Challenges faced by Indegenous People in Peninsular

and East Malaysia

By: Sis. Pathma Krishnan, Regional Coordinator, Education International, Asia & Pacific Region

An estimated of the world’s two third of indigenous population live in Asia, almost about 260 million people. Some are called indigenous and some are called native people or hill or river tribal people. In Malaysia, both East and West there are Orang Asil, Orang Ulu, Anak Negeri groups. In 2015, it was estimated that the indigenous peoples of Malaysia represented about 13.8% of the population of Malaysia. While Malaysia adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country’s indigenous population faces several challenges especially in land rights, no proper birth documentation, difficulties in going to school and others. Malaysia has not ratified ILO Convention 169 yet.

In many parts of the world, the indigenous community are the poorest among the poor. There are about 18 Orang Asli sub-groups In Peninsular Malaysia and in Sarawak indigenous peoples are collectively know as natives (Dayaks/or and Orang Ulu). They include Iban, Bidayuh, the Kenyah, the Kayan, the Kadazan, the Lunbawang, the Punan, the Bisayah, the Kelabit, the Berawa, the Kejaman, the Ukit, the Sekapan, the Melanau and the Penan and the population is about 1.935 million which is about 70.5% of the population of Sarawak.

In Sabah, the 39 different indigenous ethnic groups are knowns as natives or Anak Negeri and constitute about 2.233 million people at about 60% of the population of Sabah. The main groups are the Dusun, Murut, Paitan and the Bajau groups.

Although the Malays are also indigenous to Malaysia, they are not categorized as indigenous peoples, because they constitute the majority and are politically, economically and socially dominant.

Main challenges

Most of the indigenous peoples depend on access to their land and natural resources for their livelihood. They hunt, gather, cultivate, which includes shifting cultivation, fishing which are very crucial to their culture and tradition. There is a blatant disregard to the rights of indigenous peoples and their lands by the state government or/and the federal government. The non-implementation of laws, illegal logging, non-recognition of their land rights does not favour the indigenous peoples. There has been a historic injustice towards the indigenous people’s rights to land by the state governments. A major challenge is that the state does not have an effective monitoring and evaluation plan to ensure that there is proper coordination by the governing body which is the state law.

As all of us would like to acknowledge that education is the key factor in promoting and protecting indigenous rights, one of the main challenges faced by the community is the lack of birth-right documentation like the Mykad; which does not allow indigenous children then to enroll in schools. Some concrete measures from the state and federal governments must be reviewed so that all birth documentation is recorded, and children would be able to attend school without any hindrance. Education is the only way that we can combat negative stereotypes, learn about their culture and tradition, attitudes and approaches to ensure that the indigenous boys and girls get a quality education.

In looking at the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development and the Paris Agreement on Climate change; the region must launch a new dialogue with national stakeholders especially with the indigenous people’s civil society groups. Strategies must be worked out with the indigenous groups to enhance the involvement and participation to assess needs on education, on safeguarding their land rights and resources for their livelihood as well as climate changes and the way forward. There must be a participatory willingness on the part of the state as well as the indigenous people’s groups.

Another crucial challenge that indigenous people face is a focus on the indigenous women. The women must be empowered; and in most communities, they are left behind to fend for the children on their own, where the men have either gone hunting or fishing to faraway places or just left the community. The empowerment of women is vital and often the women are not respected for their contribution to their society. National and state must initiate efforts to combat violence against women, increase their participation in socio-economic policies and address the situation of the women are in their community.

As policy makers at state or federal level, teachers’ unions, indigenous groups, civil societies, we must work together to reform policies and the legal framework matters relating to the indigenous peoples. One must look at the various gaps and take concrete measures to put it right, starting from the proper documentation of indigenous peoples, national data, land rights and most importantly the ratification of ILO C. No. 169 as the way forward.