Seeking errant Orang Asli groups

Mustafa K. Anuar

The Orang Asli consider their customary land to be integral to their survival, culture, and history. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, November 8, 2023.

* Commentary by Mustafa K. Anuar

IT is understandable that Orang Asli communities are eager to learn which civil society groups, supposedly representing them, have allegedly caused issues related to land matters in order to ensure a continuous flow of funding for their organisations.

Sapiah Mohd Nor, director-general of the Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa), recently said that certain Orang Asli NGOs had been instigated to create conflicts over land issues.

Such an allegation should be considered serious enough for Sapiah to file a police report, as demanded by Orang Asli Senator Ajis Sitin.

This is concerning because unless Sapiah discloses the identities of the NGOs, all civil society groups related to the Orang Asli would be under suspicion.

Lack of clarity on the matter would unfairly cast doubt on all parties involved, especially the Orang Asli NGOs that have been diligently working for the benefit of the communities, particularly in land-related matters.

To reiterate, if there are indeed NGOs that are engaged in such manipulation, they should be named to shed light on their actions, which could cause divisions within the communities.

Any attempt to fuel disputes and disunity among the Orang Asli communities over land issues is clearly counterproductive and diverts attention from other important matters such as food security, culture, health, and education.

As it stands, some members of the broader society hold a distorted view of the Orang Asli as a collective that is primitive and a hindrance to the nation’s progress, particularly concerning the sensitive issue of transforming their customary lands into commercial ventures.

Such a misconception does not do justice to the Orang Asli communities and their NGOs, which consider their customary land as integral to their survival, culture, and history.

Their collective concern for the preservation of flora, fauna, and forests serves as a valuable alert and barometer for environmentalists and concerned Malaysians regarding unchecked deforestation and the erosion of biodiversity associated with the issue of climate change.

The indigenous people of the country are not exaggerating when they insist that the forest is their lifeblood.

As mentioned above, it is external parties, whether private corporations or the state, that have encroached upon Orang Asli’s customary land, thus interfering with their culture and livelihoods in the name of development.

This is why Orang Asli communities are worried about recent proposals in Kelantan to alter development plans for environmentally sensitive areas.

To provide a broader perspective, indigenous people worldwide have faced a dark and often violent history of land appropriation in regions like North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Many of them have been displaced, and their cultures and livelihoods have suffered varying degrees of destruction.

Orang Asli communities have a valid reason to be cautious when certain commercial or industrial interests come knocking on their door, potentially leading to the destruction of their natural habitat.

Orang Asli-related civil society organisations do not need to sow discord to justify their funding. The communities as a whole face enough challenges to warrant the existence of these NGOs.

If necessary, a distinction should be made between the credible and less credible organisations. Sapiah’s assistance is required here. – November 8, 2023.

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