Hundreds of indigenous tribal Malaysians staged a rare protest outside the prime minister’s office on Wednesday to denounce potential changes to a law that they fear will rob them of land.
The Orang Asli - which means “Original People” in the Malay language - collectively refers to some 18 ethnic tribes, many of whom live in or near the rain forest in peninsular Malaysia, where they mainly hunt and grow crops.
Orang Asli tribes have long complained of being forced from state—owned land to make way for development. Activists say the Orang Asli deserve ownership of the land because their ancestors settled there thousands of years ago.
More than 500 Orang Asli people held banners that read “Don’t take away our rights” and “Our land is the pulse of our lives” outside the Prime Minister’s Department in Malaysia’s capital, Putrajaya, to criticize legal amendments that the government is planning for indigenous land issues.
Orang Asli representatives were told that tribal families will be given ownership of nearly 125,000 acres (50,000 hectares) of rural land, but they will have to surrender their claim to another 200,000 acres (80,000 hectares), said Colin Nicholas, a coordinator for Malaysia’s Centre of Orang Asli Concerns.
The tribes are also dissatisfied that even though they will be able to cultivate cash crops on the land, it is likely to be managed by a private corporation, Mr. Nicholas said.
Representatives of the indigenous protesters handed a protest note to Shafie Apdal, the minister of rural development.
Mr. Shafie said the amendments were not finalized yet. He said they could be debated in Parliament in mid—2010, adding the government would take the communities’ concerns into account.
“We’re not taking their rights, we’re only managing them,” Mr. Shafie said. “If anyone says we are depriving (the Orang Asli), we are neglecting them, that is not true.”
Authorities have spent large amounts over the years on Orang Asli education, infrastructure and housing, Mr. Shafie said.
Activists estimate the Orang Asli comprise 140,000 people who are among Malaysia’s poorest citizens.