Victims of encroachment, indigenous groups only remembered when tragedy strikes

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Will they be able to share in the prosperity? - Photograph: Bernama pic/Malay Mail

Sensitive soul-searching and a complete overhaul of our approach are long overdue, says Dominic Damian.

From the Land Below the Wind (Sabah) to the Land of the Hornbills (Sarawak) to the plains of Kedah, indigenous tribal communities have always lived quietly among us.

Anonymous, faceless and nameless, they exist among us unnoticed, the original inheritors of the land. Theirs a culture of lives dancing in harmonised existence with nature – their hearts and lives woven, intertwined and synchronised with the rhythms of the natural world.

But now wounded and forgotten, they are among the most vulnerable and impoverished communities. Recent incidents have revealed how these minority indigenous communities have been affected by our indifference, by the so-called ‘civilised’ and advanced segments of this nation.

How credible are our claims to be stewards of this nation? Our governance of their affairs has largely been an impediment to their genuine advancement, at times untenable and immoral even.

Our moral compass, supported by of our varying faiths, has not been evident in the care we have shown towards these minorities. Otherwise we would not have social problems on such a scale. Our knowledge and wisdom is presumptuous and at best ineffective in tackling their concerns.

The supposed advantages we have – which we think confers upon us the right to care for others in ways we see fit – is a fallacy. What we see instead in many instances instead are trampled and broken lives.

The way we treat our marginalised communities has been atrocious and appalling. Our system is either deficient, complicit or in direct competition for their land and resources. This is the crushing cruelty – and implicates certain state governments.

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By hook or by crook, much of their land and resources has been pillaged and plundered. To make way for ‘Development’. Timber and dams. Durian and oil palm plantations. Housing, highways, byways. Dams and more dams that cannot be justified economically especially in Sarawak. All deemed to be acceptable encroachments.

The indigenous minorities have been put subservient to all these. Forsaken and forgotten, deemed insignificant and expendable, they are viewed as little more than commodities. And we have acquiesced to the silence surrounding their plight.

These natives are acknowledged as first in this land – but then seen as last in the equation. Their land and way of life is persistently and relentlessly threatened and under siege. The timber trade and dams in Sarawak are an international scandal.

Real authentic care is not about search-and-rescue missions or retrieval of bodies when it is too late. It is about protection of the vulnerable for our mutual progress. Is it so difficult to invest in communication devices for indigenous communities in the wilderness for them to seek help, if they so require?

Precise planning, the anticipation of possibilities and preemptive action are components of compassionate kindness. If we don’t practise this, we will forever find ourselves in the chaos of damage control.

To obliterate a community, we only need to do the minimum or nothing at all. The inexcusable fact is there have been unnecessary deaths – an unacceptable tragedy. The preservation of their rights and way of life has been an abject failure.

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The political conscience of this nation is always rooted in knee-jerk reactions. We plaster the wounds, we plug the leaks – but never cure the ailments.

To give without having to be asked – through an understanding of the needs of the vulnerable – should be a privilege and honour. Greatness and goodness are won by such precepts.

If vulnerable communities have to hold out a begging bowl, it is a sure sign of our compromised intentions. Dedicated long-term solutions and pragmatic strategies need to be employed. The feel-good October budget allocation is inadequate.

Sensitive soul-searching and a complete overhaul are long overdue. We need a radical shift from the current methodology. A federal or national policy and mechanisms overriding state policies must be executed. The protection of the indigenous communities and their rights and accessibility to advancement must be cast in stone.

Human decency should encapsulate the highest ideals. A senior official in the past once moaned about the nomadic lifestyle of the indigenous communities, which he said made it impossible for them to send their children to school.

I felt like screaming to myself: You can have a special provision to train passionate and dedicated nomadic teachers. You can have operationally flexible or mobile schools! [See what is possible for the nomadic communities in Sudan].

We can always find solutions to every challenge – and this effort need not be a monumental task of such technical complexity. Compassion and desire can touch and uplift lives.

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