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Living on the edges of human dignity

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Mustafa K Anuar gets us to imagine the Orang Asli land issue if roles were reversed: what would we think if a big chunk of concrete jungle on prime KL land had to be demolished to make way for the Orang Asli’s ‘strategic plan’ to plant tapioca and rice for their survival?

Orang Asli demanding their rights - Photo courtesy of Komas

A documentary on the Orang Asli being denied their rights came out tops among the three winning film entries in this year’s FreedomFilmFest competition, the screening of which was organised by Komas and held last Saturday evening in Petaling Jaya.

Titled “Hak Dinafikan” (Rights Denied), and directed by Abri Yok Chopil and Shafie bin Dris, the documentary touches on the long-standing issue of the Orang Asli community as a whole being denied their legitimate human rights to their land, livelihood, culture and, above all, human dignity.

The other two winning entries were equally engaging: “Kisah Tauke Mancis dan Minyak Tumpah”, which was jointly directed by Sheridan Mahavera and Siti Nurbaiyah, examines developments that led to the controversial cow-head protest in Shah Alam about a year ago; and “Pilih”, which was directed by Loo Que Lin, revolves around the issue of student politics and power (or lack of) in Malaysia’s universities.

The 30-minute “Hak Dinafikan”, which may not get an airing on mainstream TV stations in the country, provides a crucial platform for ordinary members of the Orang Asli, among others, to voice out their grievances, concerns, fears, ideas and aspirations.

Some of them were very articulate and knew their stuff very well, which goes to show that talking down to them, as certain politicians and government officials are inclined to do, can be very insulting to them.

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This film is more than just a documentation of restless voices from the so-called wilderness. It also serves to reflect the foibles of the so-called modern and progressive men and women outside of the Orang Asli community.

That is, those who live in “modern” houses, drive air-conditioned cars on choked roads, buy frozen fish and potatoes from the supermarket, put a monetary value on land and/or destroy the environment in the name of development.

During the discussion that followed the screening, a member of the Orang Asli who was standing on stage along with the film directors of “Hak Dinafikan”, made an incisive remark.

He pointed out that the Orang Asli are indeed the “original people” of this land and yet they’ve been pushed around, duped and short-changed over the years by the very group of people who migrated much later to this land.

It’s about time, he reminded poignantly, that the migrants paid due attention, and be sensitive, to the needs and concerns of the original people. The right to their land must be recognised by the authorities, he emphasised.

The forest, which over the years has become a contested resource, has often witnessed the Orang Asli (and other natives) being locked in a conflict with those who value this natural resource as a commodity to be sold and exploited.

Rapacious logging, the planting of cash crops, the development of a posh housing estate, and the construction of an airport, a golf course or a highway, for instance, have certainly posed a threat to a community like the Orang Asli whose livelihood, nay survival, is very much dependent on the forest.

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As a result, the Orang Asli community concerned is often relocated, or lose big portions of their ancestral land. To look at this land issue from a different perspective, I suppose it’s a bit like demolishing a big chunk of the concrete jungle on prime land in Kuala Lumpur to make way for the Orang Asli’s “strategic plan” to plant tapioca, padi, durian and other crops for their own consumption and survival.

To be sure, this plan may well give rise to unhappiness and subsequently provoke a protest from certain quarters in the urbanised society because within this very concrete jungle lies an upmarket shopping mall by which the collective identity of the rich and famous is defined.

This is where the consumerist urbanites, for instance, earnestly seek their branded jeans and shoes, purchase their Guccis, Louis Vuittons and Pradas, while others simply indulge in “retail therapy.”

In other words, the Orang Asli community’s woes must be heard, and heard attentively.

For that matter, other groups living on the margins, which include the destitute, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, should also be given a fair hearing.

After all, wouldn’t this be part and parcel of that noble endeavour to be inclusive under the slogan of 1 Malaysia? For surely membership to the “imagined community” of Malaysians would make them entitled to all the rights and privileges accorded to the citizenry.

Needless to say, it would certainly be demeaning and insulting if and when the welfare of the Orang Asli and other marginalised groups is entertained by the powers-that-be only in the run-up to general elections and by-elections.

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That is, for political expediency. Besides, the Orang Asli, with their bountiful knowledge of the physical environment, would surely have something useful to contribute to the common good of this country, particularly when it comes to human relationship with Mother Nature.

Who knows, the Orang Asli may well, for example, regard it as a towering feat if the country’s leadership were to rescind the proposed plan to build some humongous tower in Kuala Lumpur — and instead suggest the creation of a public park for every inhabitant of this concrete jungle to enjoy.

Some things in life are just priceless, the community would remind you.

Mustafa K Anuar is Asst Secretary of Aliran. This commentary first appeared in The Malaysian Insider.

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