The fishermen’s march to Parliament on 11 July was something to behold.
No longer could the voices of these folks, often unheard, be ignored.
This was no ordinary protest.
The creative talents – colourful banners, drummers, lively chants and gimmicks (pouring sand into fisherment’s rice basins) – made this demonstration a unique multi-ethnic effort in the new Malaysia. A couple of hundred fishermen, representing the 10,000 fishermen in Penang and Perak, were supported by a cast of artists, NGO activists, environmentalists, youth concerned about climate change – even a troupe of female drummers. So there was no chance for Umno and Pas to use this issue for their own purposes.
The cries of “Penang (and Perak) Tolak Tambak!” have shaken up the establishment and catapulted their cause, backed by tens of thousands in an online petition, to national attention.
The protest has made many ordinary folks pause and reflect on what constitutes real and sustainable development – essential fish supplies or land reclamation to profit big developers and contractors and others backing them. Do we really value a misguided notion of ‘development’ (which, in this case, is short-sighted, unsustainable development) over our long-term food security – think of your affordable local wild fish – and natural heritage?
Early signs are that is has exposed the rifts within Pakatan Harapan and even intra-party divisions over this issue.
Today, Anwar Ibrahim is expected to address hundreds of fishermen, PKR members and others at Teluk Kumbar. He can expect to see first-hand the deep unhappiness among the fishermen there. He will see Penang Tolak Tambak flags and banners blanketing the place around the meeting point.
Ahead of the fishermen’s rally, in what was obviously a propaganda video to counter the growing groundswell against the reclamation, a retired academic was trotted out to say that the present fishing waters to be destroyed by reclamation was an insignificant fisheries zone with hardly any fishermen. Tellingly, the video did not interview any real fisherman who rely on the coastal waters for their livelihoods.
Then came the fishermen’s protest, which has rocked the establishment, unnerved government leaders and given the fishermen, backed by many ordinary people, a new sense of the power of their collective strength.
The Penang state government and others were caught off-guard by the sheer tenacity of the protesters who marched to Parliament. State government leaders responded in the only way they know how how: offering $$$ – saying they were was prepared to seriously negotiate with fishermen over the compensation. That is the only language they know when confronted by public outrage over their outlandish plans that would benefit a group of developers and contractors the most: $$$ and “mitigation measures”.
A classic case of divide-and-rule, carrot and stick. If you come forward, you get some small compensation; if you don’t, you lose your fishing waters, your livelihoods; everything.
As if a price tag could be put on the loss of a priceless fisheries zone, the loss of tranquil coastal waters that provide fresh local wild fish, increasingly scarce, to the local people at affordable prices. Fished sustainably in coastal waters.
But what the project proponents with their slick corporate media propaganda and mainstream media ties didn’t bargain for is a new sense of determination and solidarity among the fishing community in the south.
The way I see it, the fishermen are not about to surrender meekly and lose their livelihoods and way of life. They are unlikely to fall for all the old tricks.
The struggle is far from over.