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A Malaysian news source last week indicated that the Semai of Perak State are worried about recent political developments that may signal a return to governmental persecution. On February 5, Dr. Zambry Abdul Kadir, from the Barisan Nasional, or BN (National Front) party, was sworn in as the Menteri Besar, the Chief Minister of Perak State. Shortly after that, someone started marking red logging paint on the forest trees near Bidor.

Tijah Yok Chopil, a Semai woman who is Secretary of the group Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Perak (JKOAP), commented that her organization feels “concern and sadness at what happened. Where are we in all this? Will Orang Asli issues, that were hot in the last 10 months, once again be sidelined?” She told a reporter about seeing helicopters surveying the area recently, presumably for logging purposes.

Tijah, who was a featured speaker about indigenous land rights at a major law conference in Kuala Lumpur in October 2007, convened a meeting of Semai leaders from 10 communities on February 14 this year in Sungai Gepai, her own village. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the fall of the previous state government, which was controlled by a coalition called the Pakatan Rakyat, or PR (People’s Alliance) party.

The Semai, and the other Orang Asli (Original People)—the indigenous societies of Malaysia—have a long history of suffering from discrimination at the hands of the BN, which is based on Muslim, Malay identity and control of the nation. “For 51 years we have not been treated as citizens, but squatters. In our lands, no one lives there, according to the government,” said Yok Pis Chenadang, who was representing the village of Pos Bersih.

He added, “We are like people hung from the sky, not with our feet on the ground.” He explained that the Semai who wanted to plant commercial crops on their properties had been prevented from doing so by the state government, which claims it officially owns their lands.

The PR, which had controlled Perak for nearly a year, proactively tried to assist the indigenous people of the state such as the Semai. The PR Menteri Besar cancelled logging and plantation activities near the community of Gopeng and returned 900 acres of land to the Orang Asli. The party established an Orang Asli Task Force last October for the purpose of securing land titles for as many indigenous people as possible. Chaired by Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham, a senior executive in the state, the task force assisted in the review of historical and geographical surveys of Orang Asli ancestral lands. Those surveys might assist the land titles review.

Tijah, the primary indigenous liaison person to the task force, discussed the Semai reactions to the party in power last year. “Since independence, we have never felt like Malaysians. In the 10 months of the Pakatan Rakyat state government, we felt the promise of citizenship begin to be fulfilled.”

She said that last year was the first time people in her community had been asked to discuss matters, to air their grievances publicly, and to negotiate issues. She told the reporter that she hoped the BN, now back in power, would continue the PR policies toward them. But she is not confident that will happen. In fact, she said she would not be surprised if the BN scraps the enlightened PR policies. After all, they have a 51 year history of discriminating and denying rights to the indigenous communities. The new logging plans—the red paint and helicopter surveys—fit into an old pattern.

The basic question, though, is why there is so much discrimination in Malaysia against the Orang Asli societies? Some of the news stories and reviews about the Semai, Batek, and Chewong over the past four years have provided analyses of the discriminatory actions taken by Malaysia and its state governments against these people. The primary reason for the persecution is that the Malaysian state is founded on the premise that the Malay people, only 51 percent of the population, should have special privileges. These are guaranteed in their constitution and are reflected in the laws, policies and practices of the Malay-controlled society.

The Malays support their claim for their right to special privileges with the assertion that they are the original inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. Using that claim, and the fact that they barely have a majority of the total population, they can better justify marginalizing the two large minority groups that immigrated into the peninsula, mostly over the past several hundred years. Those immigrants—Malaysians of Chinese ancestry, 30 percent of the national population, and people of Indian heritage, about 9 percent of the nation—appear, to them, to threaten their hegemony.

The difficulty for the Malay argument is that the Orang Asli, a fraction of one percent of the population, have been residents of the Peninsula for thousands of years longer than they have. If only those people would accept Islam, the Malay reasoning goes, they would become de facto Malays. Driving the indigenous people out of their villages, integrating them into Malay towns, would also help. Elimination of the indigenous people, one way or the other, would remove the cloud over the Malay claim that they are the original inhabitants of the land. It would buttress their assertion that the Chinese and Indian peoples are the recent immigrants while they are the original people.

Recent research has placed the discussion in an historical frame, which includes the hopeful news that the Orang Asli have won several important legal cases before the nation’s major courts in recent years. The indigenous communities may be on the verge of slowly gaining rights to their lands and to the respect of other Malaysian citizens. Of course, the political and social developments in places such as Perak State, and the work of activists such as Tijah Yok Chopil, will help determine whether the discrimination finally ends or continues for another half-century.