A news story published two days ago provides additional details about a proposed botanical garden in northern Malaysia which poses a threat to a nearby Semai community. Initial reports, covered here on March 29, gave only sketchy details about the dispute. A reporter for the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) interviewed a number of Semai in Kampung Chang, the affected village, in order to give more balanced coverage than the earlier news reports had done.
Tijah Yok Chopil, a Semai woman, told the IPS reporter that when the bulldozers suddenly arrived, people were told that their fruit crops, trees, and animals had to be cleared away to make room for the project. As a result, she said, the villagers are falling ill with fevers, stomach aches, and cramps due to the stress of the situation. “These are the symptoms of our people when we feel threatened.”
A Semai man, Ridzuan Tempek, said that they were fighting the project because it will confiscate almost half of their ancestral lands. “It is not just a question of lost … area for gathering food and jungle produce. Without the ancestral land our people’s collective memory will be lost,” he asserted. Every tree, stone, and stream has a story to tell. If the villagers have to move, he said, “we will end up as strangers in a strange land.”
Another woman, Semah Ah Yin, told the reporter, “The forest is our home. Now we live with the forest and without hurting it. But under the botany project a large area will be fenced off and we will be banned from entering our home.” She said she felt insulted and helplessly surrounded by forces that are hostile to the Semai.
On the other hand, the story quoted a local government leader, R. Ganesan, to the effect that the botany garden project would provide jobs for the Semai villagers. He emphasized that they should look at the long-term benefits they would derive from the project instead of just protesting.
But the Semai refuse to be talked out of their lands. They emphasize that they have not given their approval, that they have been cheated before, and that the welfare of their people comes first.
Last week an opposition federal lawmaker, Kula Segaran, brought up the Semai plight in the Malaysian parliament. He told the IPS reporter that Malaysian officials consider the Semai and the other Orang Asli peoples to be “just jungle people who are in the way of progress.” The Semai of Kampung Chang had earlier been evicted from some of their land to make way for an oil palm plantation.
The article points out that due to their peaceful values, unscrupulous outsiders can take advantage of them and dupe them out of land that is rightfully theirs. Developers and politicians generally can drive them out of their settlements with promises. The story indicates that Semai nonviolence has been studied by American and European scholars, but it concludes that, while cheating and discrimination against the Orang Asli is an old story, the fact that they are beginning to resist is a recent development.