Malaysia: Orang Asli appeal to get back customary land in Iskandar

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    V Anbalagan

    Free Malaysia Today | 13 March 2017

    A group of Orang Asli in Johor who won a suit over their customary land rights will appeal to the Court of Appeal over compensation.

    Lawyer Aaron Mathews, a member of the legal team who represented the Orang Seletar community, said their clients were unhappy with the High Court ruling that the state government only pay them damages.

    Aaron with the Orang Seletar plaintiffs after the high court decision.

    “Our clients want the authorities to return 340 acres of land as outlined in their suit. This is due to their attachment to their traditional territories,” he told FMT.

    The disputed land is at Kampung Sungai Temon and Kampung Bakar Batu, located at the Danga Bay region of the Iskandar Development Corridor in Johor.

    On Feb 28, Justice Teo Say Eng ruled the Orang Asli possessed customary rights to their traditional lands and waters.

    However, Teo ordered the state government to compensate the Orang Seletar community for loss of their customary lands, based on their market value under the Land Acquisition Act.

    He said the state had registered ownership of the land to seven defendants and this amounted to an acquisition.

    Boat landing area for Kampung Sungai Temon, with one of the seafood restaurants at top left.

    Teo, in his oral judgment, held that to order a return of the land from the defendants to the Orang Seletar would be in breach of the right to property under the Federal Constitution.

    The court also recognised the Orang Asl had rights over 7,000 acres of their customary waters located in the Danga Bay region of the Iskandar Development corridor.

    It also found that the federal and Johor governments were in breach of their fiduciary duty owed to the Orang Seletar community to ensure the protection of their customary areas.

    Five years ago, 188 members from the Orang Seletar community in the Danga Bay region filed a civil suit against the Iskandar Regional Development Authority and several other defendants for rights to their customary lands.

    The plaintiffs said their customary territories were encroached into by private companies and individuals.

    They also said the state was also reluctant to recognise their rights to the customary land and waters.

    In the civil suit, the Orang Seletar, also known as Orang Laut, also sought declaratory orders in relation to their communal customary rights and interests in relation to the sea, sea bed, rivers, river beds, tidal inlets, bays, estuaries, harbours and subterranean waters in the Johor Straits.

    The Bar Council’s Committee on Orang Asli Rights led by Steven Thiru appeared for the Orang Asli Seletar on a pro bono basis. Others in the team were K Mohan, Yogeswaran Subramaniam, Jessica Binwani, Theiva Lingam and one other.

    Land reclamation project on the Orang Seletar customary lands that have already been alienated to others.

    [COAC note: The judge ruled that although the Orang Seletar have rights over their customary lands, it would also be unfair and against the national land Code to cancel the lots already alienated to others according to the law. These lands are to be considered as having been acquired by the state and as such adequate compensation is to be paid by the state for them. All remaining state lands are to be gazetted as an Orang Asli Reserve under the Aboriginal Peoples Act. The concern here is that it looks like the state had already alienated much of the 340 acres the Orang Seletar have claimed as their customary lands.

    The Orang Asli’s application for a stay of the status quo until the appeal is over is set to be heard on 21 March 2017 in the Johor Baru High Court.]

    COAC | 14 March 2017

    Mussels being reared in floating cages opposite their village. Singapore is in the background.
    Mussels harvested from the mangrove areas and being prepared for sale at Kampung Bakar Batu.