The Orang Asli are an indigenous population in the Malay Peninsula region who are often considered to be one of the first people in Southeast Asia. Estimates put their population in Malaysia at around 150,000.
The Orang Asli are divided into three groups — Semang (Negrito), Senoi, and Proto-Malay. The Semang and Senoi groups are considered the original inhabitants of the region, with the Proto-Malay community only arriving between 2500 BCE and 1500 BCE. Until the 1st millennium BCE, the Orang Malay communities kept to themselves in the forests, having no contact with outsiders. It was during this period that Indian traders arrived in the region. Soon, the Orang Asli started trading their inland products with foreign traders.
During the Malay Srivijaya Empire, the Semang people from southern forests are known to have been enslaved. After the establishment of the Malacca Sultanate, the Orang Asli were increasingly captured as slaves by Malays. In fact, the Malay used to call Orang Asli people “sakai,” meaning debt slaves. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Orang Asli communities were raided numerous times by the Malay and Batak forces who saw them as having a lower status. British colonials worsened the situation, with many Christian missionaries targeting them. The community also became a subject of anthropological research during this time.
In the 1950s and 60s, Malaysia was under intense conflict between the Commonwealth armed forces and the pro-independence communist forces. The British saw Orang Asli as providing support to the communists and put many of them in internment camps. After Malaysia gained independence, the government adopted various measures to integrate the Orang Asli community into mainstream society.
However, the ground reality is pretty different from what the government promised. Though the 1954 Aboriginal Peoples Act claims to protect the land of the Orang Asli, the fact is that they only have “usufructuary rights” over it, meaning that the community members can only use the land and not actually own it. As a consequence, the majority of Orang Asli have legally become tenants in the land they have inhabited for centuries and even millennia.
There are also reports of state health officials forcing women from the Orang Asli community to take birth control injections and pills. This is apparently being done to control the population of the community, which is surprising since Orang Asli only makes up 150,000 people in a country of 30 million.
Another threat the Orang Asli face is from radical Islamists. Since the 80s, the Malaysian government has adopted a more fundamentalist approach toward the religions of Orang Asli tribes. The Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) was set up with the official purpose of promoting “spiritual development” among the native communities. In reality, the program just entices Orang Asli people to convert to Islam. One project even promised Muslim men a payment of 10,000 ringgit if they married Orang Asli women.
Many people from the tribe have complained that they are wrongly classified as Muslims in their identity documents. Several state-sponsored programs often involve Islamic preachers, which points to active government involvement in the conversion process. Last year, the Kelantan Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council announced that it will convert all Orang Asli people in the state to Islam by 2049. This triggered a huge backlash, which made the government state that they merely wanted to “expose” the community to Islam.