Skip to main content

Malaysia Under Scrutiny: UN Review Highlights Indigenous Rights Concerns

By Dev Kumar Sunuwar (Koĩts-Sunuwar, CS Staff) 

Malaysia's human rights record underwent scrutiny on January 25, 2024, at the 45th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group of the Human Rights Council. This was the fourth time Malaysia had undergone assessment under this mechanism, in which UN member States evaluate the human rights records of their counterparts using data from the State under review, known as the "national report," and data from reports by independent human rights experts and groups, national human rights institutions, regional organizations, and civil society organizations.

During the review, 130 countries offered their assessments and recommendations to Malaysia across various human rights categories. A total of 348 recommendations were made, with 15 states specifically urging Malaysia to adhere to human rights standards related to Indigenous Peoples. Following the review, on February 2, 2024, the Troika–the three countries leading the review process for each UPR cycle–comprising Eritrea, Vietnam, and Argentina officially endorsed the recommendations made by the UN member states.
Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia have long faced challenges in defending their rights and ways of life. They are often marginalized and discriminated against, just as their traditional lands are increasingly under threat from development projects. The UPR provided an important platform for these concerns to be heard and for Malaysia to be held accountable for its obligations under international human rights law.

One of the key recommendations made by Colombia, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and the  Plurinational State of Bolivia was urging Malaysia to ratify the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989 (No. 169). Colombia called for "ratification of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169)," while Mexico also urged Malaysia to ratify the 1989 Convention and to strengthen legal frameworks to protect land rights." Sierra Leone echoed these sentiments, emphasizing "ensuring indigenous rights through Convention 169 ratification." Bolivia further encouraged Malaysia to "consider" formally adopting the Convention (No. 169). Convention No. 169 is a landmark treaty establishing minimum standards for protecting Indigenous Peoples' rights to land, resources, self-determination, and cultural heritage. Despite its diverse Indigenous Peoples, Malaysia has not yet ratified this treaty. There are various groups of Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia. The Orang Asli, or aboriginal people, are the Indigenous Peoples of Peninsular Malaysia; the Dayaks and/or Orang Ulu, or "natives,” are the Indigenous Peoples of Sarawak; and the “natives” or Anak Negeri are the Indigenous Peoples of Sabah. They are collectively known as Orang Asal with over 100 different ethnic and sub-ethnic groups. Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia make up 11 percent of the total population of the country, which is 32.7 million.


Countries also raised many other concerns about human rights in Malaysia, beyond simply adopting treaties and policies. Norway highlighted instances where development projects threatened traditional territories, urging Malaysia to "protect and uphold the human rights of Indigenous Peoples, in particular their rights to land and resources, as well as the protection of their cultural heritage." Uzbekistan made similar appeals, highlighting the need for stronger legal frameworks to protect Indigenous land rights.

A stakeholder report put together by Cultural Survival, Jaringan Orang Asal Semalayasia (JOAS), PACOS TRUST, and MOPOT-Moningolig Pogun Tokou raised concerns like these. It showed how aggressive logging, rubber plantations, and the creation of national parks and protected areas have put Indigenous Peoples in danger, often without their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) or compensation. Often, Native communities are unaware of their customary land being included in a reserve until the authorities and logging companies come to log the area.

During the review, Colombia and Luxembourg both emphasized the importance of applying FPIC in matters concerning the lands and livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples. Colombia urged Malaysia “to apply the principle of FPIC to issues related to the lands and livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples.” Luxembourg echoes the importance of FPIC concerning the land and livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples and urges Malaysia to “integrate and apply the principle of FPIC to better protect the land rights of Indigenous Peoples.” The FPIC principle ensures that Indigenous Peoples have a say in decisions that affect them, and their consent must be obtained before any development projects or policies are implemented on their traditional lands and territories. 


Likewise, the inequalities faced by Indigenous Peoples in areas such as health, education, and well-being were also among the top priorities of discussion. New Zealand recommended that Malaysia “continue its work to address the disparities that disproportionately affect Indigenous Peoples, especially in the areas of health, well-being, and education, and continue efforts to preserve Indigenous cultural identities." The cultural identity, heritage, and rights of Malaysia's Indigenous Peoples to practice their religious faith are in danger as a result of the government's assimilation program, according to stakeholders' reports. Brazil, on this note, urged Malaysia ‘to implement public policies to protect indigenous cultural identity, fulfill human rights, and ensure proper access to basic needs.” 

Malaysia voted in favor of adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. However, Indigenous Peoples, collectively known as Orang Asal, with over 100 different ethnic and sub-ethnic groups across Malaysia, experience an array of rights violations, including a lack of recognition of their ancestral and customary lands. Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia also face limitations to their self-government, autonomy, or self-determination to influence policies and decision-making. In this regard, Paraguay called on Malaysia to “adopt measures to protect and respect the identity and self-determination of indigenous peoples.”

During the session, recommendations were also made to the Malaysian government urging it to improve the protection and promotion of the rights of Indigenous communities in areas like healthcare, education, and cultural heritage. The Russian Federation called on Malaysia to "continue to take steps to protect and promote the rights of indigenous communities," highlighting the need for further action. The Maldives echoed this sentiment, urging Malaysia to "build on existing efforts to improve access to quality healthcare and education for indigenous communities." Additionally, The Gambia recommended "enhancing the protection of minority rights, including Indigenous Peoples, ethnic, and religious minorities, ensuring equal opportunities, and preserving cultural heritage." Cabo Verde also made a broader recommendation, calling on Malaysia to "commit to creating conditions for access to basic public services and employment for vulnerable groups of the population, in particular, indigenous groups and migrants." 

The Malaysian delegation, under the leadership of Dato' Bala Chandran Tharman, Deputy Secretary-General (Multilateral Affairs), acknowledged the recommendations and described the government's ongoing efforts to address the raised concerns. Responding to concerns, representatives from Malaysia's Ministry of Rural and Regional Development acknowledged ongoing efforts and stakeholder engagement in creating a comprehensive Indigenous development policy. "In promoting the land rights of Aboriginal communities in Peninsula Malaysia, the federal government and state authorities are collaborating to gazette the Aboriginal areas and reserves, and various programs are being introduced, including infrastructure development, the creation of villages, the regrouping of traditional villages, and structured settlements," stated the Malaysian delegation. Malaysia will now analyze these recommendations and provide its responses before the 56th session of the Human Rights Council, scheduled for June-July 2024.