Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights

MALAYSIA: Battle Over Indigenous Groups’ Land Rights Shaping Up

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 14 2010 (IPS) - As the tabling in Parliament of a proposed law affecting their ancestral land draws near, Malaysia’s Orang Asli or ‘original people’ are gearing up anew for moves to challenge it.

Earlier this year, about 5,000 Orang Asli, who make up only 0.5 percent of Malaysia’s 27 million people, marched in protest against the pending legislation in Putrajaya, which is this South-east Asian country’s administrative capital.

Instead of softening their stance, however, proponents of the proposed law – which would have the Orang Asli renouncing their ancestral rights over vast tracks of forest and semi-forest land – seem to have ramped up efforts to get it approved.

Copies of the proposed legislation have also yet to be shown to the public, even though lawmakers say it is likely to be scheduled to be tabled in Parliament this December, approved in January, and then enforced by March 2011.

Experts say that once this happens, the country’s indigenous people would lose nearly 80 percent of their customary land acreage, which would be used for new townships, as well as for industrial and recreational development, including factory sites and golf courses.

“There is an unholy haste in enacting this law,” says Ragunath Kesavan, president of the Malaysian Bar Council, which has adopted the Orang Asli and is providing them free advice and extensive legal assistance in their land rights struggle.

“We don’t understand the need for secrecy unless they intend to nullify Orang Asli protest,” adds Kesavan.

“We want to know why we (have not been) consulted before this law is enacted,” prominent Orang Asli leader Tijah Yok Chopil also tells IPS. “If enacted, this law would (take away) our land, destroy our culture and our heritage. We would be forced to eke out a living on small plots of unsustainable land.”

“We live in symbiosis with our forest,” she explains. “The forest sustains us and we in turn take only what we need. Under the new scheme the forest will come under the chainsaw.”

The Orang Asli are considered to be the original inhabitants of peninsular Malaysia, antedating the arrival of ethnic Malays. They comprise 18 tribes, half of whom are still based in or near forests, while some live a semi-nomadic lifestyle.

Nearly 77 percent of the Orang Asli live below the poverty line. According to the government, this is why there is a need for the new law, which will give each of the estimated 30,000 Orang Asli households between 0.8 to 2.02 hectares of land that would be planted with oil palm trees.

Government officials say the proposed law would help Orang Asli settle down in land with cash crops to help them feed their families.

“They can enjoy a modern life, enjoy all the amenities with their own house, cars and television with income from their oil palm,” said Rural Development Minister Shafie Apdal in a recent television interview. “Our policy is for them to be part of mainstream society and enjoy all the benefits of development.”

But the Orang Asli and their supporters are up in arms, describing the move as yet the latest bullying tactic by the government.

In fact, for the last few years, the Orang Asli, in alliance with prominent rights activists, lawyers, and academics, have been pressing the government on several fronts for recognition of their distinct culture and heritage.

They have also been demanding respect for their rights to worship in the way they see fit as against official pressure on them to embrace Islam in this majority Muslim country. In addition, they want the right to manage their own lives instead of being “administered” by the Department of Orang Asli Affairs, which was set up in 1954.

When they staged their protest in Putrajaya in March, the Orang Asli had used the event to deliver a memorandum to Prime Minister Najib Razak asking for a new and fair deal that would include the protection of their ancestral land from destruction, and recognition and perseverance of their culture and heritage.

To the Orang Asli, large areas of the country’s forest land is theirs under their unwritten and uncodified customary law, having been handed down to them by their ancestors.

The government, however, says the forests are state land and open for commercial exploitation, in accordance with common laws inherited from Malaysia’s former British colonial masters.

Yet even though the government continues to refuse to recognise customary rights, Malaysian courts have been siding with the Orang Asli in several cases involving the forced repossession of land by the state.

In September, the High Court in Johor Baru ruled in favour of a local Orang Asli community that the state government had evicted in 2003 from land the indigenous people had occupied for generations.

Just in February, the Court of Appeal handed down a landmark judgement that held customary law as valid, even as it said that the government’s repossession of Orang Asli land in 2001 to build a highway is invalid.

The court also ordered the government to pay the Orang Asli some 35 million ringgit (11.31 million dollars) in damages.

Observers now say the proposed new law might be intended to circumvent the court declaration recognising customary rights, which activists and lawyers want the government to support and translate into a law passed by Parliament.

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