Don’t let religion stand in the way of helping Orang Asli

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Efforts to help the Orang Asli and Orang Asal communities have long been complicated by the uneasy relationship between Christian and Muslim groups. Some Muslims have accused Christians of carrying out dubious missionary work and some Christians – as well as a few other quarters – have accused Muslims of converting these people by force and sometimes even without their knowledge.

This back-and-forth slinging of accusations makes it tricky for organisations that want to help develop the native communities without any religious agenda.

Recently, Salor Assemblyman Husam Musa confronted this dilemma openly when he criticised those who had alleged that Christian missionaries were the hidden hands behind the Orang Asli blockades to prevent logging in Gua Musang. He asserted that the Orang Asli were defending their livelihood.

“So we are afraid to go and see what is happening,” he said. “If we go, we are branded as tools of Christians.” He asked whether this was the attitude the Kelantan government had adopted.

He said such claims only served to hide the problems faced by the Orang Asli villagers.

Any sensible observer would find it easy to agree with Husam. Never mind the religious power struggles, the Orang Asli need to protect their land from the rampant logging threatening their livelihood, and as such need all the help they can get.

How exactly is helping the Orang Asli to stay alive a religious ploy? It’s certainly a religious obligation, but one must question the narrow-mindedness of those who see altruism as trickery.

That said, to avoid touching the fanatics’ sensitivities, all parties interested in aiding the Orang Asli could perhaps consider working in collaboration, especially if they are religious organisations. It would work wonders for national unity if Christian and Muslim organisations banded together to look into safeguarding the interests of the Orang Asli. They could state their intentions and explain their activities clearly to the press and all interested observers, just to avoid being accused of playing into any religious conspiracy.

The Orang Asli’s current woes have nothing to do with their choice of a religion. For example, Husam noted that the areas in Gua Musang that he visited had been affected by logging activities that had gone on for seven years. These activities included those carried out by companies linked to the Kelantan Government.

He said the state government had allowed the loggers to extract timber and the loggers had “picked the area clean”. Even graves had been cleared for a plantation site, he alleged.

“When the big trees at the Orang Asli settlement were cut down, they remained quiet,” he said. “But after their farms and graves were cleared, they started to rise up and set up blockades.”

This is no longer a matter of religious interests and the numbers game alone. This concerns livelihoods. The rampant logging of these forests have, according to Orang Asli representatives, forced them into relying on subsistence farming and food supplies from the outside.

One has to ask a question: What do the naysayers stand to gain by allowing logging to continue in the area? Considering how weak their argument for religion really is, it stands to reason that their interests may be less altruistic than they would like us to believe.