How would you like it, if strangers trespassed onto your property, uprooted your fruit trees, gouged up your lawn, and killed your pets? Would you keep quiet, if the same strangers desecrated your ancestral graves?
What would you do, if teachers threatened your children with severe beatings, or made them hold chairs above their heads for hours on end in the hot sun, as punishment? What if the same teachers fed maggot-infested food to your children, to teach them a lesson?
You would boil with rage, but how many are aware that this is what many Orang Asli families endure on a daily basis?
Exactly two years ago, today, seven Orang Asli children from Pos Tohoi, about 50 km from Gua Musang, went missing from their school.
There were six girls – Mirsudiar Aluj, 11; Norieen, 10; Ika Ayel, 9; Sasa Sobrie, 8; Linda Rosli, 8; Juvina David, 7; and one boy, eight-year-old Haikal Yaacob.
The remotely located Pos Tohoi is only accessible by 4WD vehicles.
Urbanites would not dream of sending their seven-year-old children to boarding school, but the Orang Asli children, who live in small villages deep in the interiors, have no choice, for now. To receive an education, Orang Asli children have to go to a boarding school.
The parents of the missing children were not informed of their disappearance until a few days after they ran away. The authorities delayed the “Search and Rescue mission”, because they believed that the parents were hiding the children. Some parents even received letters, containing the threat to expel the children, if they did not return to school.
Seven weeks after the disappearance, two children were found close to death a few hundred yards from the hostel. The others had died.
Stories soon emerged of the ill-treatment of those Orang Asli children. They had been threatened with severe beatings, because they wanted to swim in a nearby river at the weekend. Why could the teachers not accompany them?
Older pupils said teachers were often absent from class and left the children to their own devices. So, have the staff, who were responsible for the shoddy treatment of the children, been fired or punished? Despite the children’s complaints, the ministry has refused to address the allegations.
Deputy Minister, Azizah Mohd Dun, of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, claimed, “The authorities never stopped looking for those seven children”. Few believed her.
When two children were found, Azizah said that her ministry would offer counselling and monetary aid to the families, “if these were needed” – a rather arrogant and uncaring statement.
The director of the Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA), Hasnan Hassan, claimed that every single sen of the RM80 million allocation was spent on uplifting the lives of the Orang Asli. Ironically, his deputy has been charged with accepting a RM17,000 bribe in exchange for awarding lucrative Orang Asli projects.
So how rife is corruption in JAKOA? A few years ago, we were shocked to read about medicine not being distributed to the Orang Asli community in Selangor.
Soon after the tragedy which befell the seven Orang Asli children from Pos Tohoi, the parents of the affected community were invited to a dialogue with the education ministry and state officials.
The government representatives refused to comment when asked about the follow-up action after the tragedy. One even had the audacity to say, that the children disappeared because it was “an act of God”.
Two years later, and we still do not know what remedial measures have been taken to protect Orang Asli children.
Have the various ministries, who failed to find the children, learnt from this terrible tragedy?
More importantly, have the guilty teachers, including the headmaster and the warden, been punished? Has anyone been held responsible? Did the children die in vain?
Would you choose to send your children to this school or others like it?
Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.
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