Malaysia: Indigenous people attacked for protecting forests

January 30, 2017
The five arrested activists (from left): Manglo Tegau, Majid Along, Arif Pandak, Harun Adah & Anjang Rangit. Photo: Network of Orang Asli Villages in Kelantan (JKOAK).

Five Orang Asli (indigenous) activists from Gua Musang in Malaysia who were blockading forests from illegal logging operations were arrested on January 23.

Forestry officials from the state of Kelantan — which is governed by the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) — destroyed several Orang Asli blockades. This was despite the fact that on January 17 a magistrate court had cancelled the application by the logging company concerned and declared that Orang Asli have rights over their customary native land.

The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) has been actively supporting the Orang Asli activists. On January 25, the PSM joined a delegation that persuaded the official Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) to investigate this outrage.

Green Left Weekly interviewed Sivarajan Arumugam, the secretary general of PSM, about the background to these latest attacks on the Orang Asli.

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What is the background to the Orang Asli blockades at Gua Musang? When and why were they set up by the local indigenous communities?

The Orang Asli communities in Peninsular Malaysia have been long fighting encroachments on their native customary land. There have been many instances of land grabbing by private enterprises licensed by the state government. There are even government projects like building of highways and opening up the Orang Asli forest reserves for development.

In the state of Kelantan, which is located in the north east of Peninsular Malaysia, deforestation and logging activities have been rampant since 2000.

Kelantan is ruled by one of the federal opposition parties, PAS. Being an opposition state, the federal central government of Malaysia deprives the state of its due royalty payments from its offshore oil explorations.

Denied oil royalties, the Kelantan government has turned to raising funds from giving out concession licences for logging, commercial farming, mining and property development on forest reserves and Orang Asli native customary lands.

Having full knowledge of several indigenous villages in the Gua Musang district, the Kelantan government has deliberately ignored its duty to gazette the indigenous native customary land. While the area remained ungazetted, the Orang Asli rights in the land were in serious jeopardy and this enabled the Kelantan government to alienate their land for commercial projects.

Realising their native customary lands were being encroached at an alarming rate, the Orang Asli communities established the Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Kelantan (Network of Orang Asli Villages) to fight for their rights. The communities mapped out clearly their native customary borders based upon their cultural heritage, graves of their forefathers, rivers, fruit farms, etc. They were able to quantify the extent of the encroachment that has taken place.

The Orang Asli communities made various attempts to have discussions and appeal to the state authorities to stop the encroachment, but the private projects kept going. As a last resort, the Orang Asli communities organised themselves to initiate blockades to stop the logging companies trucks from leaving the forest with their logs in September.

What is the role of the federal Barisan Nasional (BN) government in this matter?

Even after the huge floods in 2014 in the state due to uncontrolled deforestation, the state government has not reviewed its policies and has continued to more drastically exploit its natural resources and victimise the Orang Asli community. The BN federal government, too, has ignored the rights of indigenous communities in the states of Pahang, Johor, Sabah and Sarawak. Thus, they are no better.

But both PAS-led Kelantan government and the federal BN government are exploiting the issue for their own political interest.

The PAS government has labelled those criticising its policies on Orang Asli as “anti-Islam forces” planning to take down an Islamic party-led state government.

Meanwhile, the BN federal government is capitalising on the issue, by giving full media coverage to shame the Kelantan PAS government.

The PSM is actively involved in supporting the Orang Asli in Gua Musang, but what is the political attitude of the other opposition parties? And what have they done about these latest attacks?

Opposition parties in the Pakatan Harapan coalition also seek to gain political mileage from the issue. After the PSM had meetings with the communities, organising them, members of the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition immediately arranged a visit to the Orang Asli villages.

It’s a very hypocritical situation, especially for the PAS breakaway party, AMANAH, now currently in the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition. They were previously PAS members, and have helped run the Kelantan state for more than 20 years.

In that time, they never lifted a finger to ensure that the Orang Asli native customary land were gazetted. Now after breaking away from PAS, they turn around to criticise their old party for its treatment of Orang Asli.

The same can be said for the new Mahathir-led opposition party BERSATU, which recently announced its alliance with the opposition. It was during former PM Mahathir Mohamed’s time in government that the failed Bakun Dam project was built, displacing thousands of indigenous communities in the state of Sarawak.

How can people around the world give solidarity to these embattled Indigenous communities in Malaysia?

As we have seen for the solidarity shown by the international community in support of the struggle against the Dakota pipeline in the US on native land, we hope that the news about the struggles of our Orang Asli, the indigenous communities of Peninsular Malaysia, will be shared as much as possible.

The state has been the centre of this controversy, but we should not ignore the role of the logging companies, destroying the livelihood of indigenous communities for their profits.

Exports of Malaysian logs and wood products to Australia, Japan, Europe need to be scrutinised. We need to build the pressure in importing countries to ensure that no logs and wood products extracted from native customary land of Orang Asli are accepted in your respective countries.

Your local NGOs and political parties can compel industries to expose their source of logs and wood products and declare that the logs were not sourced by displacing indigenous communities.

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