A national conference of Malaysian lawyers listened to arguments about the constitutional rights of the Orang Asli last week and, to judge by reports, they were enlightened, challenged, and amused. The printed program of the 14th Malaysian Law Conference, held from October 29 through 31 in the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, indicated that the convention included a session on Wednesday morning entitled “Orang Asli and Our Constitution – Protecting Indigenous Customs and Cultural Rights.”

The first speaker in the hour was Dr. Ramy Bulan, from the Centre for Legal Pluralism and Indigenous Law at the University of Malaya. While his paper does not appear to be available on the Web, according to one news story about the session, Dr. Bulan said that preserving the culture of the Orang Asli (the Original People) of Malaysia was an essential element of their identity. He urged government authorities to make sure that they benefited from development projects.

The second speaker was Tijah Yok Chopil, billed on the program as simply an Orang Asli representative from Bidor, Perak State. A Semai native, she is an effective spokesperson for that society as well as for the Orang Asli in general. She was quoted in the pressrepeatedly—earlier in 2007 for her opposition to a government development scheme which would have taken land away from a Semai village in order to build a national botanical garden.

A news report devoted entirely to Tijah’s comments emphasized her effectiveness as a speaker. She evidently entertained the delegates by keeping them nodding and laughing while she described the lives of the Orang Asli. She admitted that her people were poor by any standard definition, but “everyone still has a roof over their head,” she said. She added that they never beg for food in their communities. “In the papers we read about rape and theft but that does not happen in the villages,” she said, to enthusiastic applause. “We never have to resort to crimes like those who live in the city.”

She said that the Orang Asli peoples are tied firmly to the land, which nurtures their beliefs, cultures, and customs. They are used to being out of contact with national and international markets, so the ups and downs of the Malaysian economy do not affect them too much. She added that they never feel the need to run away to another country when economic conditions worsen for them.

She emphasized the importance of the natural environment to the villagers. The Semai and the other Orang Asli peoples want development in their communities, but not if it harms their culture and history. They do not want to become like city people, completely divorced from the land.

Tijah castigated various government programs that have proposed development schemes to the Orang Asli which then turned out to be empty promises. She added details for the nation’s lawyers about the various ways the people are treated by administrators who promise one thing—such as reasonable wages for their labor—but cheat them out of the money when it comes time to pay. She included in her speech some comments about the constitution. “We have celebrated 50 years of independence and yet, our rights are not protected and respected by the government. We are not protected by the Federal Constitution,” she said.

The third speaker, Dr. Colin Nicholas, Director of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), spoke on the subject, “Orang Asli and the Constitution: Protecting Customary Lands and Cultural Rights.” His speech, reprinted on the COAC website, provides a good history of the guarantees in the Malaysian constitution for Orang Asli rights.

In addition to the legalistic arguments, the paper includes some eloquent statements about the Orang Asli way of life. “To the Orang Asli, the environment is more than a collection of water, animals, plants and landforms. It is the basis of their spirituality and the source of their identity. It is to be treated with appropriate respect and must be kept in balance,” he writes.

He goes on to say that their children, learning from the example of their elders, appreciate the richness of nature and understand that they must reciprocate their relationship with the natural environment. They learn to use the wealth from the forest, but treat it with respect because it “is a living entity, with a soul and spirituality of its own…”

His description of the history of the constitutional guarantees that the founders of Malaysia granted to the Orang Asli would have presumably appealed to his audience of lawyers. He delineates the four sections in the constitution that mention the Orang Asli, and describes the ways successive governments have ignored their constitutional guarantees.

He concludes his paper by noting that the ultimate guarantee for the rights of the Orang Asli seems to be the nation’s courts, which are granting legal status for their customary rights to the land. But the government appears to be, once again, determined to deprive them of their land. A newly proposed law, called the Orang Asli Land Policy, will represent a devastating setback to them if it is enacted. The law proposes 75,900 hectares to be set aside for the aboriginal people. That amount, however, would remove 51,798 hectares from their control. In other words, it would reduce their land holdings by about 40 percent.

Most ominous of all, the proposed law would only guarantee land rights for a 99 year lease. This kind of set back for the Orang Asli can only be addressed, in the opinion of Nicholas, by challenging government agencies at all levels. The courts that are now interpreting the federal constitution in favor of the Orang Asli appear to be the one institution in Malaysian society that may hold out some hope for their long term protection.