Malaysian authorities Tuesday detained 16 indigenous people and two journalists, and later released them, after dismantling a blockade set up by protestors against logging in the small town of Gua Musang in Kelantan state.
The two journalists, Jules Ong and Chitoo, Malaysians working as freelancers for Singapore-based Channel News Asia (CNA), were released Tuesday evening, according to activists. The 16 others were released earlier in the day.
“Actions of the arrested indigenous people are against the provision of the National Forestry Act 1984 (Amendment 1993) because the status of the areas where they had built those blockades are Federal Reserve Forest and not their actual village,” the Forestry Department of Kelantan said in a statement.
Ong is a Malaysian freelance television director producing a documentary on deforestation in Kelantan, according to CNA.
“Channel News Asia came to know of his arrest from Malaysian media reports. Channel News Asia, which operates across the whole of Asia, will co-operate fully with any official investigation,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
A journalist sits handcuffed after being detained by forestry department officials, Jan. 24, 2017. [Courtesy of Siti Kassim]
The detentions followed similar action on Monday, when five people were detained and blockades at Simpang Petei, Gua Musang were removed. All were released on the same day, according to media reports.
Indigenous groups began setting up blockades in the Balah Forest Reserve in Gua Musang in September to force state officials to stop granting licenses to clear timber in the area.
At the time, members of the Kelantan Network of Orang Asli Villages set up a blockade in an area they claim as their ancestral land. They rebuilt it after a tense standoff with loggers in which shots were fired, according to the activists – a claim denied by a police official.
Between November and December, 54 indigenous people were taken into custody for setting up blockades, according to the forestry department. Following their release, they erected another blockade.
The department said it would keep combatting encroachment on forests by illegal loggers and that is has expanded its role to help the community through the Indigenous Welfare Department. About 133 officers from the department and other authorities have been involved in efforts since Monday.
“The department would like to inform that a number of meetings with leaders of indigenous people … were held on Jan. 10 and Jan. 19 and the responses were positive,” it said in its statement.
“Nevertheless, some indigenous people have to respect existing laws under the state authority and should not be too easily duped and influenced by outsiders because this is not the way to resolve the indigenous claims.”
Human rights body reacts
On Tuesday, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) said it was appalled that the department had demolished the blockade set up to protect the forests and customary land.
SUHAKAM chairman Razali Ismail said he was deeply concerned that this “marginalized and vulnerable community who are among Malaysia’s poorest minority” have been targets of long-standing discrimination.
“These blockades are a symbol of protest by them, opposing unrestrained commercialization of the forests, which violates the many established principles on business and human rights, such as the duty of the state to protect, and [it is the] duty of businesses to respect the human rights of the Orang Asli,” he said. “Orang Asli” is the term used for the indigenous people in Malaysia who comprise about 12 percent of the country’s 31 million people.