Thousands of Penan tribespeople will be unable to vote in crucial elections on Saturday in Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, because they do not have identity cards.
The elections in Sarawak state will determine whether or not Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, already in power for 30 years, will stay in office.
Taib Mahmud’s government has sold the Penan’s land to logging companies, destroying much of the rainforest they rely on for their survival. But many Penan will have no say in whether Sarawak will keep him as leader or kick him out.
Identity cards are free to Malaysians who apply before the age of twelve, but most Penan apply as adults and face penalties. Corrupt officials and middlemen also routinely charge Penan people fees of up to US$100 when they apply. Many Penan have applied several times, making long, expensive journeys to the towns each time, before giving up.
One Penan man told Survival, ‘It’s very difficult for us to own an identity card. We don’t know why, but it’s not that we don’t apply. We have applied so many times, but we never see the identity card itself.’
The hunter-gatherer Penan are fighting to keep their last remaining rainforest safe from the logging companies. Penan have repeatedly told Survival that logging makes it difficult to feed their families, as the animals and plants they eat have been decimated.
Penan without identity cards are not recognized as Malaysian citizens, and are consequently charged much higher fees at public hospitals. Lack of documentation also makes any dealings with authority, including the police, very difficult.