An appeal from Malaysia's 'forgotten people'

Issue 

By Alberto Gomes

We are almost half way through the International Year of Indigenous Peoples, but for some Jahai, a Semang aboriginal people in the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan, the year is turning out to be a bad one. As a result of an attempt to defend their land, nine Jahai men have been charged and detained for the alleged killing of three Malays on April 26.

The deceased were among five or six Malays from a village about 60 kilometres away who visited the Jahai settlement with the intention of evicting the Jahai on the grounds that they had bought the land.

The Jahai understandably refused to agree to the visitors' demands and suggested that the Malays consult the Department of Aboriginal Affairs about the matter. A scuffle resulting in the fatalities broke out after the Jahai were abused and assaulted and when one Jahai was attacked and injured by a Malay armed with a sickle.

Eleven Jahai, almost all the men in the hamlet of about 50, were promptly arrested. After the initial court hearings, two were discharged and nine were charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder. A bail of 45,000 ringgit ($30,000) was set, but of course the people were unable to raise the money.

The Independent Centre of Orang Asli (aboriginal) Concerns (COAC) a Malaysian NGO which has performed admirably in directing public attention to Orang Asli woes and issues, has taken an active interest in the matter. It has arranged legal representation for the Jahai and is in the process of raising funds for the bail.

The government's Department of Aboriginal Affairs (JOA — Jabatan Orang Asli) tried to appoint lawyers to represent the Jahai and to reject the COAC lawyers. It also failed to provide an interpreter at one of the early hearings.

Court officials tried to trick some of the men into pleading guilty, according to an NGO activist present at the hearing: "We are almost certain that they had been advised by the police and the JOA to do so, so as to close the case and thus ... protect the JOA from inquiry into its official role of [ensuring the] protection, well-being and advancement of the Orang Asli".

I have been involved with the Jahai as an anthropologist since 1975, during which time I have made five field visits. I know all the Jahai involved in the incident personally and I am shocked and dismayed by this news. This event contradicts the non-

violent image of the Semang which is well documented in anthropological accounts and which is confirmed by everyone I know who has had dealings with the people.

This unfortunate incident would not have occurred if the authorities had seriously considered the almost incessant complaints of the Jahai that they were being harassed by Malay peasants who had moved closer to the settlement since the late 1970s. In my last visit in April 1988, several Jahai complained to me of losing land and fruit tree holdings to Malays. They have also told of several cases of harassment and exploitation, which I conveyed to the JOA.

In 1972 Jahai and other Semang from several localities in the district of Tanah Merah in Kelantan were enticed by the JOA to leave their homes and reside in a government-sponsored settlement.

Several developments were implemented, but none were particularly successful nor beneficial to the Semang. The resettlement, however, benefited logging companies and Malay settlers. The logging companies promptly ventured into the areas vacated by the Semang, and by 1988 almost all the forest in the vicinity had been logged. The land cleared of forest was then allocated for Malay settlement as part of government land development schemes. In short, the Semang were the victims of progress of others.

I appeal to you to help out in any way you can. The immediate need is for funds to cover the bail and other legal costs. If you wish to make a donation, please address your cheque or money order to Orang

Asli Fund and send it to: Orang Asli Fund, C/- Malaysia Solidarity Group, Students Representative Council, La Trobe University, Bundoora Vic 3083.

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