BANGKOK (REUTERS) - The Malaysian government said on Friday (Jan 18) it would sue the local government of Kelantan state for failing to uphold the land rights of its indigenous people, a move that activists said was unprecedented and that could lead to more protection measures.
Orang Asli, meaning "original people", is the term used for Malaysia's indigenous people, who make up about 14 per cent of the population. They have been pitted against logging and palm oil companies keen to tap the forested areas in which they live.
Logging companies, which have cleared vast forest areas in Kelantan for durian and rubber plantations, had deprived the Temiar Orang Asli of their ancestral land and resources, the office of the attorney-general said in a statement on Friday.
State authorities did not consult the community before granting the licences, nor offer them compensation, it said.
"Rapid deforestation and commercial development have resulted in widespread encroachment into the native territories of the Orang Asli," Attorney-General Tommy Thomas said in the statement.
"Commercial development and the pursuit of profit must not come at the expense of the Temiar Orang Asli and their inherent right, as citizens of this country, to the land and resources which they have traditionally owned and used," he said.
The suit, filed in the high court of Kelantan's state capital Kota Bharu, seeks the legal recognition of the Temiar Orang Asli's land rights, and injunctions to restrain private firms from encroaching on and destroying their land.
The suit names the state government of Kelantan - which lies in the north-east of mainland Malaysia - as well as the state director of land, the forestry department and five private entities as defendants.
Malaysia has adopted the United Nations' declaration on the rights of indigenous people, which advocates free, prior and informed consent of communities that might be affected by commercial projects.
Yet that is rarely done, activists have said.
Dozens of disputes that pitted indigenous communities against logging and palm oil companies have ended up in court, and several campaigners have been killed in recent years, according to rights groups.
Malaysia's government, which came to power in May after ousting a corruption-mired coalition, offered some hope, said human rights lawyer Charles Hector.
"Land is a state subject, so it is very significant that the federal government is taking this unprecedented step of suing a state government over the land rights of the Orang Asli," he said.
"In representing the Orang Asli against the state, the federal government is signalling a different direction for indigenous rights," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Around the world, indigenous and local communities own more than half of the land under customary rights, yet have secure legal rights to just 10 per cent, according to advocacy group Rights and Resources Initiative.