FOLLOWING the release of the task force report confirming allegations of sexual abuse of Penan women and girls, we greet Malaysia’s 46th birthday with a renewed sense of outrage. We are gravely disturbed not only over the Penan girls and women whose rights were violated, but also over how their situation reflects the overall state of the affairs of the Orang Asal: the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia, and the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak.
It has been almost a year since the allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in the national media, and nearly five months since the task force report was handed to the cabinet and the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. For the Penans, it has been more than a decade since a police report was lodged in November 1994, detailing 10 instances of abuses committed against their persons, properties and lands, including the rape of a 12-year-old girl.
The sexual abuse of Penan girls and women is not happening in isolation from the extreme violations of human rights perpetrated upon Penan communities as a whole. For decades, they have been fighting a losing battle against state-sanctioned seizure of their ancestral lands by loggers, large-scale plantations and other developers. In losing their native customary land rights, including sources of food crops and traditional hunting grounds, the Penans are left homeless and starving.
Their vulnerability to violations of human rights is the product of decades of systematic disempowerment, in sheer disregard for their rights as indigenous peoples, and the prioritising of commercial interests over that of the Penans. Furthermore, there are serious allegations of collusion between state authorities and companies with commercial interests in the Penan lands.
The systematic marginalisation of the Penan people has been well documented by many quarters, including the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), which have repeatedly pointed to land rights as a core issue. However, there has been no change to the continued commercial exploitation of these lands.
Throughout Malaysia, for many Orang Asal communities, this is an altogether familiar situation. The fight for land rights thus also becomes a fight for dignity, and for their voices to be heard and acknowledged in decisions that have far-reaching consequences on their lives.
We note that in 2007, Malaysia voted for the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the UN General Assembly. Among the rights affirmed by this declaration are the fundamental right to self-determination, the right not to be forcibly removed from their lands or territories, and the right to participate in decision-making.
Yet under the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954, the director-general of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs continues to have the power to displace Orang Asli communities from reserve lands, and award compensation for the displacement at his or her discretion, without the communities’ free, prior and informed consent.
Sabahan and Sarawakian indigenous peoples continue to find themselves having to take, often at tremendous risk and very little financial support, case after case on native customary land rights to court.
The Orang Asal communities are all still waiting for justice. They have been met by stone-walling, summary dismissals of their concerns, false allegations of foreign intervention, and a seeming lack of interest by the authorities on meeting their obligations to protect, fulfill and promote human rights in this country. On Malaysia Day, we, the concerned citizens of this country, are saying: enough.
We urge the government of Malaysia to immediately implement the recommendations of the task force and closely monitor the implementation as an important first step.
We furthermore call upon the government to:
- Make public the current status of the police criminal investigation of the sexual abuse cases and allocate adequate resources for the investigation as well as the prosecution of the perpetrators;
- Conduct an investigation into the activities of the logging companies identified in the cases of sexual abuse as well as other companies with commercial interests in the Orang Asal native customary rights lands, with a view to uncover and stop violations of human rights;
- Provide support for the survivors of sexual abuse in the form of financial aid, healthcare, education and counselling for the individuals concerned and their families;
- Take steps to ensure that survivors of sexual violence among isolated or rural indigenous communities such as the Penan are able to obtain legal redress. For example, by making the justice system more accessible to women from these communities, eradicating corruption among the police force, and disseminating easy-to-understand information on their rights and the law;
- Abide by its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child;
- Fully incorporate the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into federal and state legislation and policies, and not to act in any manner inconsistent with the rights protected therein.
Joint Action Group for Gender Equality
16 Sept 2009