An attempt by government agencies in Malaysia to develop Semai forest lands into a national botanical park, which was stopped temporarily by protests this spring, is apparently still on hold. News reports in March and April explored the concerns of the Semai people in the village of Kampung Chang, in Perak State, about the development, much of which would have been built in their forest. They had not been contacted ahead of time, and the bulldozers were busy clearing the land before the Semai were able to generate enough publicity to get the project stopped.
AFP (Agence Presse-France), a worldwide news service, filed a report last week that indicates the development is still pending, though the worries of the nearby Semai community have not lessened. The reporter interviewed Semah Ah Yin, a 51 year old lady who reminisced about her great grandfather, a renowned shaman. He had asked that, after he died, his body should be left next to a waterfall on the river that marks the boundary of their territory. He wanted it to be carried away by the next flood into the afterlife.
The river, the waterfall, and the forest land where he performed his ceremonies are now considered a sacred site by the local Semai, but it is part of the territory coveted by the developers.
One of the village elders, Nunek Kamin, told AFP that the village people would not gain anything from the development of the botanical park. Other people, such as the contractors and the government agencies, would benefit. And another community activist, Rizuan Tempek, worries that even if this development is finally defeated, other unwanted projects will come along.
Government officials counter that, while they are willing to allow the Orang Asli people to use resources from the forests that they claim, they maintain that the government still retains full legal title to the land. As a result, according to the president of the Malaysian Bar Council, Malays continue to trample on the Orang Asli communities whenever they wish.
Colin Nicholas, from the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, says that there are 13 court cases pending, or being prepared, in Peninsular Malaysia dealing with Orang Asli land rights. A major court case that was decided in favor of an Orang Asli community, which was illegally deprived of its rights when a new road was constructed to the Kuala Lumpur airport, is still on appeal to the Federal Court, the nation’s highest court. A decision is expected later in 2007.
The AFP report also quotes a spokesperson from the Department of Orang Asli Affairs: “We want the Orang Asli to be part of Malaysia. We don’t want them to be a minority group,” the official said. These comments reflect the continuing desire of Malaysian officials to integrate the Orang Asli into Malay society, and the government’s discomfort with their existence as separate, indigenous peoples.
Meanwhile, Rizuan Tempek argues that the Semai are neither stupid nor completely opposed to all developments. He says that they simply want to be consulted by the government, so that it will take into account the kinds of projects that the people really want.