Indigenous tribal girls have been sexually abused by loggers in remote jungles on Borneo island, a Malaysian government report said, in the first official verification of rape accusations involving timber companies.
The report made public this week bolsters claims by the Penan tribal community of mistreatment by the timber industry, which activists say has encroached on the customary rights of ancient tribes over forests and destroyed their ancestral lands.
A team from the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry investigated rape claims by Penan women in November after activists complained that police failed to do anything.
Timber industry officials have said in the past they were not aware of such misconduct by their workers. No company was singled out in the report and timber company officials reached Wednesday declined to comment. All of the companies are Malaysian, as are the accused workers.
A copy of the report seen by The Associated Press on Wednesday provided extensive interviews with Penan women in Sarawak state in Borneo who claimed that timber workers raped or tried to sexually abuse schoolgirls, including some as young as 10 years old.
One teenage girl said she bore two daughters after being raped by a worker who repeatedly intruded into her room, according to the report. Another girl said she was raped when she accepted a lift to school from a logger in his truck, while several others spoke of similar cases involving their friends.
“This sexual abuse mostly occurs due to the victims’ dependence on transport using vehicles owned by logging companies and the presence of outsiders who deal with villagers to buy jungle produce,” the report said.
The government team did not specifically explain why it believed the rape claims were true, but it interviewed four women with firsthand experience of sexual abuse and many others who claimed that it was a common occurrence in their communities.
“The report clearly shows they were raped,” said Colin Nicholas of the Penan Support Group, a loose coalition of 35 private groups. “Why is the police taking so long to do something? This reflects very poorly on the police.”
Huzir Mohamed, head of Sarawak’s police criminal investigations, said he could not comment on the report, but denied police had failed to investigate rape claims.
Authorities probed three complaints last year but found “nothing with proper evidence for us to proceed in court,” Huzir said, adding that activists often did not give specific details to support their claims.
Authorities estimate there are about 16,000 Penans among the 24 indigenous tribes who live in Sarawak, where forests cover about 70 percent of the state. Many of them are impoverished and live in remote areas, cut off from modern education and health care facilities.
Timber is Sarawak’s second biggest export after oil and gas. Malaysian laws do not recognize or protect the indigenous Penan customs and right to land ownership.