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7 Orang Asli win suit against govt, ruled owners of customary land

Seven Temuan Orang Asli today emerged victors in their battle against the government and a highway concessionaire after a landmark court ruling that affirmed their rights over land acquired in 1996 for a highway construction.

The Shah Alam High Court today ruled that the Orang Asli owned proprietary rights in their customary and traditional land and that they have the right to use and derive profit from the land.

Justice Mohd Noor Ahmad also awarded damages to the plaintiffs and ordered that the quantum be decided by the court registrar.

The plaintiffs initiated the suit for the loss of their land and dwellings in Kampung Bukit Tampoi, Dengkil, in 1996 for the construction of a highway for the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

They named the federal government, the Selangor state government, construction firm United Engineering Malaysia (UEM) and the Malaysian Highway Authority (LLM) as defendants.

The plaintiffs, now reduced to six after the death of one last year, claimed that about 40 acres of land of the Orang Asli settlement were acquired for the highway project and they were compensated only for their trees and houses and not for the land. This was on the basis that they were not the rightful legal owners of the land.

The seven  Sagong Tasi, Tunchit Penjak, Dabak Chabat, Kepal Kepong, Sani Saken, Senin Angan and Tukas Siam  asked for a declaration that they are the owners of the land by custom and the holders of native titles to the land.

They also claimed compensation for breach of their legal rights under the law and the Federal Constitution, with interests and costs, special damages and other relief as deemed just by the court.

Unlawful eviction

In the course of the trial, which began in December 2000, Sagong, 69, testified that his people had always lived in the area, as far back, in his memory at least, as five generations.

The defendants contended that the Orang Asli were no longer practising or observing their traditional way of life and thus were not entitled to any of the claims that they sought from the court.

Colin Nicholas, the co-ordinator for Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, a support group for indigenous peoples, hailed the courts decision and said that the ruling allowed for compensations to be paid to the affected Orang Asli community as stipulated in the Land Acquisition Act.

The court held that the Orang Asli were unlawfully evicted from their land, he told malaysiakini .

The court also found that the government owed a fiduciary duty to the Orang Asli and that duty was breached when their land was taken away for development, he added.