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LETTER | Covid-19 and indigenous people’s resilience

LETTER | The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commemorates Aug 9, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples with this year’s theme "Covid-19 and Indigenous People’s Resilience". 

The international community recognises that special measures are required to protect indigenous people’s (IP) rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life. The IPs are the poorest and marginalised group in Malaysia, and their vulnerability had been further compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, with their access to medicines, healthcare, food, education and livelihoods badly affected.

Suhakam wishes to highlight that IPs had demonstrated their resilience in responding to the challenges brought about by the pandemic, by practicing their traditional knowledge and solutions to survive including voluntary isolation and sealing off their territories as what took place at Gua Musang by the Mendriq tribe, and at Kampong Paya Mengkuang by the Jahut, Jakun and Semelai tribe. 

In Batu Niah, Sarawak, the Iban villagers had taken upon themselves to impose a fine of RM2,000 for any outsiders entering their longhouse as a measure to stop the spread of Covid-19 among the residents. Apart from that, Ngabang; house to house and longhouse to longhouse visits during the Gawai Dayak festival; a one-month harvesting festival was substantially toned down to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. 

Communities had also resorted to sourcing for food and herbs from the surrounding jungles, as well as protecting their children from being exposed to other children.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (UDHR) provides that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being for himself and his family including food, clothing, and medical care”. 

Whilst Article 8 of the Federal Constitution, states that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law, with part (5)(c) expressly recognising there may very well be provisions for the protection, well-being or advancement of the IPs.

IPs have, throughout the years, sought recognition of their identities, their way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources, but their rights have continued to be violated. 

Suhakam conducted its National Inquiry (NI) into the Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia in 2010-2012, with a series of public hearings in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, which examined the root causes of the land issues faced by the IPs. 

Following the inquiry, the government established a special task force to study the findings and recommendations of the NI Report, but in reality, it has yet to be executed by the government.

Suhakam will continue to follow up with the government’s intent on implementing the NI’s recommendations, specifically; and more generally, on what policies are required to bridge gaps and to create an environment where equal treatment and benefits are provided so the indigenous community will be more empowered in the near future.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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