Malaysia’s human rights record will be reviewed at the 45th Session of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group of the Human Rights Council in January 2024. This will be the fourth time Malaysia is reviewed under this mechanism. The Universal Periodic Review process assesses the human rights situation of UN member States by peer States and also takes into account information gathered in reports from civil society. Cultural Survival jointly submitted a stakeholder report with Jaringan Orang Asal Semalayasia (JOAS), PACOS TRUST, and MOPOT-Moningolig Pogun Tokou.
Malaysia voted in favor of adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, however, Indigenous Peoples across Malaysia experience an array of rights violations, including a lack of recognition of their ancestral and customary lands, lack of access to education and freedom of religion and expression. They also face violence as they peacefully seek to defend their land and resources, which are under threat due to the aggressive development of logging, rubber plantations, and declarations of national parks and protected areas. Indigenous women face specific violations of their rights such as being forced to use birth control methods without their consent and, as a result of inequalities, Indigenous women and girls are more prone to being trafficked.
Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia are collectively known as Orang Asal with over 100 different ethnic and subethnic groups and they make up 11 percent of the total population of the country. Indigenous Peoples in Peninsular Malaysia are referred to as Orang Asli and in the two states on the island of Borneo, Sarawak and Sabah, they are referred to as natives or Dayaks and/or Orang Ulu and Anak Negeri, respectively.
Under the Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954, (which only applies to Peninsular Malaysia) some land is recognized as “aboriginal reserves.” However, the National Land Code, the principal legislation governing land in Peninsular Malaysia, does not recognize the customary land rights of Orang Asli. Authorities have often revoked lands protected under reservation and have used them for development purposes, regularly not applying Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) and without compensation to Orang Asli. Often, native communities are not aware that their customary land has been included in a reserve until the logging companies come to log the area. Because of this, disputes between Orang Asli and forest authorities, including court cases, have occurred in recent years.
In Sabah, the State law–the Sabah Land Ordinance, 1930–and in Sarawak the Sarawak Land Code, 1958, recognize Indigenous customary land rights. Despite this recognition, in practice, government authorities still control land use decisions. They can convert native customary land to reserve land and grant logging concessions, prioritizing large-scale resource extraction, and plantations. Most of the land targeted for development is Indigenous Peoples’ land, where raw materials such as timber and minerals have not yet been exploited. This has resulted in tension between the government, private investors, and Indigenous people, who have continued the claims for customary land.
Conglomerates leased and supported by State governments, who benefit economically from these activities, have massively cut down forests and tropical lands to plant palm oil, rubber, and timber, which has resulted not only in violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights but also in the loss of biodiversity. Over the decades, deforestation for plantations has displaced Indigenous Peoples from their customary land and they have been detained for erecting barriers to logging concessions.
Another pressing concern for Indigenous rights in Malaysia is the transformation of their lands into protected areas, forest reserves, and national parks, denying them access to natural resources without FPIC. They have faced sudden evictions from lands and forests where they have lived for years and have been portrayed as opponents of conservation. Previously, they used the land for cultivating, collecting forest products, hunting, and more, but now it is inaccessible. As a result, Indigenous Peoples are deprived of their livelihood sources.
Due to the government's assimilation program, Malaysia's Indigenous Peoples’ cultural identity, heritage, and rights to practice their unique religion and customs are under threat. Islam is the official religion in Malaysia but the right to freedom of religion is guaranteed under the Constitution. However, religious minorities, including Indigenous Peoples, are often rewarded for converting to Islam or prevented from expressing their faith openly. Most Indigenous people in Malaysia (more specifically Orang Asli) are non-Muslim but have been forced to compromise their identity, practicing their religious choice privately without legal recognition for fear of societal repercussions.
In terms of intercultural education, the Malaysian government has the duty to make education available in Indigenous languages. However, it is still only available in Malay and English. Indigenous Peoples are not given the opportunity to create a curriculum and establish educational institutions based on their own cultures and thus, Indigenous children lag behind in access to education and learning outcomes, with significantly higher rates of drop-outs.
Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia also face limitations to their self-government, autonomy and power to influence the policies and decision-making. Orang Asli do not have the opportunity to choose their representatives through their own procedures and their right to self-identify as Orang Asli has been ignored through legislation. These powers are held by the Minister for Rural and Regional Development or by the director of the Jabatan Kemajuan (JAKOA), the government agency responsible for Orang Asli affairs. The situation is similar in Sabah and Sarawak, where State governments appoint Indigenous representatives to carry out the government’s agenda.
During its review cycle in January 2024, Cultural Survival, Jaringan Orang Asal Semalayasia (JOAS), PACOS TRUST, and MOPOT-Moningolig Pogun Tokou, urge UN Member States to make the following recommendations to Malaysia:
- Recognize Indigenous Peoples’ customary land rights and customary land tenure of Orang Asli and natives of Sarawak and Sabah.
- Ensure relevant stakeholders, including legal experts and policymakers, obtain FPIC from Indigenous Peoples to ensure that any legal amendments and legislation reflect their aspirations and rights.
- Address violations of Indigenous Peoples’ right to education by introducing education in Indigenous languages and addressing high dropout rates of Indigenous children.
- Take steps to amend laws and policies regulating forests and conservation and protected areas to ensure Indigenous Peoples' right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent and protect their access to land and resources in consultation with concerned Indigenous Peoples.
- Ensure that Indigenous communities are not displaced for infrastructure or large-scale development projects and that such activities always take place based on the fulfillment of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of the concerned communities.
- Guarantee the right to freedom of religion and belief, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice without discrimination.
- Ensure that Indigenous women have access to healthcare including affordable and good quality services provided in a culturally appropriate manner.
- Take initiatives to combat human trafficking, in particular of women and girls, and with special attention to Indigenous women and girls from rural areas.
- Guarantee the freedom and safety of Indigenous land and environmental defenders, amending laws curtailing freedom of opinion, expression, and peaceful assembly.
- Guarantee the right of Indigenous Peoples of Malaysia to self-determination, autonomy, and participation in government bodies and decision-making as provisioned in UNDRIP and other international law standards.
Photo by Lutfi Hakim.