Bateq People Need More Than Houses

Activists want the Orang Asli’s autonomy, rights, and their way of life to be protected.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 27 — A string of 15 deaths that hit the Bateq tribe in Kelantan, most of the victims children and youths, has highlighted their terrible living conditions.

The Orang Asli who died were Amir Lee, 1; Mohd Salleh Khaizan, 1; Nazri Rosli, 3; Jelik Jong and Puspa Lee, 5; Din Hamdan, 18; Safia Papan, 18; Fayah Papan, 20; Farah Rahim, 20; Poja Jong, 21; Haika Rahim, 22; Leha Hamdan, 26; Romi Hamdan, 29, Jaid Keladi, 55; and Mek Nab Tebu, 63.

Doctors who visited Malaysia’s last nomadic indigenous community last April — just before the Orang Asli died one by one from causes unknown to the tribe then — found the Bateq people living in “appalling” conditions.

Women and children living in Kampung Kuala Koh, Gua Musang, suffered from chronic malnutrition. Skin infections, worm infestations, gastrointestinal infections and respiratory tract infections were common.

As the Bateq people increasingly lose their land near the boundary of Taman Negara and Felda Aring — where they traditionally hunt and gather in rainforests in the peninsula — to palm oil plantations, mining, and logging, their food sources disappear, and they fall sick easily.

Even though Kuala Koh had reasonable road access, doctors noted that the village – where over 60 percent of 185 residents contracted respiratory-related illnesses — lacked safe and potable water supply, food, and basic medical care.

Now that health authorities identified a measles outbreak as the cause of death in the Bateq tribe based on autopsies on three bodies, the investigation has died down.

Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail reportedly said yesterday that the Orang Asli have recovered as she was informed that they were now “playing guitar and singing”.

Activists speaking to CodeBlue, however, urged the government to take long-term measures to prevent future devastating outbreaks among the Bateq people that go beyond simply building them houses, creating yet another water supply system, and getting them vaccinated.

Give Orang Asli Autonomy

Activist Siti Kasim, who has worked with all Orang Asli communities, especially those in the interiors, said the government must give the Bateq tribe ownership and control over whatever measures that are being planned for them.

“Their culture must be central to any kind of programme affecting them, including an understanding of their local context, history and community leaders,” Siti told CodeBlue.

“Whether to build houses or providing a water supply system, it must include the community in the decision-making. This must be done on an equal footing between the community and the agencies. One must understand the nature of the Orang Asli, especially the Bateq, as they are easily intimidated and non-confrontational.”

The lawyer urged government agencies to mitigate the effects of mining, logging and other external threats against the indigenous people.

She said the displacement and marginalisation of the Orang Asli has affected their health, noting low weight and height among their children.

“Continuing and increasing gross violations of their social, economic and cultural rights have caused many indigenous communities to experience greater economic hardship, increased challenges to their cultural identity, and the loss of their traditional territories and subsistence bases.”

Don’t Reinvent The Wheel

Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations Malaysia (FPMPAM) president Dr Steven Chow said the Department of Orang Asli Development’s (Jakoa) proposed housing projects and water supply system were nothing new.

“Building houses for the Bateq is something that have been done already when they were pushed into one corner of the jungle by the development of plantations over the past decades,” Dr Chow told CodeBlue. “They still preferred to stay in their traditional bamboo hut.”

Dr Chow, whose medical team from FPMPAM’s Drs For All programme visited Kampung Kuala Koh last April, said the Orang Asli village’s system of previously piped in water supply has been broken for years.

“So, if you had visited before the event, you would have seen lots of blue but empty water tanks, broken water filters and pipes. I believe the Minister should relook how to make things work for them rather than re-inventing the wheel,” he said, referring to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P. Waytha Moorthy.

Dr Chow said the long-term solution to preventing disease outbreaks among the Orang Asli was to support them in continuing to live their traditional way of life.

“As I have been told, ‘you cannot teach a fish to climb a tree’, but I may add, neither should you be poisoning their water or their sources of food either.”

According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Millennium Development Goals 2015 report on Malaysia, 8 per cent of Orang Asli children below five were undernourished in 2012; under-five mortality rates among the Orang Asli was 21.7 per 1,000 live births in 2012, triple the national level of 7.6 per 1,000 live births; and Orang Asli infant mortality rates were 14.4 per 1,000 live births that year, double the national rate of 6.3 per 1,000 live births.

“You can only vaccinate for a finite number of common diseases, but if their nutritional status is poo, all the vaccinations in the world will not help them survive,” said Dr Chow.

He urged the government to strengthen laws to prevent the degradation of rainforests that are the Orang Asli’s natural habitat.

Dr Chow pointed out that Orang Asli villages and posts had better access to medical care with radio facilities and helicopter medics during the communist emergency in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“Today, nothing seems to be working,” he said.

“The Klinik Kesihatans in the villages are empty, the freezer (without power supply for years) stinks of decayed organic matter, the radio room is full of stored furniture, caked with a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, and we have been told by the villagers that the helicopters only seem to appear for VIPs coming for every five years.”

Recognise Orang Asli Rights

Centre for Orang Asli coordinator Colin Nicholas said the root cause of the disease outbreak among the Bateq tribe was the destruction of their resource base that provided them nutrition and, more importantly, the source of their unique identity and culture.

“So, you have to resolve that problem,” Nicholas told CodeBlue.

“Recognise rights to customary lands, recognise the people as endorsed by the courts, that these Orang Asli have traditional rights, have a title to customary lands under the common law — this should be recognised by the government.”

The Orang Asli rights activist said even at the Bateq people’s smaller resettlement site within their original territory at the boundary of Taman Negara and Felda Aring, palm oil plantations have been allowed to log “to their doorstep”.

“The forest area inside Taman Negara was their traditional territory. All outside the national park were converted to oil palm, mining, and logging in the beginning.”

Nicholas said one needed to travel about 10km from the main road to get to the houses in the Kuala Koh resettlement.

“All that used to be their land. They were showing me where the rivers were. Now it’s all plantations. So, you’ve destroyed communities, a culture, and resource base,” he said.

“You need a few generations to change. It’s not just a case of giving them a house.” 

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