Years ago, when the government came to seize their lands, evicted them and handed their lands over to plantation companies - there was little the Orang Asli community could do to fight back.

NONEOne individual, Shafie Dris (left), called TV stations hoping that somebody would air their case but one station simply responded that they had checked with the land registration office and said "sorry, no story."

"No one came to help us," Shafie Dris said, his eyes started to tear and his voice choked up as he described why, against all odds, he ventured to become a one-man, unlicenced broadcaster for his community.

"My wishes are simple," said Shafie, an Orang Asli from Temerloh, Pahang, who received almost no formal education but speaks fluent Bahasa Malaysia.

"I believe that if the Orang Asli themselves don't speak up and raise a voice of protest, then no one would know that we have a problem... this is my real intention for making videos."

Numbering less than 200,000, or less than 0.1 percent of Malaysian population, the 'aboriginal people' of Peninsular Malaysia are the most vulnerable and downtrodden people group because they have no real political representation.

Some are educated, many still live in poverty and few have any means to articulate their seemingly lost cause.

"Shouldn't we be able to make decisions for ourselves about how we want to live?" Shafie asked an audience of college students, NGO activists, government officers and academicians in Kuala Lumpur last Friday.

Since 2009, 44-year-old Shafie has made more than 80 shortvideos and with the help of some friends, posted them onYouTubeFacebook and also distributed them freely through DVD copies.

shafie drisIt was this self-driven publicity effort that finally yielded some fruit. Last Friday, University Malaya invited Shafie to show a video and tell a packed room of more than 100 people how the government stole the ancestral lands of the Orang Asli and trampled on their rights.

Before this, their protest to Rural and Regional Development Minister Shafie Apdal against amendments to the Aborigines Act 1954 - a move which could see 60 percent of their land rights lost - fell on deaf ears.

Similarly, parliamentarians and the Malaysian Bar have urged the government to implement the landmark Suhakam report, which was presented in August to the Prime Minister's department.

And the government's response? To form a task force to study it further.

'Best do it ourselves'

Shafie Dris decided enough was enough.

"To have a voice, you don't need to be highly-educated. I don't see anywhere in the laws of this land where it says that only the educated can speak up," he said to an audience of smart people.

Shafie only received three years of formal education and has struggled to make a living as an odd-job labourer, a mechanic's assistant, farmer and rubber-tapper.

He told of how, after taking only a short three-day videomaking course in 2009, he was ready for his calling as a reporter.

NONE"I knew in my heart the story I wanted to tell... that made it easy," Shafie said, almost apologetic to the undergraduates,  slogging away studying in the university.

But of course, he faced other challenges - possibly trivial to others – like having to buy a camera and learn how to use a computer.

"I went to a local shop to buy a camera but they said they won't give me a loan because I am a farmer. Only government workers, with stable salaries, are eligible for loans," he said.

And later, even when he found support from human rights NGO Komas, the hurdles didn't stop piling up.

"At Komas, they used (Apple) Mac laptops instead of the PC," Shafie explained, as the knowing audience laughed. The two competing computer systems initially stressed him out to no end.

He fell sick for days, and nearly didn't finish editing his videos, one of which eventually won the top prize at the Komas Freedom Film Festival in 2010.
These days his eldest son, who is 20 years old, helps him with his videos.

Fighting gov't propaganda

When he first started going around the villages showing his videos, the government officers also kept discrediting him, alleging that he is "not an Orang Asli" and is only an opposition pawn out to fish for votes. He still suffers the same sort of persecution today.

NONE"But I don't care... I will persevere. My work is publicly available and people can decide for themselves if the government is correct or I am," Shafie said.

Shafie stressed that his activist work does not back any political party.

While both BN and Pakatan have sporadically offered support for the Orang Asli cause, which was given token mention in the GE13 election manifestos of both parties, Shafie said no one really cared for their land rights.

The mainstream media perception is that the Orang Asli are a backward, stubborn people with unreasonable demands, that they refuse to embrace the country's economic development. That mindset needs to be altered, Shafie said.

In response to a question from the audience, he said that many Orang Asli villages now have access to the Internet and modern facilities.

"But the problem is they are not all brave enough to speak up," added Shafie, who is also the spokesman for Jaringan Orang Asli Pahang (JOAP), a grassroots movement.

The government has been trying to assimilate the Orang Asli through national education and it is an open secret that some are even rewarded for converting to Islam, he said.

"I have nothing against religion. Religion and culture can be separate... but for the government, they hope that once we become Muslim, we naturally lose our traditions," Shafie said.

NONEThis only reinforces the common view that Orang Asli are an uncultured, ancient and wandering wild group of people who need to 'civilised', when in fact they are a pre-bumiputera race, not aliens who just recently landed.

Another Orang Asli activist from Perak, Abri Yokchopil (left), backed Shafie at the UM-sponsored talk.

Abri said that at the end of it all, the community was simply defending their homes and were not an anti-development or pro-democracy movement.

"This is not wandering grounds that we are demanding for but land that has long been demarcated and inherited for generations from our ancestors. We have farmed some of it, lived for a long time and buried our dead here. The land we are asking for is not a boundless land from Alor Setar to Johor, as some claim."

This desire to "go home" is certainly a universal value that anyone should be able to understand, Abri said.

He said no matter how rich the Orang Asli may become, how highly educated or how far they have ventured, where can the Orang Asli of the future go home to if their ancestral lands are gone?

~ Malaysiakini