by Fathol Zaman Bukhari
It may not be the landmark case of the year but the decision by the Tapah magistrate court to acquit and discharge four Orang Asli over the shooting of a tiger in Bukit Tapah Forest Reserve in 2010 was of significance to the Semai community. The four, Yok Mat Bah Chong, 48, Yok Rayau Yok Senian, 50, Yok Kalong Bah Papee, 51, and Hassan Bah Ong, 33, were charged under Section 64A of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 (Amended 1976 and 1988) which carries a fine of RM15,000 or a five-year jail sentence or both.
The incident took place in the forest reserve near Sungkai on February 4, 2010. According to Yok Mat, they shot the tiger to save their friend, Yok Meneh Yok Din, who was attacked by the animal while out foraging in the forest. The prosecution, adduced Magistrate Fairuz Adiba Ismail, had failed to prove a prima facie case against the four who hailed from different villages in Sungkai.
Based on a 2000 census, the Orang Asli population in Peninsular Malaysia stands at approximately 150,000 or 0.5 per cent of the overall population of the country. They are being divided into three groups, namely Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay. The Senoi forms the largest grouping with nearly 55 per cent of the total number. Senoi is concentrated in central peninsula, of which the Semai is the majority with nearly 35,000.
The Semai is found mostly in areas around Sungai Siput in the north to Tanjung Malim in the south. There is also a sizeable population in the Tapah and Cameron Highlands regions. A vital link during the Malayan Emergency (1948 to 1960), they were being courted by both the Communist insurgents and the authorities. The establishment of security posts in the Semai heartland of Cameron Highlands and areas bordering Perak and Kelantan bore testimony to this statement.
During my years in the army I had the opportunity to interact with these indigenous people in Post Brooke, Post Telanok and Post Poi. Their naivety and, to a large extent, simplicity are reasons why they have been taken advantage of by the unscrupulous among us. The pillage, unfortunately, continues to this day. For reasons of political expedience, the Orang Asli community has come under intense public scrutiny since the general election of 2008.
Legislations related to Orang Asli are the National Land Code 1965, Land Conservation Act 1960, Wildlife Protection Act 1972 (Amended 1976 and 1988), National Parks Act 1980 (Amendment 1983), and most importantly the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. The Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 provides for the setting up and establishment of the Orang Asli Reserve Land. It also includes the power accorded to the Director-General of the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli to order Orang Asli out of such reserved land at its discretion, and award compensation to affected people. A landmark case in 2002 was the Sagong Tasi vs. Government of Selangor. It concerned the state using its powers under the 1954 Act to evict Orang Asli from gazetted Orang Asli Reserve Land. The High Court ruled in favour of Sagong Tasi, who represented the Orang Asli, and was upheld by the Court of Appeal.
Although the Tapah court decision on Thursday, October 11 may not be in the same league as the Sagong Tasi case, its significance can never be dismissed. It is, after all, a vindication of sorts for a community long oppressed by the very people entrusted to care for them. It is poetic justice for the four who were doing what their forefathers had been doing before them – eking out a living by foraging in the jungles. The vast jungle tracts, which are slowly but surely shrinking due to human encroachments, are fair game for the powerful and the moneyed, on one side, and the weak and the poor, on the other. It is akin to the confrontation between the Red Indians and the white settlers in 19th century USA.
The fact that the quartet was defended by the likeable legal team of Augustine Anthony and Amani William Hunt Abdullah, better known as Bah Tony, a part Semai, lends credence to its importance. Augustine had argued that there had been contradictions in the evidence produced in court. The shotgun, belonging to a Rela personnel, referred to in the ballistic report was different from the one seized from the accused. A Veterinary Services Department officer had told the court that she was the one who performed the autopsy on the dead tiger but an earlier report said that a Wildlife Department officer did the examination. The Rela officer who testified on behalf of the prosecution could not even differentiate one shotgun from another.
“The contradictions were simply too glaring for a conviction,” said Augustine. “Therefore, the court was justified in dismissing the four.”
The victory may be long overdue but more problems are in the offing. The latest being the slapping of Orang Asli students by a Malay teacher for failing to recite the doa during school assembly.