Despite change in Putrajaya, it’s same old for Orang Asli, say activists

The Orang Asli in Pos Tohoi, Gua Musang, put up a banner demanding recognition of their customary land during a visit by deputy rural minister R Sivarasa on Aug 2. (Bernama pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: Activists championing the rights of the Orang Asli communities in Malaysia say aboriginal issues have yet to be resolved despite the change in government.

Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil.

Environmentalist Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil, who heads Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (Peka), said the new government ought to do better.

“Actually, we have failed tremendously to help the Orang Asli. If you expect the (federal) government to help them, it’s not going to happen.

“I tried, you know. I brought up five busloads of Orang Asli to meet with Tun (Dr Mahathir Mohamad), and Tun said, which is so frustrating, ‘Well, we can’t do anything because it’s a state matter’.

“To me, if there’s a will, there’s a way. Whether it’s a new government, to me it’s just a change of logos, but the thinking, the way they work, is still same old, same old.”

For the past two years, a group of Orang Asli have been putting up blockades near their native settlements in Gua Musang, Kelantan, to keep timber loggers and planters out of what they claimed was their customary land.

Customary law protects Orang Asli native land against encroachment.

The PAS-led Kelantan administration, however, has long insisted that the land claimed by the Orang Asli belonged to the state government and it had since issued licences for logging activities.

In August, over 200 Forestry Department and enforcement officers removed a blockade set up by the Temiar Orang Asli. A group of Orang Asli then met with the prime minister to seek federal intervention, to which Mahathir said a solution would be sought.

Shariffa Sabrina said the Orang Asli in Gua Musang and other parts of Kelantan were not the only ones who were “suffering” as those in Perak had also put up blockades to stop “rampant logging” in the state.

“The only thing I can say now is that we have to go to court and fight. That’s it.

“(There is) no way we can ask the government to help. If you expect us to talk to the politicians, the MBs (menteris besar), we have sent numerous letters. We have shared a lot of stories on our Facebook and social media.

“In terms of political will, I would say weak and zero.”

Meanwhile, freelance journalist and activist Jules Rahman Ong, who has documented the plight of Orang Asli, said Putrajaya often did not want to intervene over land issues as it was under state purview.

Jules Rahman Ong.

“They say their hands are tied and land matters are state matters,” he said, adding that even though the federal forestry department provided general policies, it was up to the state forestry department to enforce them.

“I can’t say that things are getting better under the new government, even though they seem to be more responsive; the ministers and deputy ministers have gone to visit the blockades.”

He said the meeting between a group of Orang Asli and the prime minister did not achieve anything other than a verbal agreement to look into their plight.

“Nothing in black and white but this government seems to be responsive to look into the matter. Still a long way to go, I think.”

A durian plantation company had reportedly torn down a barricade set up by the Temiar community this year.

Rural Development Deputy Minister R Sivarasa visited the site of the blockade in August and promised to resolve the issue.

AA Saha Deva.

Environmental lawyer AA Saha Deva said Attorney-General Tommy Thomas had indicated to him that the latter was in favour of “reviewing as a whole” the laws relating to the Orang Asli, including the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954.

“Orang Asli affairs have now been shifted to the Prime Minister’s Department, and I think (P) Waytha Moorthy is the minister in charge. (But) again you come back to the same problem.

“You still have to resolve it at the state level. The problems they face now… are the same problems (we used to face before this).”

Some laws which concern the Orang Asli are the National Land Code 1965, Land Conservation Act 1960, Protection of Wildlife Act 1972, National Parks Act 1980, and most importantly the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954.

The Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 provides for the setting up and establishment of the Orang Asli reserve land. It was last reviewed in 1974.

Saha Deva, who sits on the Malaysian Bar Council’s human rights and environmental and climate change committees, said the Orang Asli had a deep connection to their land which they rely on to forage for fruits and herbs as well as hunting.

“You can’t deal with them (land issues and the Orang Asli) in isolation”.

The activists were speaking at a talk on customary land rights and environmental protection issues for the Orang Asli by research center Mindset-UNMC at the University of Nottingham’s Kuala Lumpur Teaching Centre.