Malaysia: Farmers launch anti-eviction campaign, turn to socialists for help

A meeting to form the Coalition of the Farmers on September 7.

About 500 Chinese farmers in the state of Perak, in northern Malaysia, with the support of the Parti Socialis Malaysia (PSM) are resisting attempted evictions from land they have occupied for more than 40 years.

The farmers occupy 20 plots on about 1500 hectares of land that was previously used for mining. After it was left unoccupied, the farmers started growing vegetables, fruit, poultry, dairy products and even developed freshwater fish hatcheries. These farms have been supplying local Selangor food markets and exporting food to Singapore and Thailand, as well as supplying the Tesco chain of supermarkets in Malaysia (there are about 72 outlets across the country).

On December 3, the 500 farmers took their protest to the Chief Minister of Selangor. It will be the first farmers' protest in Perak State, and in Malaysia in more than 30 years.

Green Left Weekly spoke with M. Saraswathy, a PSM organiser, who has been working with these farmers.

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What is the background to the protests?

After the general election last year, we found that many areas were simultaneously facing eviction problems. There have been a lot of evictions over the past 40 years, but in the 2011 general election the opposition party, Pakatai Rakyat, took over the state government in Perak. But within a year, it lost the majority.

So from 2013, out of 59 state seats in Perak -- only 28 are held by Pakatai Rakyat and 31 seats are held by UMNO-BN, the ruling party. After the election, the government has been allocating state land to sultans, their families, cronies and other private owners. So the farmers were very worried, because they've been there for so many years and don't know what to do. So they turned to the PSM.

Why did the farmers turn to the PSM?

They know that we fight. We will be in the forefront with the people. We fight and we fight and we finish it. So I think that's the confidence that they have in PSM.

They turned to us in July. We started meeting, group by group, all around the state. There were so many of them we had to form a coalition. So on September 7, we formed the Coalition of the Farmers. It's usually very difficult to organise the farmers. Usually,they are more middle class and they don't get involved in struggle.

But now it's so different, because they wanted to do something. They wanted to safeguard their farming rights. They said: "It's our land. Even though we don't have a grant, we have been farming for generation after generation, and we're not going to disappear."

So we formed the coalition, and then we sent a memorandum to the chief minister [of Perak] on September 30, asking for an appointment with him. Nothing has come back from the chief minister since September. So we had several meetings and the farmers have decided we have to go to demonstrate. We have to go to the state. So we fixed the date of December 3 to demonstrate.

There are a lot of questions the farmers have -about protesting] -- whether the police will harass them, whether the [military reserve unit] will come, whether if they go on the offensive, the state will come back and demolish their farmland.

So we have to have a lot of democratic discussions about strategy and tactics. We know it's going to be a very hard task to appeal [to the state], but we are very positive. The farmers are united.

So I am very excited. The farmers have four demands: that the state government immediately withdraw the eviction court cases against the farmers; that the government have dialogue with the farmers; that the government give back the land, and settle the issue through negotiation and discussion, not with force. And the PSM are there with them.

What is the PSM's approach to working with communities in struggle? How does it differ from other parties?

Even though the PSM was not elected in this area, we still maintain a Service Centre. Whether its farmers, plantation or factory workers, or issues of police brutality or welfare cases -- we handle all these cases.

It is difficult to build campaigns around welfare cases. But people's issues like the farmers -- we like to take these on. They will come to the office, we will go to their farmland, to find out what they want. We'll provide analysis of why the state is doing this or that.

[The farmers want to know] what is the motivation behind the issue? Why are they evicting the farmers? Why is Malaysia importing RM 223 billion in fruits, vegetables and poultry, etc. each year from overseas? Why aren't they allowing us to develop these sectors in Malaysia?

These are the results of imperialist and neoliberal market policies. So we educate them.

About 99% of the farmers are Chinese. During the anti-colonial struggle, the Briggs Policy was introduced in Malaysia to curb the growth of communism. They put all the Chinese community in urban areas into internment camps. They were worried because the Chinese were farmers and were giving food to the communists during the anti-colonial struggle. Everywhere in Malaysia you can still see signs of these camps. So there's a history to these communities.

What kind of practical support does PSM give to these campaigns?

We train them to negotiate, to talk to the press, how to handle the police and the authorities. We will be there to support them and to struggle alongside them. We try to implement a kind of democratic centralism with them. They will discuss in Chinese and debate, and there will be translators provided for this. And then they will make a decision.

Every week we visit them. They are 20 kilometres away, but sometimes we visit twice or more, especially if there is a serious problem. It is good to see that they trust PSM. They came to us. They see how we work and that we respect them.

After this we will take the struggle to the federal government, to the Ministry of Agriculture. It's not going to stop here. We take it one step at a time. It is a long struggle.

The other parties say "ok" -- take the file -- have a talk and come back and say "I can't do anything".

But the socialists in Malaysia -- we make sure we start together with the people and we end together with the people. And now within two months, the farmers are thinking of forming a branch of PSM in that particular area.

That is amazing. It is usually very difficult to attract this community to socialism. Many think we are anti-religion, anti- this, anti- that, but now they can see how we work.

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