, for brown issues, was the radioactive waste disposal in the Papan-Bukit Merah are in Perak in the 1980s. The Asian Rare Earth (ARE) rare earth processing plant, operated by Japanese Mitsubishi Chemicals, were producing radioactive waste. People were outraged and there were protests on the street.

Ethnic segregation in green issues

The nature of how things are in Malaysia is that, we are very ethnically segregated. The case of Papan-Bukit Merah in the 1980s was seen predominantly as a Chinese issue. So, you get political parties representing the Chinese community to champion the issue. You won’t get any sympathizers from, for example, MIC or UMNO. On the civil society side – the campaign was ‘ethnic-neutral’. Sahabat Alam Malaysia, CAP, and EPSM, they were all behind the local community groups, staging protests against the government and Mitsubishi Chemicals Company. Even till more recently in Perak, environmental issues are seen from the lens of ethnic community – Bukit Merah is a Chinese problem, Batu Gajah is an Indian issue, and Manjung’s environmental challenges are mainly for the Malays to fight for.

This is an important thing to say about environmentalism in Malaysia. Just like everything else in Malaysia that is affected by ethnic-based politics. Everything is divided across ethnic lines. So, you can say it’s the same with the composition of the environmental movement in Malaysia. This is a generalization, but perhaps true for the first generation of the environmental movement: the scientists are mainly Malay, the Indians would be at the civil society side, and the consultants would be mainly Chinese. Of course they work together, but with a degree of suspicion.

Environment movement affected by Ops Lalang

As said before, the case of Papan-Bukit Merah was seen predominantly as a Chinese issue. That was the largest campaign against a perceived environmental threat at that time. I think CAP still holds a web page of the chronology of events on Papan-Bukit Merah from late 1970s to the 1980s. That protest involved a big number of grassroots people. About 10,000 residents took part in a 3km long procession sometime in April 1987. I think the government feared that this could grow into something else, because they had not seen anything like that. Obviously, Endau-Rompin set the precedent but it was a written petition – but to see people marching on the streets? That was too much for the government.

So in 1987, with the crackdown of civil society, something called Operasi Lalang – a number of environmental activists were arrested as well. The vice president of EPSM, Tan Ka Kheng, a strong man in the Papan Support Group which was supporting the Papan-Bukit Merah case, was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for eight months. So, that’s a big thing.

Contrasting environmental movements in East and West Malaysia

Recently I interviewed a number of environmental NGO leaders. I asked one prominent activist, “Do we have an environmental movement?” He said (and this is just his opinion), “We are yet to reach a stage where we can call ourselves a movement, because a movement originates from the grassroots.”  The closest we got to having a grassroots interest in environmental issues in West Malaysia, was actually from Papan-Bukit Merah.

The environmental movement in Sabah and Sarawak is more grassroots-based, compared to here. Examples are BRIMAS in Sarawak and PACOS in Sabah. There, it is “environmentalism of the poor”, where the question of environmental justice is championed by the community themselves. Whereas here in the Peninsular, the quest for environmental justice is instigated by the civil society organizations outside of the affected locality.

Also, from ‘environmentalism of the poor’ perspective, an environmental issue is not limited to the bio-physical challenge but also issues of socio-cultural rights of equity, accountability, recognition and participation. The closest resemblance in Peninsular is in the case of Orang Asli’s plight for forest resources. However, from a movement perspective, the Orang Asli political groups were not very organized for them to respond to the systemic intervention needed. So they get help from the NGO side for instance the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), to raise the awareness on why the issues are important for them. For Sabah and Sarawak, it’s bread and butter challenge. They will be resettled if they don’t do something. And they have been resettled anyway.

Put differently, it’s important to draw that distinction between the roots of environmental movement of East and West Malaysia. In West Malaysia it started mainly urban-based, more out of concern from the urban elites, whereas in Sabah and Sarawak it really is the people’s movement.

Lynas: A push for political representation on environmental issues

And now, fast-track to Lynas. Of course, people have not seen 20,000 people marching on the streets for an environmental cause. Lynas made the numbers game possible. Not to say that environmentalism boils down to protesting on the streets. It’s a whole gamut of things. If you want to interpret the case of Lynas, you have to interpret it within the context of Lynas and Bukit Merah together.

We are about to see something interesting – we have yet to know what the results will be – in the case of Lynas. The anti-Lynas movement is comprised of three main groups: Save Malaysia Stop Lynas; Stop Lynas Coalition and Himpunan Hijau. They have managed to muster a big mass of people for their cause.

Wong Tack, the leader of Himpunan Hijau, as you know, is competing for Bentong parliamentary seat under the DAP ticket. Himpunan Hijau is also supporting opposition candidates contesting in parliament and state constituencies they call the Pahang Green Belt, including Bentong, Temerloh, Cameron Highlands… a number of environmental hot spots if you like, and this is unprecedented. You see this marks the movement’s attempt at “graduating” into a political representation. Whether or not they will continue championing environmental issues once elected, only time will tell.

If you ask me, the ballot box is the key. I think this move to have a political representation in the august House of Parliament is necessary. You cannot just pursue a marginal fight at the periphery of mainstream politics forever. Unless somehow, you have people in dominant political parties buy into green issues, which is unlikely to be the case, judging from the green manifestos from both sides of the fence. They are very populist and not principled with respect to the environment.

Learning from Papan-Bukit Merah

Because of social learning, when you are involved in activism, you learn the minute details. The devil is in the details, as they always say. When something else suddenly pops up somewhat similar with the past experience, people don’t have to start from scratch.

The guy who was arrested under ISA , professor Tan Ka Kheng is now involved with Lynas as well.  Dr. Jayabalan, the medical practitioner who said that the number of cancer and leukemia cases in Papan-Bukit Merah rose because of the radioactive waste of the Asian Rare Earth, he’s in Lynas too. So, a movement can quickly gather itself and exert its force, if they know the ins and outs. It’s the same everywhere in other countries. I think, if the government hadn’t come up with Operasi Lalang, the Asian Rare Earth movement would have probably grown into something very powerful. But this is a counterfactual assumption of course.

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