They are Malaysia’s dirty little secret, a perennial problem for governments since the country became independent 62 years ago.
While Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad continues to harangue Israel and Myanmar on the international stage for their treatment of the Palestinians and Rohingya alike, he seems incapable or, indeed, unwilling to address a similar problem in his own backyard.
Another confrontation in the northern state of Kelantan recently highlights that very problem the Malaysian government has been trying to keep under wraps and wish would just go away.
It is generally understood the Orang Asli are Peninsular Malaysia’s original inhabitants, making the rainforests and coastal fishing areas their own long before Malays migrated from Sumatra and Borneo and settled on the mainland more than 3,000 years ago (although there are a few theories that dispute this).
Official studies state there are 18 Orang Asli tribes, numbering 180,000 people, dotted up and down the peninsula, from Thailand to the Causeway dividing Johor from Singapore.
Some tribes are migratory, while others have found the rich pickings from their life living off the land — or, indeed, ocean — in one place.
Unlike the histories of other indigenous peoples across the globe, that of the Orang Asli is not one of forceable subjugation, quite simply because their numbers were too few and, as various foreign entities came and went, there was enough land for everyone.
In the 20th century, a number of tribes even used their unique knowledge of the rainforest to help the British fight the Japanese and the Malaysian government overcome communist guerrillas.
Regardless, as Malaysia has developed over the past few decades, the concept of plenty to go around has been steadily eroded.
This is reinforced by the fact that the Orang Asli have very few rights in the eyes of the law, which means they have little or no access to education, medical care or even basic utilities like running water.
Earlier this year, the Bateq tribe felt the brunt of this neglect. A community in Kuala Koh, Gua Musang, Kelantan, suddenly started dropping like flies.
In time-honoured tradition, the police raced into a state of complete inaction.
The Kelantan government raced to keep it quiet and hoped the incident would just go away.
But it leaked to the press.
Environmentalists cried foul, blaming a foetid water supply from a manganese mine not far away.
In urban areas, horrified liberal voters watched with morbid fascination as the death toll rose from this mystery plague, while a federal government finally creaked and groaned into action, more concerned about the outcry than the villagers themselves.
(Bearing in mind this ‘New Malaysia’ government elected in 2018 — trying in every way not to be like the corrupt, crony former government that said a lot but did very little except plunder the national coffers — is coming to terms with a massively bloated civil service that enjoys getting paid a lot for doing very little.)
So, after the usual ministerial chest-thumping and civil servants rushing to cover their backsides, the root cause was found to be measles, a deadly but perfectly treatable disease.
It wouldn’t even be a problem, if the Bateq had been for routine vaccinations.
Yet, by-and-large, the villagers had never heard of vaccinations, let alone had access to them.
Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of Orang Asli live below the poverty line in Malaysia, where the national minimum wage is roughly US$250 a month.
It should be noted the indigenous tribes in Sabah and Sarawak are nominally protected under the Bumiputera policy — a racist national agenda to provide educational, social and economic advantages to Malays, at the expense of ethnic Chinese and Indians — but the Orang Asli have no such protection.
So, over the decades, the government has systematically tried to assimilate the Orang Asli into mainstream society, dangling life’s basics in front of them like a carrot, if they conform.
Yet the Orang Asli do not want to conform, they just want to be left alone to enjoy their way of life.
However, the country’s continued development means expansion and expansion means land, Orang Asli land.
Their only supposed trump card has been that their customary land is protected by the Federal Constitution; a card they have repeatedly played in the courts without much success, because in Malaysia, land disputes seem to favour whoever waves the biggest stick.
If a court decides encroachment is illegal, then the transgressor usually pays a token fine, similarly token compensation for the land, which is rarely returned to its rightful owner.
Then, it’s back to business. Occupation, it seems, is the entirety of the law.
The people waving the biggest sticks in Malaysian land disputes are loggers and developers. Combined, they make an almost unassailable obstacle.
Cases in point are the ongoing legal battles the Orang Seletar in the southern state of Johor have with developers and, the state and federal governments, both over property developments requiring the tribe to vacate the area.
To bring the plight of one community into context: 20 years of legal wrangling brought partial victory to the villagers, with the courts ordering the property developers, and state and federal governments to pay compensation.
That was in 2012, but it took until last year for the Johor government to offer compensation: US$61,000 for land that was worth US$4 million — a paltry sum barely 1.5 percent of the land’s value.
It comes as little surprise that the Orang Seletar are still fighting. While money is not the primary objective for the villagers, it does bring into focus the contempt they are shown as a matter of routine.
In the northern states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and Perak, life is more confrontational.
Logging companies, legal and illegal, are at frequent odds with settlements, including those of the largest tribe — the Orang Temiar, which also has large communities in Gua Musang.
Villagers regularly erect barricades and actively try to prevent loggers from entering their lands.
The loggers call the police or have their own “police” on hand and invariably there are arrests of Orang Asli.
The villagers complain of police bias at the very least, as there are no reports of loggers detained by the authorities.
State governments generally side with the loggers, often providing them with the permit to fell trees in the first place, regardless of the status of the land.
This has given rise to the widely held belief that key people in these states are benefitting financially from the logging, either through the logging companies directly or through interests in the developments that follow.
In Putrajaya, again the government is keen to be seen as one of action, but has done little so far, save tripping over bureaucracy. It has managed to secure a fragile truce between the two parties, but fragile is the key word.
Loggers in this region are not known for their patience or adherence to the law, while they do not make money sitting on their backsides.
It will not be long before the truce is broken, and the bulldozers return to the barricades.
So, while Malaysia continues to bang its drum about the plight of the Palestinians and the Rohingya, spare a thought for the Orang Asli.
They may not be staring down tanks and armed troops but, bit by bit, they are being evicted from what is rightfully theirs: their land.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of UCA News.