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Why are Orang Asli prime targets for conversion?

  • Kelantan government says it will convert all 16,000 Orang Asli in the state to Islam within 30 years, and bodies of Bateq tribesmen who died mysteriously have been exhumed for postmortem and reburied as Muslims!

By Mariam Mokhtar

Some Orang Asli (OA) found that their religions had been changed, to Islam, in their Identity Cards. Recently the Kelantan government said that they hoped to convert all the 16,000 OA, in the state, to Islam, within thirty years. After the bodies of the Bateq tribesmen, who died mysteriously were exhumed for a post-mortem, their bodies were desecrated by being reburied as Muslims. All these are disturbing revelations.

So, why are state governments intent on converting the OA, instead of helping them to improve their daily lives, their children's education, their health, their well-being, and the infrastructure in their villages?

The actions of our state authorities, which promote big businesses, like logging, create a vicious cycle which, in the end, will kill-off the OA.

The state issues logging permits to timber tycoons, to harvest the big trees. Workers then invade the OA ancestral lands, with scant regard for their concerns and rituals.

In some cases the trees, boulder, or areas which bear a special significance to the OA, such as burial spots, or artifacts of cultural importance are simply demolished.

Where the dense undergrowth is disturbed, some flora and fauna may not be able to survive. Animals which live off certain fruits and vegetation cannot find anything to eat, so they migrate and leave the area. This deprives the OA of a source of food and protein. You and I go to the supermarket, or pasar, for our meat, but not the OA. They hunt theirs, but they only kill what they can consume, and they share any excess, with other families. There is no waste. They practise a nice balance with nature.

The OA get their water from the pristine rivers and streams. When logging companies, and worse still, mining companies, either legal and illegal, start their activities, they pollute the water sources used by the OA. The water which they use to drink, bathe and irrigate their crops.

After the companies have contaminated the water supply, how are the OA to live? People can live for a few days without food, but not water. It is essential for life. People who drink this polluted water will fall ill, or die. Fish cannot live in this water and thus the OA is deprived of another source of protein.

If the OA were to wash in this water, they may get skin diseases, rashes or lesions. It is easy for us to turn on a tap for our water. Perhaps, the people in KL who are affected by water shortages can empathize with the OA.

There have been allegations that OA children, who attend boarding schools, return home as Muslims. Others claim that children who cannot recite the doa are slapped. Their parents were not told about the conversions. This is against the law.

After the OA have been converted, they will not be allowed to return to their former way of life, and their culture. Their food. Their burial rites. Their clothing. Their festivals. Their rituals. All will have to change, when they adjust to life as Muslims. Their women may be forced to wear a tudung and perhaps, little girls are told to wear a burka. Sadly, even their languages or dialects will disappear.

Why should we concern ourselves? Some people will argue that the OA will have better health care, better schools or a better existence.

Others will say that when they are resettled and housed in the villages, the OA cannot claim that the ancestral lands are needed for their way of life, and their former culture.

Isn't this a novel way, to allow big businesses to invade the OA lands, for timber, for the wood and pulping industry. When the supply of timber has been exhausted, the land is cleared for the next big environmental disaster - the thousands of acres of one crop - oil palm.

Conversion is a clever way to coerce and tame a community, without the perception of violence. The OA have existed for millennia, without any interference from the outside world. Conversion is not necessarily for religion. Conversion is power, but more importantly, it is a means of control.


1. Free Malaysia Today: Kelantan aims to convert Orang Asli to Islam in 30 years
2. Malay Mail: Bodies of Batek Orang Asli laid to rest in Muslim cemetery
3. MalaysiaKini: Jakoa to examine claims Orang Asli MyKad modified to show religion as Islam

(Mariam Mokhtar is a Freelance Writer.)

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