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High Chaparral: The tragedy of Kampung Buah Pala

Contributed by Anonymous on Thursday, September 03 @ 00:04:08 CDT

The Sun, Aug 03 2009

Himanshu Bhatt

On record ... Kampung Buah Pala boys at
a nearby school in Aug 15, 1948. The
photo was printed in the  Windsun studio
at 491 Penang Road.
a few days before bulldozers showed up at Kampung Buah Pala last month, in what turned out to be a failed attempt to demolish the village, an emotional resident showed me an old crinkled photograph of her great grandmother, who had lived in the settlement about a hundred years back.

Little would the guileless young woman with a haunting expression in the picture have known that her descendants would one day have to fight a pitched battle to defend that very ancestral land that she had toiled on.

Much has been said about the Kampung Buah Pala crisis. But a problem in this whole affair is that it is swamped in a morass of political chest-thumping and technical legalese that it is difficult for the general public to appreciate, let alone understand, the intrinsic dilemma of the villagers.

Those who have witnessed the audacious stance the villagers put up to protect their homes may better perceive the impulse that drives these descendants of planters and cowherds to literally face death in such a manner.

Roots ... A young woman
who lived in Brown Estate
some 100 years ago. Her
great grand-daughter,
Mahadevi Muthu, 51, faces
eviction from their
ancestral village.
For the Kampung Buah Pala villagers are no squatters. The land they grew up is the only home they have known for at least five generations.

As is well do*****ented, the villagers trace their ancestry to indentured labourers brought in by the East India Company to work for the Brown Estate in Penang more than 150 years ago. The land later became categorised as a vested crown for housing trust.

The idyllic life was, however, shaken in 2004 and 2005, when the previous Barisan Nasional   Penang government approved the sale of the land to a cooperative for state government officers (Koperasi Pegawai Kerajaan Pulau Pinang).

What made the deal controversial was that the sale was passed at a discounted premium of RM3.2 million (or RM10 a sq ft). The land is estimated to cost about RM100 a sq ft.

Certainly, the BN is answerable as to why the fate of the land was decided on without any consultation with the villagers. The cooperative needs to account for why government servants who are entrusted to administer over people’s welfare should take away people’s land for themselves for private commercial profits.

But lost amid the headlines and verbal diatribes is a critical turning point – one which the state government under the Pakatan Rakyat itself failed to capitalise on to save the village.

In March 21 last year, just two weeks after Pakatan won the general election to take power of Penang, several villagers met newly-minted Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng at his office, getting assurances that he would help them.

Just a week later on March 28, the state land office issued the title for the land to the cooperative.

The move effectively put the villagers under the mercy of the new owner and its partner, Nusmetro Ventures (P) Sdn Bhd, the developer of a condominium project.

Lim has since insisted that the title had to be issued because of an “administrative procedure”.

But that now does not seem to be completely true. In fact, state opposition leader Datuk Azhar Ibrahim pointed out in the last assembly sitting that the premium’s final instalment had exceeded the time limit. Its validity had expired.

The maximum time given for the purchaser to settle the full amount was three months. The cooperative made its first payment of RM963,000 on March 22, 2007. But the next payment, of RM2.247 million, was collected a year later – after Pakatan took power – on March 14, 2008.

Section 81 of the National Land Code stipulates that “if any such sum is not so paid within the specified time, the approval of the state authority to the alienation shall thereupon lapse.”

In other words, the transaction would have already been null and void – had the government not agreed to collect the payment and revive the deal. That the land was taken away from the villagers after the premium had lapsed, that the villagers lost their homes after the transaction had already died, may well prove to be the most stinging human rights blunder of the Pakatan government to date.

Added to this is another key factor that has emboldened the residents, making them furiously indignant against any attempt to remove them from their homes – that the High Court had ruled in their favour in October last year. The Federal Court of Appeal, however, dismissed the villagers’ case on June 24, on grounds that they did not have legitimate standing or locus standi.

Lim has since arm-twisted Nusmetro to offer a double-storey link house to each household. What has put the residents off is that the offer would be cancelled if the proposed project is not approved by the authorities. They are also required to drop all legal actions filed against the cooperative, Nusmetro and relevant parties, and to refrain from filing any new suits.

Certainly, the issue is mired in many other complications. But the great tragedy of Kampung Buah Pala may just be how rhetoric and politics have distracted from a genuine threat to the human rights of a people, and to a sole remaining legacy of some of the early pioneers of our land.  Himanshu is theSun’s Penang bureau chief. Comments:



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