Perak MB chided for telling Orang Asli to stop asking for help

Perak Menteri Besar Ahmad Faizal Azumu is under fire from activists campaigning for Orang Asli rights over a recent statement he made. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: Two lawyers and an activist campaigning for Orang Asli rights have slammed the Perak Menteri Besar’s suggestion for Orang Asli in the state to stop expecting government assistance and “advance on their own”.

Ahmad Faizal Azumu had said that the indigenous tribes must “look for alternatives” to boost their “village economy”. This would prevent them from “indulging in a culture” of seeking help from those with influence, he explained.

“The government is ready to help but we are asking them (Orang Asli in Perak) to forget about the culture of expecting outsiders to provide items and help them,” the Chenderiang state assemblyman said yesterday.

“If they feel their village has potential as a tourist attraction, then I suggest they improve their settlements first. Then we might consider approving the help they require,” Bernama had quoted him as saying.

Siti Kasim, a vocal Orang Asli activist and member of the Malaysian Bar Council’s Committee on Orang Asli Rights, told FMT that Faizal should go down to the ground and see how things are before “insulting” the Orang Asli.

“‘Culture of expecting outsiders to provide items and help them’? What is this? The Orang Asli are the most self-sustainable people in comparison to other societies. They can survive even if they had no money.

“The continued destruction of the forest on their ancestral land aided by the authorities is the main problem. Indigenous people can’t choose their own way of life, get control over their own education, healthcare and so on, unless their lands are secure.

“That’s the overwhelming priority. All other issues are secondary. If their land rights are recognised, then tribal people thrive.”

She reminded Faizal that Malaysia is a signatory of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Undrip), which dictates the country has a primary obligation to ensure human rights commitments are met.

She also pointed out how mining and land concessions have had a “disastrous impact” on Orang Asli tribes in the past. There is also no national budget to promote the culture of the indigenous people despite a new government, Siti added.

“We have a legal and moral obligation to put a stop to this. Our indigenous peoples are bound to the forests, where the protective spirits of their ancestors remain. What they lack is protection from the authorities.

“They should be the ones to say what form of development they need and to define the destiny of the next generations of indigenous people. Taking indigenous people away from their lands and forests is not just a recipe for disaster, but a violation of their human rights.

“There is no way to justify the long-term impact on their children’s future. It leaves them at high risk of falling prey to forced migration and other forms of human exploitation,” Siti, who is also a lawyer, said.

Failed top-down government stewardship

Yogeswaran Subramaniam from the Bar’s committee on Orang Asli Rights also questioned how the indigenous people could change their culture of socio-economic dependence if they remained under the “failed top-down stewardship of the government”.

“This stewardship of more than 60 years, which means government control over the ‘protection, well-being and advancement’ of all aspects of Orang Asli life, including their ancestral lands, has failed to uplift the Orang Asli socio-economically to the level enjoyed by other sections of society.

“How do the Orang Asli improve themselves when the very platform upon which their well-being is dependent, meaning their traditional lands, are taken away from them or prohibited from their use?

“Pushing the buck to the Orang Asli to come up with business plans and land improvements before assistance is not particularly helpful and in many ways, putting the cart before the horse,” Yogeswaran, a lawyer, said.

Like Siti, he too urged the federal government to “stop the rot” of Orang Asli lands being taken away under state purview, and work alongside the indigenous tribes to “optimise positive socio-economic outcomes” in Orang Asli lands.

The Center for Orang Asli Concerns coordinator Colin Nicholas said Faizal was making a common mistake by assuming all Orang Asli leaders were only dependent on government assistance and could not get things done on their own.

“Many other Orang Asli communities have embarked on programmes to improve themselves, and the successful ones have done so invariably because they did not receive government help.

“On the contrary, it is usually the government’s activities, policies and capitalist-oriented programmes that have pushed some Orang Asli communities to the margins,” he said.