Orang Asli: Fighting for dear land

DENGKIL - I have been asking for directions to the Bukit Tampoi Orang Asli village for the sixth time. Located in the outskirts of a small predominantly Malay town south of Kuala Lumpur, locals told me that I have to find this little road leading to the village, which is surrounded by oil palm plantations.

After 45 minutes of driving past rows of oil palm trees, I found the village, nestled beneath tall durian and rambutan trees, with small wooden and brick homes far and few in- between. It is easy to forget that a highway leading to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport is just some 150 metres away until I heard the sound of cars speeding past the village.

“The highway would have been built right on this village if we have not fought against it,” said Mr Sagong Tasi, an 82-year-old Orang Asli man. “We would then have lost everything.”

The Orang Asli community is Malaysia’s indigenous people, the earliest settlers here who are still dependent on land for livelihood. They grow fruits and hunt on this land.

The 150,000- strong community is increasingly embroiled in court cases in recent years to get back their land which they claim was encroached by the government for development.

Mr Sagong is illiterate, but he is instrumental in a 15-year court battle with the then-Selangor government over the land where the Orang Asli village is sitting on. Mr Sagong and other villagers had sued the government in 1995 for forcing the Orang Asli community to evict without compensation. The government had plans for a highway to be built there.

“I am not an activist, just a villager who has been living here since the British were still around,” he said. “This is my home, so we stay and fight.”

The court case ended in 2010 that saw the Federal Court awarding the Orang Asli community their ancestral land, a landmark decision that set precedence for other similar cases that are being battled in court currently.

“The Orang Asli community were reluctant to protest because almost all of us don’t even know our ABCs, much less about land laws,” Mr Sagong said. “Now, our community don’t have to be afraid anymore because of the court decision.”

Mr Sagong paused for a while, as we watched a plane flew past - a regular occurrence as the airport is just nearby.

The village is now being classified as an Orang Asli ancestral land and so, all development projects would require approval by the community.

Mr Sagong said the Orang Asli community cannot stop the development around them. But, the least he could do is to preserve the Orang Asli community’s lifestyle.

“During the court case, I climbed seven floors every day to attend the proceedings,” he said. “But, when I think of the durian and rambutan trees in the village that I grew up with, I think it’s worth the climb.”

yyennie@sph.com.sg