THE grave robbers are back in Sarawak. Earlier this month, they were hard at work in Balingian – to the dismay of the villagers at one kampung there.
Family members of one of the deceased paid a visit to the Tinging Panggau cemetery in Kampung Sungai Duan there and were shocked to find 14 graves at the cemetery had been desecrated with the skeletal remains in some coffins reportedly missing.
The villagers subsequently lodged a police report on the incident.
Sungai Duan Youth Club chairman Alex Nyuan said, “We don’t know who did it but they took the bones of the dead and some were left in the bushes nearby.” He condemned the act was disrespectful to the dead.
Grave robbers have been desecrating tombs in the state for years. At one time, the acts happened regularly, almost every week. At first, the grave robbers only desecrated rural cemeteries. Later, they targeted urban cemeteries as well.
Not much is known about these robbers because few have been caught. However in November, 2019, I found out from a piece of news on the internet that Miri police managed to arrest three local men, believed to be members of the “Undertaker Ameng”, a gang of grave robbers, in connection with multiple cases of grave robbing and desecration at cemeteries in the division.
Police considered three cases solved with the arrest of the trio aged 16 to 27. The suspects were picked up from various locations in Miri in a raid and during searches carried out as part of the investigation, police recovered stolen items which included jewellery pieces valued at RM5,000.
Police believed the valuables were taken from corpses. They also detained the buyer of the valuables for questioning.
The offence was investigated under Section 297 of the Penal Code for trespassing on burial places and Section 379 of the Penal Code for theft.
I don’t know what happened to the robbers after that. Were they heavily sentenced or jailed and were the valuables returned to family members of the deceased? Was the buyer fined or jailed too?
In February, 2018, Assistant Police Commissioner Fauzi Saadi, who was Miri Police chief then, told a national paper that the police had few clues about how to catch the nocturnal thieves.
“It is very difficult to catch them in the act. We don’t know when and where they will strike,” he was quoted as saying.
He said the only way to stop the grave robbers from striking was for the native folk to stop the practice of burying valuables inside the coffins of their dead.
He pointed out that if the grave robbers managed to steal valuable items from one coffin, they would want to plunder even more coffins.
In Sarawak, it was a common practice for native communities to put all the personal belongings of a dead person inside the coffin. These items included expensive gold rings, necklaces and bracelets.
Ordinary Sarawakians would have been scared of curses, ghosts or things that lurk in the dark and will avoid visiting cemeteries unless necessary, like for prayers, etc.
But the grave robbers are obviously not ordinary Sarawakians. They may not be Sarawakians at all. They are desperate for money and will do anything for money. They definitely do not respect the dead or their families and have no qualms in robbing the dead of their valuables.
Throughout the years, members of the Iban community have been reminded not to bury their dead with valuable items like jewellery and antiques.
Iban leaders who have issued such advices include former Julau Member of Parliament, Datuk Joseph Salang Gandum and chairman of the Dayak Memorial Park in Miri, Abin Galieh.
In one press interview, Salang said, “Such desecration will continue to plague the community as long as such practice (burying the dead with valuable items) continues, and also as long as there are ready buyers.”
He also urged the longhouse security and development committees (JKKKs) to work closely with police on intelligence-sharing.
“Be very wary if you see any suspicious group of people in your area,” he said.
Meanwhile, Abin told a local daily that Dayak cemeteries were often targeted by tomb raiders because of the belief that the community’s deceased were buried along with their valuables.
He, however, pointed out that many Dayaks no longer buried valuables with their dead nowadays after realising such practice could attract grave robbers.
Abin was interviewed after the desecration of at least 20 graves at the Dayak and Roman Catholic in Riam, Miri between September and October, 2019. He urged police to regularly patrol the areas to prevent the incidents from happening again.
After the desecration of the graves at the Tinging Panggau cemetery in Kampung Sungai Duan, Balingian, the grave robbers will strike again. They will strike again and again as long as they believe there are valuables in the coffins.
Hence, it is time for all the Dayaks to stop burying valuables with their dead to stop the grave robbers once and for all.