Orang Asli indigenous groups fight for land rights.

More than one thousand indigenous Orang Asli people gathered in Putrajaya, Malaysia on March 17 to protest a land bill, which, under the guise of granting land, refuses to adhere to judicially recognized indigenous land rights and severely limits the amount of Orang Asli land. Elders of the three main Orang Asli communities led members of various tribes in what the Center for Orang Asli Concerns claims to have been the largest gathering of Orang Asli in history. Although the elders planned for the protest to lead to the Prime Minister’s offices, police diverted most to the Rural and Regional Development Ministry, where the leaders submitted a memorandum explaining their complaints against the land bill. After receiving the memorandum, the Rural and Regional Development Minister assured those gathered that the government would look into their complaints and attempt to reconcile them with the proposed bill.

Orang Asli is the name given to all eighteen non-Malay indigenous tribes on the Malay Peninsula, which total around 150,000 people. Orang Asli land rights are governed by the Aboriginal People’s Act of 1954. Under this Act, the state may declare an area customarily and currently inhabited by Orang Asli to be an “aboriginal area.” Orang Asli have exclusive rights of occupancy of this customary land and use of its natural resources, but have no rights of ownership. They cannot sell, lease, or grant this land without permission from the Commissioner of Aboriginal Affairs, a post which has never been held by an Orang Asli. The government may take the land at any time, and must only pay compensation for the value of the crops and dwelling on the land, not the land itself.

Nevertheless, in a 2002 case, Sagong bin Tasi v. Selangor State Government, the Malaysian High Court declared that the Orang Asli have a proprietary interest in their customary lands, including the right to use and derive profit from the land. The Court further declared that Orang Asli land fell under the Land Acquisition Act, which governs all land acquisition in Malaysia, and that government taking of the land required compensation in the same manner as non-Orang Asli land. The Court of Appeal affirmed the decision.

The proposed bill, which the Orang Asli oppose, is an amendment to the Aboriginal People’s Act. The amendment would offer each Orang Asli family two to six acres of land, but once they accept that land, they lose all future claims to any other customary land. Furthermore, the amendment would limit the total Orang Asli land to fifty thousand hectares, an amount substantially less than the 129,000 hectares they claim. Orang Asli groups assert that the amendment also imposes conditions on the land, such as prohibiting rental without state permission and mandating that the planting of certain crops be managed by private developers.

Many civil society groups, including the Malaysian Bar Association, have strongly supported Orang Asli rights. The Bar Association issued a press release urging the government to “formally recognise, protect and guarantee [Orang Asli] rights to all their ancestral lands,” and to withdraw any proposed legislation that would limit these rights. Commentators also insist that the government uphold its commitments under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that indigenous peoples have “the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”

The Malaysian government must move forward in the area of indigenous rights, and live up to international standards if it wishes to gain the respect of the international community. The government must fulfill its obligations under its domestic legal system, as decided by the High Court in Sagong bin Tasi, and not attempt to appease the Orang Asli community by granting them, with significant conditions, part of the land that they already own in full.