KUALA LUMPUR, April 2 — The day before Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim accompanies Baru Bian to the nomination centre in Ba’Kelalan, he will arrive at Lawas airport in a 28-year-old twin-engine propeller plane.
With a capacity of 19 passengers, it will barely fit his entourage in a nine-day sweep of Sarawak ahead of the April 16 state polls.
The plane he will arrive in is one of just four Twin Otters that serve the Lawas district, an area three times the size of Malacca but with a population of just 35,000.
Lawas is cut off from the rest of Sarawak’s road network. The only two ways to drive into the remote outpost is from Brunei and Sabah.
As for the villages in the interior away from town, the Lawas river offers the only passage through.
The lack of public amenities here is in contrast to the lucrative timber industry and a recent flashpoint — the construction of a gas pipeline to neighbouring Sabah, crossing through native customary rights (NCR) land belonging to the Lunbawang.
This is a scene repeated to differing degrees elsewhere in Sarawak, which the PKR de facto leader will blitz in an extensive itinerary that ends on the April 6 nomination day, before returning again two days later.
Allegations of NCR land grabs by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government have mounted over recent months as opposition parties here geared up for the election, which had to be called by July.
PKR says it has sensed a growing dissatisfaction against Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s 30-year administration, whose personal lifestyle has reinforced accusations of widespread corruption.
And in Anwar, a man who has spent the last 13 years crying foul over claimed injustices, the mainly peninsula-based party believes it has bridged the South China Sea and found common ground with Sarawakians.
“Anwar and the people of Sarawak are both victims of BN’s regime. If they can do this to a former deputy prime minister, how much more these natives?” said deputy president Azmin Ali, who has been the pointman for negotiations over seat allocations for the polls.
Last week’s emergence of a sex video implicating Anwar appeared to have galvanised Pakatan Rakyat (PR), and closed the ranks between PKR and the Islamic party PAS, which has criticised the silence of religious scholars over what it called dirty politics.
Police confirmed yesterday the video has not been doctored but offered no clues on the identity of the man taped having sex or the people behind the video recording.
The Permatang Pauh MP has denied he is the man in the tape and will likely add this episode to two charges of sodomy (a conviction for which was overturned in court) and other alleged injustices.
This includes the current suspension from Parliament, which has ironically freed him to focus on the Sarawak campaign.
Azmin was keen to note that Anwar was similarly free to campaign across the peninsula before the landmark March 2008 election where BN lost their customary two-thirds of Parliament, as he was not eligible to contest after being convicted on corruption charges.
For the first five days, Anwar will be based out of the Grand Continental Hotel in Kuching, holding meetings and press conferences in between a gruelling schedule of up to half dozen speaking events a day.
But the battle will begin in earnest when the opposition leader has to climb into a boat in Batang Ai and trek across mountainous terrain to reach voters in the interior, a severe test for a 64-year-old who has long complained of back problems.
It is here where state chief Baru says Anwar must “know the local issues and highlight the injustices.”
Party strategy director Rafizi Ramli rattled them off when contacted — NCR, oil royalty, state autonomy, alleged corruption by Abdul Taib.
But it will be up to Anwar to convince Sarawakians that his party can provide them the “justice” that Keadilan stands for.