KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia has filed a lawsuit against an opposition-run state for infringing on an indigenous tribe's land rights by handing out licences to plantation companies to cut down timber, the first such action by a sitting government.
Deforestation over the decades has displaced some of the dozens of indigenous groups in Malaysia from their customary land. Property development and palm oil, rubber and more recently durian plantations have also encroached on their land.
Activists have criticised consecutive Malaysian administrations for failing to protect the indigenous groups.
In a statement on Friday, Attorney General Tommy Thomas said a civil lawsuit was filed against the state of Kelantan after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his cabinet decided to act on behalf of the Temiar tribe in the state.
Thomas said the Kelantan government had granted logging licences to private companies, and that these companies had entered the native land "with heavy vehicles, clearing out truckloads of timber and vast areas of the forest to set up durian and rubber tree plantations".
"The federal government is instituting legal proceedings on behalf of the Orang Asli in recognition of the federal government's constitutional and legal duty to protect and promote their well-being and advancement," Thomas said. Orang Asli refers to indigenous people of peninsular Malaysia.
The Mahathir government was seeking legal recognition of the Temiar tribe's land rights and injunctions to restrain private parties from encroaching and destroying the land, Thomas said.
Five private entities were also sued, Thomas said, though he did not identify them.
The move could be seen as political as Kelantan is governed by opposition Islamic party PAS, but activists welcomed it as a first step.
"Research by Amnesty has found that indigenous peoples of Malaysia continue to suffer from a wide range of human rights violations, including an absence of formal recognition of their land, as well as threats, intimidation and violence when they seek to claim their rights to the land," said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Malaysia researcher at Amnesty International.