BIDOR, 24 Feb 2009: Orang Asli community leaders in Perak are worried that the state’s recent political developments will signal a return to a disregard of their rights.
“We feel concern and sadness at what happened. Where are we in all this? Will Orang Asli issues, that were hot in the last 10 months, once again be sidelined?” said Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Perak (JKOAP) secretary Tijah Yok Chopil.
Tijah, a Semai, revealed that in the days following the swearing in of the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s Datuk Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir as menteri besar on 6 Feb, several trees in the forest near Kampung Chang, in the outskirts of Bidor, had been marked with red paint for logging purposes.
“There are helicopters flying around, surveying the land,” she said when met here on 14 Feb.
Other Orang Asli leaders in the state who spoke to The Nut Graph said logging activities in Sungai Siput, which were halted and had their permits revoked by the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) state government, have also been renewed.
A sand mining operation upriver from Kampung Pos Bersih, which was stopped only a week before, was restarted on 12 Feb, they added.
On 14 Feb, Tijah chaired a meeting of Semai leaders from 10 separate Orang Asli villages between Tanjung Malim and Ipoh in Kampung Chang, Sungai Gepai, where her village is.
The meeting discussed the fall of the PR state government and the BN takeover of Perak, and its effects on Orang Asli issues.
“For 51 years we have not been treated as citizens, but squatters. In our lands, no one lives there, according to the government,” said Yok Pis Chenadang, a representative from Kampung Pos Bersih.
He was commenting on the fact that Orang Asli are typically seen as nomadic, even though they have been living there “from before the British”.
Tijah Yok Chopil and other members of the Orang Asli community
He explained that while many want to plant commercial crops such as rubber and palm oil, they were prohibited from doing so as the land was officially owned by the state government.
“We are like people hung from the sky, not with our feet on the ground,” Yok Pis added.
Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin’s 10-month administration took proactive measures to address the welfare of Perak’s indigenous peoples.
In 2008, the now embattled menteri besar cancelled logging and plantation activities around Gopeng. The PR state government also announced the return of 900 acres of ancestral land to the Orang Asli of Mukim Teja and Bidor.
Perak’s Orang Asli Taskforce Committee, set up in October 2008 under the PR administration, was also unprecedented.
The body, chaired by senior state exco Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham and including representatives from the Orang Asli community, was designed to get as many Orang Asli territories issued with permanent titles as possible. Geographical and historical surveys of the Orang Asli ancestral lands were carried out with the taskforce’s assistance.
“Since independence, we have never felt like Malaysians. In the 10 months of the Pakatan Rakyat state government, we felt the promise of citizenship begin to be fulfilled,” Tijah, who has been the taskforce’s main liaison officer, said.
She revealed that the PR state government’s overtures were the first time her community had been invited to discuss, negotiate, and air their grouses as equals.
Asked to comment about the possibility of the BN changing its 51-year-old policy on the Orang Asli to adopt the PR’s policies, Tijah said: “We will appreciate that.”
However, Tijah said her community was not confident of that prospect. “We are not mocking, discounting, or threatening them. But we won’t be surprised [if they stopped these policies]. Perak is now controlled by the 51-year-old government,” she said of the BN takeover of the state.
There are approximately 48,000 Orang Asli in Perak, with 216 registered settlements. Land is the biggest issue affecting this community, as most depend on forest produce to make a living.