2 Orang Asli Villages Sue Malaysian State Over ‘Ancestral Land’

Ray Sherman and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
2021-03-12
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2 Orang Asli Villages Sue Malaysian State Over ‘Ancestral Land’ An indigenous Orang Asli woman in Kampung Aur, a village along a river in Malaysia’s Taman Negra National Park, reaches out to her pet “Toek,” Aug. 30, 2018.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Indigenous Orang Asli people who live in two villages in Kelantan are suing the government of the northern Malaysian state for allegedly allowing firms to run mining, logging and plantation operations on what they say are their ancestral lands.

Around 200 families have lost their livelihoods because of the alleged encroachment by such operations on some 100 acres since 2015, Ahak Uda, one of three Orang Asli plaintiffs, told BenarNews about the lawsuit filed on Thursday.

The villagers want the court to declare that they hold customary – or ancestral – rights to the land, Rajesh Nagarajan, one of their lawyers, told BenarNews.  

“We have previously discussed with state government agencies, as well as the state government and even the late chief minister Nik [Abdul] Aziz Nik Mat, but they do not care about customary land,” Ahak Uda told BenarNews, referring to Kelantan’s former chief minister who died in 2015.

“To me, if talking does not bring you anywhere, it’s a waste of time. If we write a letter, they might just roll it up, burn it, or throw it in the trash can. So now we are filing a lawsuit.”

Uda said he and his fellow activists from the Orang Asli Network in Kelantan’s Gua Musang district had yet to meet Ahmad Yaakob, the current chief minister, despite writing letters to his office and taking action such as setting up blockades near companies’ operations on the villagers’ land.

Therefore, he and two other Orang Asli, on behalf of the residents of Kampung Kelaik and Kampung Cabil, filed a civil suit through lawyers in the Kota Bharu High Court, Ahak Uda said.

In their lawsuit, the villagers also want licenses granted to the firms, which run the various commercial operations, declared illegal and therefore voided, Nagarajan said.

And pending such a declaration, the Orang Asli villagers are seeking an injunction to stop all operations on the land.

The villagers have named the Kelantan state government, the state’s Land and Mines Department and Forestry Department, the Orang Asli Development Department, and 10 companies as respondents in their lawsuit.

BenarNews repeatedly contacted two state government officials in charge of land, agricultural and environment, via email and phone, but did not get an immediate response.

The Kelantan state government was also sued by the then-federal government in January 2019, for alleged intrusions and violations of rights of Orang Asli people’s lands in Pos Simpor, which is also in Gua Musang.

It was an unprecedented move, because until then, such cases had only be filed by non-governmental parties, or Orang Asli themselves.

In August 2019, the Kota Bahru High Court dismissed the Kelantan government’s application to strike out the suit, state-run Bernama news agency reported.

And last October, the Court of Appeals adjourned by a month a hearing on another state appeal to end the federal suit, Free Malaysia Today reported.

‘They have destroyed our ancestors’ graves’

Orang Asli are the indigenous minority people of Peninsular Malaysia; there are a few thousand in southern Thailand as well.

“Orang Asli” is a Malay term that translates to “original people,” or “native people,” or “first people.” What these indigenous people call customary land are lands passed on to them from their ancestors who settled them some 4,000 years ago.

In 2010, there were around 178,000 Orang Asli in Malaysia, according to the Center for Orang Asli Concerns.

The Orang Asli in these villages said many parties during the past six years had encroached on their land for durian and oil palm cultivation, in addition to mining and logging activities, the law firm said in a statement.

The lands these Orang Asli inherited from their ancestors have been their source of livelihood for generations, a supporting affidavit filed along with the lawsuit said.

“The encroachment has almost completely destroyed the Ipoh tree, which is used to make poison for darts in ‘sumpit,’ which we have used for generations to hunt,” the affidavit said, referring to a Malaysian blowgun.

“It has also contaminated our water sources, and destroyed the graves of our ancestors.”

Ahak Uda said that before the alleged large-scale encroachment, the Orang Asli in the two villages were self-sufficient.

“It was easy for us to find food before the encroachment. You see, our market is the forest. We pick our vegetables from the land, our meat too. We hunt and catch frogs, monkeys, boar, but now our resources are depleting,” he said.

“As for the financial aspect, we depended on certain types of woods, such as Agarwood and the Manau tree which is like bamboo. But due to the encroachment it is becoming difficult for us to find these types of wood and bamboo, which are the source of our income.”

Orang Asli considered ‘trespassers’

The Orang Asli villagers are seeking ancestral land rights enshrined in the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954, attorney Nagarajan said.

He was referring specifically to two sections in the act, which say that the state can declare any area predominantly or exclusively inhabited by aborigines to be an aboriginal area or reserve.

In essence, the Orang Asli have to rely on the state government, as land is a state subject in Malaysia.

“A plot of land can only be declared as native ancestral land by the state government, but unfortunately, they do not bother to gazette any land as ancestral land. So, the Orang Asli are basically considered trespassers on state land,” Nagarajan told BenarNews.

For instance, the logging and mining companies that are operating on these so-called ancestral lands have licenses from the Kelantan government to do so. Legally, the companies’ operations are sound.

“In that sense, this particular civil suit is being undertaken to compel the state government to declare the land as ancestral land,” Nagarajan said.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, commonly called Suhakam, said indigenous people in the country have been suffering for a long time because of the ancestral land-rights issue, said Jerald Joseph, one of the commissioners.

“The rate of ancestral land recognition is very low even 60 years after independence,” Joseph told BenarNews.

Going to court, therefore, seems like a shorter process than waiting for more than 60 years.

Last year, some Orang Asli in southern Johor state won a significant victory related to ancestral land rights in a case they had filed 15 years previously.

The Johor High Court ordered the state government to pay a group of the indigenous people from the Seletar tribe 5.2 million ringgit (U.S. $1.26 million) as compensation for relocating them from their ancestral land in 1993.

The court also ordered Johor to classify the land they lived on at the time as an Orang Asli settlement.

In 2010, Orang Asli members of the Temuan tribe won 6.5 million ringgit ($1.57 million) in a settlement with highway authorities for forcibly taking away their ancestral land for road development, the Associated Press reported at the time. That settlement also took 15 years to achieve.

For the Orang Asli, their land is akin to God, Ahak Uda said.

“This, the forest and the lands, are treasure,” he said.

“We should care for it. We will not allow the destruction of this treasure.”

Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

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