Malaysia: Recognition of the Orang Asli people and the protection of their rights

Tijah Yok Chopil, a fiery and passionate indigenous woman leader from the Semai peoples, is one of the leaders of the Village Network of Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli. Tijah’s passion to fight for the recognition of the Orang Asli people was first sparked when at a young age they were gawked at and laughed at by other children as the Orang Asli children from the Kampung Chang were transported from the settlement to school. By the age of 17, Tijah began acting as a catalyst to empower and unite the Orang Asli and started talking to Orang Asli leaders on the problems faced by their community.

As a young woman, it was difficult to get the men to act in solidarity with her, however, she persevered and eventually men and women together formed the group Sinui Pak Nanuk Sngik (SPNS) (New Life, One Heart) in 1995.  It was through the SPNS that helped the children and the people of the Orang Asli to have classes and community workshops from weaving baskets to paralegal training on land rights. This model then spread to other villages which later on linked 5 states. This movement is now known to be the Village Network of Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli (Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia).

The Village Network has over the years become a powerful force in voicing for Orang Asli rights and through their collective voice and efforts have managed to stave off attempts to acquire several customary territories.

Tijah shared how the rights of the Orang Asli in Malaysia were consistently denied by the Government. Currently the biggest problem faced by the indigenous peoples is the threat to their existence and the disappearance of their ethnic groups. There are currently 18 major ethnic groups in Malaysia and of which only around 150,000 indigenous peoples remain. The alarming decrease can be attributed to the increasing marginalization and non-recognition of IP rights, where indigenous peoples are forced out of their territories and displaced by mega-projects.

Indigenous peoples over the years, especially in the recent 53 years, have been victims of the government’s failure to recognize the following:

  1. Recognition of ancestral and traditional lands and territories: these land areas are not delineated and marked as protected lands of indigenous peoples. These lands, in fact, have been subject to land invasion by the government and corporations without consulting tribal leaders;
  2. Right to self-governance and right to practice indigenous/tribal laws: Indigenous peoples are not given the right to practice their own indigenous/tribal laws and are forced to be part of the “mainstream”;
  3. Right to self-determination: Indigenous peoples are constantly the victims of development plans which only serve to profit corporations and only enrich the capitalist class. Leaving the indigenous peoples bereft of their land and their resources;
  4. Right to access and manage their own natural resources within their ancestral domain: Indigenous peoples are often robbed of their own resources within their ancestral domain and are denied access to sustainably manage their resources; and
  5. Right to their history and cultural heritage: Due to the increasing marginalization and forced evictions due to land invasion and land grabbing, the indigenous peoples are under the threat of losing their history and cultural heritage.

Tijah shared the campaigns and the fight the indigenous peoples against the lack of the government’s recognition of their rights. She touched upon the new amendment to the Peninsular land law that would further affect the rights and resources of indigenous peoples in Peninsular Malaysia. There have been a lot of protests on the ground to reclaim their identity, their land, their resources and their cultural heritage. For the first time, indigenous peoples protested in front of the Prime Minister’s office demanding justice.

Tijah ended her presentation reiterating the will to continue the fight despite the difficulties.  What can we do, what actions can we take in order to support indigenous peoples/community struggles

  1. Continue to fight for the 5 points mentioned above which are (1) Recognition of ancestral and traditional lands and territories; (2) Right to self-governance and right to practice indigenous/tribal laws; (3) Right to self-determination; (4) Right to access and manage their own natural resources within their ancestral domain; and (5) Right to their history and cultural heritage
  2. Increase spaces for linkages for joint action; and
  3. Share information on similar struggles and relevant strategies across the globe