Don’t wait for more Orang Asli deaths before respecting their rights

Why should we be surprised at the number of deaths in the Orang Asli community in Gua Musang, Kelantan? For decades, the Orang Asli have been marginalised, their rights ignored by successive state governments.

In the past few days, 14 deaths were recorded from the Batek tribe in Kuala Koh. The deaths occurred over the past month but were only recently made public.

Post-mortems have been performed on two bodies so far, with the other 12 to be exhumed to ascertain the cause of death. But the Batek, a semi-nomadic tribe, are very reserved and will leave the village to be buried in the jungle if they fall seriously ill.

Colin Nicholas, the executive director of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, said: “The problem here is not medical but a direct result of what happens when people’s rights to their customary lands are not recognised, and that land is destroyed.

“Just seven to 10 years ago, if you visited them, they were perfectly healthy and psychologically happy. But their land has been taken away, in this case by the Kelantan state government. And their resource base has been destroyed.”

Few urban dwellers understand the root of the problem. The Orang Asli are self-sufficient and live off the land. When the state removes their sources of land and water, it is effectively handing down a death sentence on the community.

When we fall ill, we get our medication from pharmacies or a government clinic. But the Orang Asli source their medicines from the roots and bark of trees and plants. Logging wipes out their source of medication.

Meanwhile, protein is needed to nourish health and ensure strong bones. Our protein is derived from meat which we purchase from the supermarket or raise on our farms. The Orang Asli, though, hunt for theirs. They kill just enough to meet their needs so that the animals are not over hunted. They maintain a good balance with the land. But mining and timber activities are threatening even rivers which are the Orang Asli’s source of fish protein.

Taps are a convenient source of water for our everyday needs, but the Orang Asli take water for cooking, drinking and bathing from rivers and streams. They become seriously ill or suffer from skin diseases because of heavy metal and chemical contamination from activities upriver. Crystal clear rivers have become muddy and polluted because of logging, mining or the clearing of land for plantations.

This week, the health minister visited the sick Orang Asli in hospital and took notice of malnourished Orang Asli children, but malnutrition in the community is nothing new. NGOs and various individuals have highlighted this issue many times, but the political will to help the Orang Asli lasts only as long as the publicity.

Remember the outbreak of “serawan” in the Sungei Kejar area, near Gerik in Perak? This area is part of the Royal Belum forest, just a stone’s throw from a luxury hotel in the jungle reservation. In 2015, the child mortality rate among the 20 families in Sungei Kejar was 50%.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an NGO which works with the Orang Asli said the community in Sungai Kejar was not allowed to fish, farm or hunt.

“They lived off the land for centuries, and their activities were suddenly restricted. As they were unable to receive proper nourishment, their immune systems were affected. The children died from an outbreak of oral thrush.

“Anyone with a lowered immune system easily succumbs to respiratory ailments, which are the easiest to catch.”

In January, Ramli Mohd Nor made history as the first person from the Orang Asli community to become an MP. Today, he is in a strong position to demand that state governments order a swift and detailed investigation into the latest deaths in Kelantan, and to insist that individual states recognise and respect the Orang Asli’s rights to land and their livelihood.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.