Malaysian govt settles with indigenous families after 5 children died in 2015

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian govt settles with indigenous families after 5 children died in 2015 The families of seven Indigenous Orang Asli children, accompanied by their lawyers, celebrate after the government agreed to an out-of-court settlement at the High Court in Kota Bahru, Kelantan, Malaysia, July 24, 2023.
Courtesy of Siti Kasim

The families of seven children from the Orang Asli indigenous tribe who went missing for weeks in the jungle – with five later found dead – will receive the majority of a 1.41 million ringgit (U.S. $308,905) legal settlement from the government and a security company, their lawyer said Tuesday.

The out-of-court settlement was agreed to before a negligence lawsuit was to be heard on Monday in the Kota Bahru High Court in Kelantan, Malaysia, attorney Gurdial Singh Nijar said.

“We held several negotiations before the hearing,” Gurdial told BenarNews. “All parties agreed that the government and the security company will pay the sum … to the families of the Orang Asli children.”

In 2015, the students of SK Tohoi – between the ages of 7 and 12 – disappeared after fleeing their boarding school in Gua Musang. The one boy and six girls apparently feared punishment for swimming in a nearby river without permission after some older students allegedly had been beaten by a teacher for doing the same thing.

After a 47-day search and rescue effort, Noreen Yaakob, 11, and Miksudiar Aluj, 12, were found weak and emaciated on a riverbank on Oct. 19, 2015. The five others died in the jungle but the remains of only four were recovered.

The case shocked Malaysia and highlighted what rights activists said is long-standing mistreatment of the indigenous community.

“Orang Asli” is a Malay term translating to “original people,” or “native people” of Peninsula Malaysia.

The families filed negligence suits in 2018 against the government, naming several government departments and the school as defendants, seeking justice for the loss of their children and the emotional trauma they endured.

The plaintiffs’ statement obtained by BenarNews alleges negligence on the part of the school’s warden and other staff for failing to take necessary care to prevent the students from leaving the hostel.

“Wardens were appointed to look after the safety and welfare of the student boarders,” the statement said. 

The defendants’ lawyers did not immediately reply to a BenarNews request for comment.

‘Definitely priceless’

Siti Kasim, a lawyer and Orang Asli activist who was expected to be the first witness in the trial, said the settlement would provide closure for the families. 

“Life is definitely priceless, no matter what the compensation amount is, it will never be able to compensate for the death of their children,” she told BenarNews. “In a way, there is some justice done regarding the negligence toward the Orang Asli, committed by the authorities concerned.”

Despite the government refusing to explicitly accept liability for the tragedy, the agreement to pay compensation signifies an acknowledgment of its mistake, Siti said.

The families are to equally share 1.2 million ringgit ($263,000) from the government. Gurdial said the agreement includes 60,000 ringgit ($13,155) for legal costs and 150,000 ringgit ($32,876) from the security company named in the lawsuit, bringing the total to 1.41 million ringgit.

Malaysian media reported that the government in its defense statement argued the children were partly responsible for their deaths, citing the legal maxim “volenti non fit injuria,” implying they had placed themselves in a dangerous situation.

In 2015, Kasthuri Patto, a member of parliament, questioned the government’s handling of the incident.

She said the families were not officially informed by school authorities that their children were missing and instead found out from the security guards at the hostel, adding authorities would not allow them to conduct their own search efforts.

An estimated 178,197 Orang Asli lived in Peninsular Malaysia in 2021, according to the latest data from the Department of Orang Asli Development (Jakoa).

Despite the settlement, Siti said the school system for Orang Asli children had not changed over the past eight years.

“They still have to go to boarding school at 7 years old when recommendations have been made that they should be taught in their own village between the ages of 7 and 10,” she said. “Teachers should be knowledgeable about their language to facilitate better understanding for these children. Unfortunately, nothing has happened. 

“The biggest culprit here is the Jakoa – this department should be looking after the welfare of the Orang Asli, but instead, they have become an ally of the government and a vehicle for controlling them.”

Jakoa Director Sapiah Mohd Nor said the department respects the court’s decision without elaborating.


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