A civil society movement has started a campaign to demand the restoration of internal self-government and nationhood to Sarawak, one of the 13 constituent states of Malaysia (map on the left, click to enlarge). According to Malaysian newspaper The Star, the Sarawak Sovereignty Movement (SSM) was launched Saturday with an agenda that seeks to turn Sarawak into a largely autonomous state within a loose Malaysian federation.
The SSN says that it will initiate a popular petition, backed by as many Sarawakians as they can get, in order to review the Malaysia Agreement. This agreement paved the way for the decolonization of Malaya, Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore from the United Kingdom in 1963. Pro-sovereignty movements in Sarawak and Sabah argue that both territories should be regarded as equal partners and constituent nations of Malaysia, the third one being Malaya proper. In fact, the fourth constituent nation of the union, Singapore, declared independence from Malaysia in 1965.
The sovereignist movement argues that Sarawak should be entitled to pass its own laws, to raise its own taxes and to control its own natural resources. Currently, Sarawak and Sabah governments only get a 5% royalty from petroleum produced in the two states.
Besides collecting signatures for the petition, the SSN is also preparing a rally to be held on Sunday 21st July, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of independence from the UK.
Being physically separated from Malaya by the South China Sea, Sarawak also has differences in its religious and ethnic makeup. The largest ethnic group in Sarawak is the indigenous Iban. Together with the Bidayuh, the Melanau and others, they constitute the absolute majority of Sarawak's population, although there also exist sizeable Chinese and Malay communities (24% and 23% of the population each). While Islam is the majority religion in Malaysia, it is not in Sarawak, where Christianity has more adherents.
Sarawak government against any sovereignist agenda
Only half a year ago, Sarawak Chief Minister Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud said that Sarawak freely joined Malaysia and that the union was crucial for "assistance in defence and security" and for "political stability and peace". Again a couple of weeks ago, Taib underlined Sarawak's "unity and racial harmony" since its accession to Malaysia and predicted that the territory could achieve a standard of living on par with the EU and the USA by 2030.
But Taib is embroiled in controversy. NGO Global Witness released last month an investigation according to which the Taib family "skirts Malaysia's laws and taxes", makes "huge profits at the expense of indigenous people" and hides its "dirty money in Singapore".
Global Witness has also accused Taib of having allowed a massive deforestation in Sarawak. Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund has documented widespread corruption among the Taib family, who according to the group is making enormous profit from logging and expelling indigenous people from their land. The issue has even reached the Swiss Parliament, where Swiss MP Carlo Sommaruga has called for a freeze of assets held by Swiss banks on behalf of the Taibs, who according to him are "acting like a criminal organization".
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