KUALA LUMPUR: While the Peninsula commemorated its independence day on Aug 31, the government’s testy relationship with the Orang Asal community was in full display in front of the Keningau district office in Sabah.
The government had barred representatives from Sabah’s tribes from performing a blessing ritual on the historical Oath Stone which is in the district office’s compound.
The monument had been put there 50 years ago on Aug 31 to symbolise the pledge of loyalty between the tribes and the fledging Malaysian government.
To Jaringan Orang Asal Se-Malaysia (Joas), an umbrella group for the country’s indigenous communities, the ban sums up how the government can suppress their rights while simultaneously claiming they’re looking out for them.
Joas, which is a network of 21 smaller Orang Asal groups throughout Malaysia, ensures that the different tribes speak with one voice, whether it is about their education, economy, customs or land rights.
Collectively the Orang Asal make up only about 10% of the population, while the wider public are either ignorant of or insensitive to their plight.
But as Adrian Lasimbang of the Joas explained, the tribes are quickly waking up to the fact that, like every other marginalised group in Malaysia, their destiny is in their hands.
According to Lasimbang, Joas started as an ad-hoc network in 1995 before becoming a formal group in 2000.
Organising the different groups to speak with one voice is critical, he said, because Orang Asal concerns are often misrepresented by political parties.
This is not just with East Malaysian political parties that claim to speak for a particular tribe. In the Peninsula, there are political parties that also claim to represent them by using the word “bumiputera”.
Gathering and summarising the views of different tribes into one clear message is critical when lobbying the government or setting up a fighting strategy for land rights in court.
“We also do lots of grassroots organising and technical support for smaller community-based groups,” Lasimbang told The Malaysian Insider.
This includes teaching mapping to a village community. This is a tool used to demarcate a village’s ancestral land holdings that can then be translated into documents for presentations in court.
Lasimbang said Joas is also in touch with a pool of indigenous or non-indigenous lawyers who can do pro-bono work when a community has to take the government or developers to court over land disputes.
“We’re not confrontational. If there is an obstacle in front of us, we’ll find a new way around it. One day the government will recognise us and work with us on any-
thing affecting Orang Asal,” said Lasimbang.
That approach was also clear in Sunday’s event. When the government banned them from blessing the original Oath Stone, the group put up a new one outside the compound and blessed it.
“The old one was put up by our forefathers. The new one was put up by the new generation and symbolises our commitment and aspirations to ensure the government also fulfils its pledge.” — For the full report, please visit The Malaysian Insider.
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 3, 2014.