03/30/2023, 13.41
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Pahang: Forcibly converted to Islam, indigenous people want their identity back

by Steve Suwannarat

They were 137 people who did not understand Malaysian and were also associated with the country's Muslim community in government plans and censuses. The case has rekindled attention on the Orang Asli, the indigenous people who remain marginalised in some areas. Children's enrolment in their schools is falling.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) - The case of the alleged forced conversion of a small tribal community in the Malaysian state of Pahang has rekindled attention on the Orang Asli, an ethnic minority group that is sometimes associated with the Muslim community and considered as converts to Islam in government plans and censuses even when they are not. There are 137 individuals who reported a mass conversion in Pahang that took place in April 1993. They are members of the Bateq Mayah ethnic group, of animist belief, who aim to restore their original identity through their civil action. 

According to the lawyers in charge of their legal protection, the conversion was extorted on the basis of their lack of understanding, even of the language, to the point that it was only many years later - when some began to read Malaysian - that they realised their condition, in violation of the Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954, which aims to protect their traditions and to protect the indigenous people from exploitation and discrimination.

The Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa, from its initials in Malaysian), the Council for Islamic, Religious and Malay Traditions in Pahang, the local government and the federal government have been called to account for the issue, which allegedly involves other groups in the same area.

But the debate on the Orang Asli has been raging for a long time and politics also plays an important role, sometimes in favour of their integration (and seeing them as a reservoir of votes) or, on the contrary, aimed at promoting their diversity.

The consequences of the partial integration of the indigenous peoples can be seen above all in the field of education: among the students expected to start secondary school, the percentage of Orang Asli in 2016 fell from 20% to 17%, reaching between 13% and 15% only two years later, and marking a negative trend in the following years as well.

The Orang Asli Development Department confirmed that in the 99 schools specifically for these groups, including 97 primary schools, out of 3,200 students enrolled in the first year, only 2,062 made it to the fifth year in 2021, with a drop-out rate of 42%. The situation for indigenous youth studying in government schools is better, with 27,326 and 12,980 students for primary and secondary respectively.  

The phenomenon is partly explained by bullying of the indigenous peoples, while the project to include teachers from the aboriginal groups, and the initiatives to give them greater motivation to stay in school go in the direction of halting a worrying trend, but it is not the only one: in terms of employment, income and opportunities, the reality of the Orang Asli also sees many critical issues. In terms of integration, according to the experts, it remains crucial to spread knowledge about the community among Malaysians, also by including appropriate information in history and culture courses.

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