Bill Kayong was no political visionary with a radical manifesto. But he was a political activist dedicated to protecting native communities in Sarawak, known as Dayak, from growing incursions on their traditional lands by logging and palm oil companies.
Increasingly, Kayong’s work had been concentrated on helping one community about 60 kilometers south of Miri, at Sungai Bekelit, a traditional longhouse. Longhouses are large wooden buildings raised on stilts and often up to 100 meters in length that have a line of apartments off a wide, covered communal area. They are also social units with a chief and communal lands controlled under customary law that dates back many centuries. The people of Sungai Bekelit had for eight years been fighting Lee’s state-supported takeover of their land to grow oil palm.
The dispute had become increasingly confrontational and, on the company’s part, violent. Lee and his father said they had duly issued licenses to farm the land; the community said their customary rights were paramount.