Dark side to Ba Kelalan – ‘Mexico of Borneo’

BA KELALAN: Smuggling of drugs, stolen cars and grocery goods has turned Ba Kelalan from being ‘Highland Paradise of Borneo’ to the ‘Mexico of Borneo’.

The checkpoint at the stretch of road near the Ba Kelalan Clinic is abandoned after the Neighbourhood Watch Committee decided they could not handle rogue Lawas businessmen.

Tadam Arun

Councilor Agung Tai

Since last year when the motorcycle track connecting Ba Kelalan to Long Midang in Indonesia was transformed into a road big enough to accommodate cars, smuggling activities from Lawas into Long Bawan of Indonesia has been rampant.

Day and night traders from Lawas used four-wheeled drives (4WD) to supply grocer goods and drugs at the border Indonesia town, which is about an hour’s drive away from Buduk Nur, the biggest settlement in Ba Kelalan.

As for stolen cars, it happened mostly at night. 4WD worth more than RM100,000 are driven across the border and sold there for between RM20,000 and RM50,000. A local estimated that about 200 stolen cars had traversed the border since the road upgrading.

The dusty but tar-sealed track, which used to be a ‘jalan tikus’, is now the official ‘japan rajah’ for car thieves who only have to produce their identity cards to cross the border. It is said that those with the ‘right connection’ can drive through without the need to flash their identity cards.

Drugs, especially ‘shabu’, will be stashed among grocery goods to avoid being detected at the Indonesian checkpoint.

No villagers here can tell exactly how many locals or those from Lawas have been smuggling drugs, but everyone here knows that since August last year nine Ba Kelalan residents and drug traffickers from Lawas had been caught by Indonesian law enforcers.

“Last August, four were caught and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment at Nunukan (in Indonesia). Three were caught in March this year, and two in May. The cases of the five caught in March and May still on-going. Their fate is still unknown,” former PBB Ba Kelalan branch secretary-general Tadam Arun, 50, told the BAT IV team yesterday.

What concerned the villagers even more is that some local youth are now `shabu’ addicts. A gram of it, packed in drinking straw of about one centimetre and sealed at both ends, is sold at RM50 each here.

Apart from drugs, smuggling of grocery goods has also stifled licensed Ba Kelalan businessmen.

Previously, these bona fide traders could earn between RM1,000 and RM3,000 per day, but not anymore. Some of them can’t even make RM100 per day now due to smuggling of goods into Long Midang and finally Long Bawan, an Indonesian town where there is a big community sharing the same ancestry with the Lun Bawang of Ba Kelalan.

“There are now many un-licensed suppliers transporting goods directly from Lawas to Long Bawan. With the unlicensed traders by-passing us, our means of livelihood has been badly affected. Now, there are no more businesses for us.”

Goods from Sarawak are in high demand on the other side because they are three times cheaper compared to the goods that are flown in to Long Bawan from Nunukan, where Indonesian traders have to pay freight charges of RM8 per kg.

The 30 coffee shops here will also be closing down soon as Indonesian traders no longer have to travel here to make purchase.

According to Tadam, who inherited the family grocery store from his father Arun Lalung, he expanded the store into one with a coffeeshop, his income from the coffeeshop used to rake in about RM300 per day, but nowadays there’s hardly RM10 in the cash register at the end of each day.

“Before the opening of the road, Buduk Nur used to receive a lot of Indonesian traders. We used to be such a vibrant place with activities.

“Now it is all quiet here because the Indonesians no longer need to come here to get their supply. Everything is now being sent to them. They don’t come here anymore,” said a visibly frustrated Tadam.

He urged the government, especially the business licensing authorities, to intervene and stop Lawas traders from undercutting Ba Kelalan traders.

“For us here in Ba Kelalan, only those with licences can operate businesses. We can only trade in Ba Kelalan and not in Lawas because that is where our address is when we applied for trading licences. Similarly, it is illegal for those in Lawas to trade here. We want the government to act.”

Tadam estimated the government had lost tax revenue of at least RM2 million so far due to the smuggling of goods. His estimate may not be an exaggeration if it were true that between 6,000 and 10,000 litres of fuel are smuggled into Long Bawan every day.

In the face of these illegal activities, especially the fact that one of the four caught on Aug 30 is a local resident, the villagers called for an emergency meeting of all residents of Ba Kelalan, including those who had migrated to Miri, Kuching, Limbang and Lawas, to discuss the cause of action to be taken to prevent the problem from worsening.

In the meeting, a Safety and Security Bureau was formed and Tadam was elected its chairman. But there was nothing much they could do to rectify the situation.

Taking advantage of the fact that there is only one way in and one way out of Ba Kelalan, the Neighbourhood Watch Committee tried to stop all smuggling activities by setting up their own check point at the stretch of road near Ba Kelalan clinic.

“The check point did not last long as it was the scene of quarrels and fights almost every day because those from Lawas refused to recognise us. We finally gave up.”

After that attempt, Tadam gave up completely even though the checkpoint, for a short time, proved to be very effective in solving all their problems.

Local resident Agung Tai, who is also Lawas District Councilor, confirmed that all illegal activities voiced out by Tadam were true. He claimed Lawas District Council was fully aware of the problems.

“The solution, I believe, is for traders in Lawas to work together with those in Ba Kelalan. The traders in Lawas may send the goods to Ba Kelalan and let Ba Kelalan traders take over from here. After all, one needs local licences to trade locally.

“Since there is only one way in and one way out of Ba Kelalan, perhaps we can apply for customs or police presence at the check point near the clinic.

Agung believed with the two arrangements, safety and prosperity can return to Ba Kelalan as drugs and smuggling might be stopped at the check point. “I will bring up the issues at the next Lawas District Council meeting.”

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