Poor indigenous peoples!

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    SOMETIME in the middle of this month, I saw a message on my handphone screen; it was from Francis Johen, a friend who used to work in the State Attorney General’s Chambers. He is now a commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), and in his message he invited me to a briefing by the commission at a hotel in the city.

    In my clumsy handling of the gadget, I must have touched the wrong button because the message disappeared and could not be retrieved. I could not reply: “thanks Jo coming”. But, of course, I went.

    UPR

    Datuk Dr Haw Lake Tee, its vice-chairman, provided an overview of the outcome of Malaysia’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) since its first in 2009. Thank you, Datuk.

    She allowed questions from the participants on UPR but reluctantly allowed lengthy discussion on the subject relating to the land rights of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak. I was going to refer to certain recommendations contained in Annexure 5 of the UPR for further clarification and elaboration on an important issue in Sarawak – land rights of the indigenous peoples – but I was discouraged to wade into them until after a pleading in raised voices, an act which should have been unnecessary if freedom of expression was allowed. In the end, however, an assurance was given by the chair that this important matter could be a subject for another discussion at another meeting … when?

    Then the subject on the freedom of religion was allowed to be discussed but the time frame was so short that I was the only one touching on it while the other participants did not get a chance to add or rebut what I had said. Such is the freedom of speech during a human rights organisation’s meeting. What an irony!

    The Orang Asal

    A bulky folder containing what Suhakam has done for the various stakeholders had been distributed earlier to the participants. That was for fast readers with photographic minds. For me, it will take a week to digest the major contents, a slow reader that I am.

    However, what could be discerned from the annexes were revealing. You have to read the book itself in order to get the picture of the magnitude of the issues in human rights needing solutions. Other countries have their own problems of handling human rights violations but in Malaysia we should be doing better than most of them. From Tier 2, we have been downgraded to Tier 3. Self-explanatory.

    For lack of space, I wish only to refer you to the subject relating to the land rights of the indigenous peoples in Sarawak. As I cannot improve on the wording of the statements already neatly crafted in the UPR, the relevant passages of the Orange Book, are hereby copied.

    On Indigenous Peoples, Suhakam has this observation to make for the review:

    “The Government has introduced various programmes to foster better economic opportunities as well as to provide equal education. The Indigenous Education Transformation Plan was launched to offer education that would furnish indigenous peoples with the necessary knowledge and skills for better occupational opportunities.”

    Does anybody know what the ‘Indigenous Education Transformation Plan’ is?

    Suhakam continues: “Suhakam, through its National Inquiry into Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples, finds that it is necessary for the government to take legal, policy and administrative measures to address issues related to indigenous peoples’ right to land. These issues include the lack of recognition of indigenous peoples’ concept of Native Customary Rights To Land; inclusion of native customary land in protected areas and development projects; and inadequate compensation for the loss of indigenous peoples’ land, territories, crops, resources. In addition, it is imperative that the government apply the principle of free, prior and informed consent when addressing issues concerning indigenous communities.”

    Good.

    However, you might as well know that when Denmark proposed that Malaysia allow for the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, our government’s response was in the negative. They qualified the rejection of the visit, this is how Suhakam, the conduit, explains the position:

    “Malaysia continues to take steps to better protect and respect the human rights of its indigenous population. Towards this end, Suhakam had undertaken an independent National Inquiry into the land rights of indigenous peoples, the findings and recommendations of which were submitted to the government in August 2013. Currently, a Task Force comprising senior government officials, civil society representatives, and academicians are in the process of determining, inter alia, details on which recommendations can be implemented in the short, medium and long term.

    “The government is committed to ensure that the report would be reviewed in a balanced and positive manner and takes into account the best interests of Malaysia’s indigenous peoples. The Task Force’s recommendations would be the platform for the formulation of a blueprint for the proposed reforms of indigenous land and policies once approved by the Cabinet. As the government does not wish to pre-judge the outcome of the Task Force’s deliberations, Malaysia is unable to accept these recommendations at this juncture.”

    No good.

    The names of members of the task force and the representatives of civil society organisations are apparently under lock and key for the time being.

    Why can’t the names of the NGOs sitting on the task force be revealed so that they know who and who would be given the privilege to participate and talk?

    Suhakam is a mere saluran (conduit) as Haw freely admitted at the briefing session. That much we appreciate; imagine the frustrations of the commissioners – a group of well-meaning citizens like tigers without teeth!

    Of course, NGOs may channel their grouses to the United Nations direct. That right of recourse to an outside help is possible and this was assured by the vice-chairman of the commission. It was repeated at the press conference which I attended.

    What we need in this country is an ombudsman because Suhakam has limitations as to what the commissioners can do in terms of the recognition of the land rights of the indigenous peoples. They have been kind enough to initiate the formation of the National Inquiry To Land Rights Of The Indigenous Peoples and for that we wish to thank them sincerely. We must give credit where credit is due. The courts have also done their best in many cases where customary rights over Pemakai Menoa and Pulau Galau are recognised as part and parcel of Native Customary Rights (NCR) land in Sarawak but many of their decisions are under appeal by the executive branch of the government. It is recognised that it is the right of the losers in any litigation to appeal to the highest court of appellate jurisdiction, but this process will take years to see an outcome, and involves a lot of taxpayers’ money – all for the sake of getting a legal decision, which may not necessarily be a just or equitable solution to the problem at hand.

    Imagine this. A poor Native having won a land case at the level of the Court of Appeal has to spend more money, not to mention time, to fight in the Federal Court. On the one hand, the government has all the resources; on the other, the Native has practically none. Is the contest just and fair; what does Suhakam think of it? Is it not a case between David and Goliath?

    Nevertheless, my advice to the NGOs and other civil society organisations fighting for the protection of land rights of the indigenous peoples is this: Firstly, do not be discouraged by the views of government functionaries in this fight – they are being paid to do the job, whether they like it or not – but to keep on engaging the government as such. Talk to the politicians in power and outside it, personally. After all, it is our government. Secondly, assist Suhakam in its activities whenever you can. Accept any invitation to their meetings, if you are invited. You may have a recourse to other avenues such as the United Nations and its many agencies and the judiciary but it would be wise if you keep Suhakam by your side as well, for the time being.

    Poor Orang Asal! I am one of you and for you. Those of you who are celebrating the end of Ramadan, Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

    Read more: http://www.theborneopost.com/2014/07/27/poor-indigenous-peoples/#ixzz38wZD4Ct0

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