Wednesday December 1, 2010
Protecting orang asli title rights
By SHAILA KOSHY
THE orang asli in West Malaysia are the original orang asal but their lives could not be a more sorry one.
Progress is a double-edged sword and not all attempts for their development have been welcome, especially those that ignore their native customary rights and their ties to the land and those that would cause them to lose their identity.
At a public forum on Oct 9 organised by the Bar Council’s Committee on Orang Asli Rights (COAR) that was attended by about 190 orang asli from throughout the peninsula, there was a deluge of appeals for help.
“One after another, the orang asli came up and told stories of schemes to grab their land and encroachment into their lands,” said COAR deputy chair Steven Thiru in an interview.
“They came to us because they have nowhere else to turn to,” he said, adding that the majority of complaints were directed at the Orang Asli Affairs Department that was supposed to look after them.
However, very few lawyers take up cases involving native customary rights.
To address this, COAR and two other committees are conducting an all-day workshop on “Native Title Rights” this Saturday at the council’s auditorium in Kuala Lumpur.
“Many lawyers shy away, thinking orang asli claims are too difficult and complex, and worry they may not be competent enough,” said COAR chair Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan.
As such, the purpose of the workshop is two-fold — to equip lawyers with the fundamentals of such cases; and enable the Bar to respond more quickly when there are reports of encroachment, demolition of property and harassment or potential arrest by the authorities.
“The whole idea here is to raise an army of lawyers,” said Steven.
Steven is “hopeful” and Ambiga said she has “absolute faith that, given the right support, they will come forward”.
Ambiga, who noted there were several who already did pro bono cases outside of the council’s Legal Aid Centre, will announce on Saturday what this “right support” will entail.
It’s happenstance that the workshop to conscientise lawyers and equip them with skills to help the orang asli is taking place exactly one year from when the National Land Council announced its controversial “Policy of Awarding Land Titles”.
On Dec 4, 2009, the NLC announced that the policy would help eradicate poverty among the 147,000 orang asli in peninsular Malaysia.
However, the orang asli are questioning a policy to “give them” land which is already theirs.
On March 17, more than 2,000 marched to Putrajaya in protest to present a memorandum signed by over 9,000 orang asli to the Federal Government on grounds the grassroots had not been consulted.
Soon after, the Bar Council set up COAR because of the increase in the number of orang asli claims against encroachment and property demolition that the Bar had taken up.
It was also concerned that the impending amendments to the Aboriginal People’s Act 1954 as a consequence of the policy would reverse the court decisions in re Sagong Tasi, re Adong Kuwau and re Nor Nyawai which recognised the orang asli’s right to land.
With these cases as precedents, why have the number of orang asli claims in the peninsula increased?
Steven and fellow COAR member Yogeswaran Subramaniam pointed the finger at the basic refusal and failure to recognise that the orang asli have a native customary right to the land, one that precedes any a state can give to any other proprietor.
In the long-term, could the Bar – in looking for a win-win situation – help identify models elsewhere that strive for indigenous peoples to maintain their identity and yet participate in development on their terms and reap benefits from it?
“All of this starts with your bargaining power,” said Yogeswaran who is researching such models.
“When you are perceived as not having any rights, you end up not getting a good deal.”
For now, the Bar is focusing on raising an army of lawyers to help the orang asli in the fight for their rights, as recognised by the Federal Constitution and in Sagong Tasi.