Allegations of encroachment on native customary lands, “forced” religious conversions, unwanted birth control, and deaths caused by preventable diseases are not the headlines we expect to see in Malaysia Baharu. But in the past year alone, these have been some of the disturbing reports relating to the Orang Asli that have appeared in the media.
The Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak, collectively known as the Orang Asal, are the original indigenous people of the land. As our fellow Malaysians, they deserve the same respect for their rights as we all do. Yet they are some of the most marginalised people in our society and are portrayed by the authorities as “simple” or a “backwards” people who need protection.
Historically, policies and laws relating to the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia, such as the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954, have discouraged notions of autonomy and self-determination. Instead, these communities have been treated like wards of the state with limited rights.
They have constantly been talked down to, subjected to condescending attitudes and urged to conform to more conventional ways of life. The reasons behind this may at times have been well-intentioned but it is undeniable that sidelining the population in this way has provided greater opportunities for others to exploit their land and resources.
It is well established in international human rights law that indigenous peoples are entitled to the same fundamental freedoms as everyone else. But they also have rights which are specific to their circumstances, including the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation and the right not to be forcibly removed from their lands.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that no relocation should take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous people concerned, after agreement on fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return. However, violations of the Orang Asli’s land rights have been perpetrated over many decades in Malaysia, mainly for economic purposes including plantation and logging activities, quarrying, mining and infrastructure development.
Land is a precious resource for all of us, including the government and the business community. But for the Orang Asli, their traditional lands are more than just a source of economic and physical sustenance, as they are also a vital part of their cultural identity, belief systems and way of life. Encroachment on their lands has led to the pollution of rivers and loss of shelter, food, livelihoods, historical sites and even graveyards.
Furthermore, allegations have been made that commercial plantations have been allowed to misappropriate native customary land without the Orang Asli’s knowledge and without their free, prior and informed consent.
As land falls under the purview of state authorities, individual states can grant territory to logging and plantation companies without federal oversight or approval.
If social and environmental impact assessments are carried out at all, they are often incomplete or fail to take account of the cumulative impact of such activities.
Although state authorities have a duty to uphold the rights of all citizens, members of the Orang Asli community have faced harassment, intimidation and even arrest at the hands of state forestry departments and the police for asserting their rights.
Beginning in 2016, in response to the loss of their lands, the indigenous people of Gua Musang, Kelantan, protested by setting up barricades to prevent further damage. The Kelantan Forestry Department claimed that the area was a protected forest reserve while simultaneously allowing logging activities to be carried out by companies.
In a clear abuse of power by the authorities, the protesters’ blockades were demolished, their phones and cameras were confiscated and over 40 Orang Asli protesters were arrested.
The struggles of the indigenous people of Gua Musang are long-standing and on-
going, as they are accused of trespassing on their own land while companies are allowed to acquire more of their traditional territories.
The Orang Asli should not be harassed or punished for expressing their anger or asserting their rights when their homes, resources and livelihoods are under threat. Such behaviour is particularly abhorrent when the state authorities themselves support or participate in this intimidation, in collusion with the companies.
It is not only the land rights of indigenous peoples that are at risk, but also many of their basic human rights, including the right to health and the right to found a family.
Women from a number of Orang Asli communities in Perak claim to have been subjected to unwanted birth control, administered to them without full information about the medication or its side effects. This has sparked fears that there has been an intentional attempt to control the population or address the belief that poverty in indigenous communities could be prevented with a lower birth rate.
The Health Minister has denied that the women were forced to take the medication or did not understand its purpose, but it is clear that serious issues of fear and mistrust remain.
When it was announced in September this year that the tragic deaths of 16 Orang Asli in Kelantan were due to measles, many were shocked that the tribe had not received vaccinations against the disease. Reasons offered for the tragedy included the Orang Asli’s nomadic lifestyle, lack of awareness, poverty and poor hygiene. This narrative fails to acknowledge that many of the struggles faced by these communities, including lack of clean water, poor health and the inability to sustain a livelihood off the land, are caused or exacerbated by the actions of the state. It is therefore understandable that the Orang Asli do not reach out to the authorities, even in times of need, as they have historically been treated with a lack of respect.
As a matter of international law, it is clear that indigenous peoples have the right to practice, develop and teach their own spiritual and religious traditions. Malaysia’s own Constitution, while upholding Islam as the religion of the Federation, guarantees freedom of religion and the right to profess and practice other faiths.
Yet earlier this year, the Kelantan Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council was reported to have plans to convert the Orang Asli within its state borders to Islam by 2049.
While some indigenous peoples have and will continue to convert to other faiths, it is of critical importance that this is an informed and individual decision.
For many years there have been claims from within indigenous communities that they have been “forced” or “duped” into converting to Islam, without wanting to practice the religion.
Policies in the past have offered incentives for religious conversions, and in some instances Orang Asli have found that “Islam” had been added to their MyKads without their knowledge during the process of applying for identity documents. There have even been reports that the authorities were not notified about the outbreak of measles and resulting deaths for fear that loved ones would be buried according to Muslim rites rather than the customs of the Orang Asli.
Wanting to improve the lives of the Orang Asli is an admirable ambition. But programmes which aim to assimilate the Orang Asli into mainstream society and religions can be treacherous and violate their basic human rights.
As a multicultural, multi-ethnic and
multi-religious society, we do not and should not impose one belief system or way of life upon another. The same principle must apply to our relationships with the Orang Asli, who should not be pressured to conform to ideas or policies devised for them by people outside of their communities.
Our indigenous peoples have been deprived of many of the benefits of Malaysia becoming a developed nation, and they have suffered the often brutal side effects of that journey. In its manifesto, Pakatan Harapan promised to advance the interests of the Orang Asli by guaranteeing their rights to customary lands, upholding their dignity, and ensuring they are given the skills and independence to improve their lives and socioeconomic conditions. These promises must be kept in a way that respects the Orang Asli’s rights to independence, self-determination and autonomy over their own land, culture, traditions and way of life.
As we celebrate World Human Rights Day this Tuesday, we must not forget about the rights of the Orang Asli.
To reverse decades of marginalisation and exploitation, the government should begin by implementing some of the recommendations of the Suhakam Public Inquiry into Indigenous Land Rights from 2013, such as establishing a special land tribunal or commission to give effective recognition to Orang Asli’s land rights.
The government should also consider other positive measures, including hiring more indigenous staff in relevant government departments, following the recent appointment of former Universiti Malaya anthropologist Dr Juli Edo, an Orang Asli, as the director-general of the Orang Asli Development Department.
On all matters relating to their lives, there should be increased engagement and consultation with the Orang Asli themselves, and the government should introduce policies that reflect the principles of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Eric Paulsen is the Malaysian representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The views expressed here are solely the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Sunday Star.
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