Activist denounces Perak MB’s take on Orang Asli land

Villagers in Tasik Cunex, Gerik, protesting against what they call encroachments into the jungle near their settlement. (Pic courtesy of Peka)

PETALING JAYA: An activist for Orang Asli rights has accused the Perak government of deliberately refusing to recognise the aboriginal right to customary land.

Tijah Yok Chopil, in a response to the Perak menteri besar’s statement that the state constitution does not provide for such land, said the government could not be unaware of the existence of customary land which the Orang Asli had been passing down from generation to generation in a custom practised before the arrival in Malaysia of any other ethnic group.

“We are not claiming any new land,” she told FMT. “Our lands have been passed down from one generation to another for millennia.

“The authorities have to recognise us as the natives of the land with rights. But it’s easier for them to deny that customary land exists and not include this fact in the constitution.”

In Perak, according to Tijah, customary land is divided into 21 zones and a member of an Orang Asli community would not encroach into an area belonging to another community.

She said this ruling was so strictly observed that if a marriage between persons of different areas were to end in a divorce, neither the woman nor the man could claim any right to the other’s customary land.

Each of the 21 zones is divided into three areas: a residential area, an area where food is sourced and an area of the forest which is allowed to heal after years of being exploited as a food source.

Tijah alleged that the government, since independence, had not included the Orang Asli in its development plans, resulting in their being seen as squatters on their own land.

She said Orang Asli representations made numerous attempts to speak to the Barisan Nasional government over land issues but were ignored.

“There needs to be political will from the current government to look into our rights,” she said. “But the way we see it, the Pakatan Harapan government also does not have the political will.”

Recently, following criticism of logging activities said to have been carried out in areas that the Orang Asli regard as customary land, Perak Menteri Besar Ahmad Faizal Azumu said the state constitution did not recognise any land as customary land for Orang Asli or any other group.

Tijah said Orang Asli land, unlike land reserved for a specific race or purpose after independence, had been customary land since time immemorial.

On May 16, the Malaysian Bar voiced disappointment over the Perak government’s decision to demolish a blockade set up by the Kampung Tasik Cunex Gerik Orang Asli community to protect land claimed to be within its customary territory against the encroachment of loggers.

Juli Udo, the director-general of the Federal Department of Orang Asli Development, was reported as defending the blockade, saying it was “not to oppose development planned by the state government” but to “defend ancestral land, which has been passed down for millennia”.

Yesterday, reacting to the Perak menteri besar’s statement, DAP legal bureau chairman Ramkarpal Singh said there could be no doubt that the Orang Asli had both common law and statutory proprietary rights under the Aborigines Peoples Act.

He noted that the constitution mandates proper compensation to be made to those with such rights who are evicted from their land.

He said common law and established case law recognised the customary title of the Orang Asli and that they might well have customary title of a permanent nature, entitling them to adequate compensation in the event of eviction.

He also said state governments had a fiduciary duty to protect Orang Asli land rights by gazetting areas known to be occupied by them since time immemorial. Failure to do so could result in legal action against the governments, he added.