Earlier this year seven children from an indigenous Malaysian tribe ran away from school and got lost in the jungle. Seven weeks later, only two survivors were found. The shocking case raises uncomfortable questions about Malaysia’s treatment of this minority.
A group of children are lying on the floor of a bamboo hut drawing with crayons and felt tips. It is mid-morning and they should be in lessons but the pupils from the villages in this area don’t go to school any more.
At first the nine and 10-year-olds are shy but then they start telling me about one of the teachers in the residential school they used to go to.
“He punished us even if we did nothing wrong,” says one of them. “He made us stand outside in the sun for ages with our desks on our heads and our knees bent, like this.”
As she demonstrates the posture, the others burst into peals of laughter. But one girl in a striped T-shirt is silent and focuses on her picture.
She is 10-year-old Norieen Yaakob. Last summer she and six classmates could no longer bear the harsh discipline at the school, so they fled into the rainforest.
These children are Orang Asli which in Malay means “original people” and they’re the earliest known inhabitants of the Malaysian peninsula.
There are 18 different Orang Asli tribes and the people from Norieen’s village of Kampung Penad in northern Malaysia, near the Thai border, belong to the Temiar.
The parents wanted their children to get an education, but the nearest school was two hours’ drive or a day’s walk away, so like many other children in this mountainous area, they had to board in a hostel next to their classroom.
The timeline of this story is hard to uncover because the only witnesses are two traumatised young girls – Norieen and Miksudiar Aluj, aged 11.
They decided to leave, they say, because some older children had been beaten by one of the teachers for swimming in the river and they feared they would be next. Norieen, her seven-year-old brother Haikal, Miksudiar, and four other girls aged between seven and nine all ran into the forest on the morning of 23 August.
The children chewed leaves but couldn’t find much else to eat. The only fruit they could reach proved hard and indigestible.
Then Norieen’s brother, Haikal, fell into the river as he was trying to drink and the other children were too weak to help him. “He just floated away,” says his mother, Midah Angah. “Most likely he quickly drowned.”
Meanwhile a seven-year-old girl, Juvina, broke her leg and could no longer walk. One evening she begged for food and the next morning Norieen woke up to find her lying dead next to her. Norieen took the younger girl to one side and covered her with leaves.
“She watched what happens to a dead body over a few days,” says Midah. “Flies landing on her eyes and mouth, her hair falling out and maggots crawling out of her. She saw so many terrible things.”
Ika, a nine-year-old girl, died of her injuries after she was impaled by bamboo in a fall from a steep river bank.
Linda, aged eight, somehow ended up in the water and it was this that eventually helped searchers find the survivors.
Just off the muddy track that leads from the school to the village, overlooking the Sungai Perias river, is one of those rare spots in the rainforest where you can get a mobile phone signal, and here, on 7 October – 45 days after the children disappeared – a logging truck driver pulled up to make a call.
“He was walking along here when he saw something white bobbing up and down in the water,” says Siti Kasim, a lawyer from Kuala Lumpur.
“He could see two legs sticking up. At first he thought it was a doll but then he looked closer and saw it was a child’s body.”
Two days later Norieen and Miksudiar were discovered sheltering in the roots of a big tree, skeletal and close to death themselves.
The policemen who found them were moved to tears when they saw how the children had made a canopy of palm fronds to protect themselves from the rain and sun, Midah says.
Noreen and Miksudiar were taken to hospital in the nearest town, Gua Musang.
The bodies of the other children – apart from Sasa who has still not been found – were taken to the mortuary.
Ika’s father, Ayel Ajed, says he and his wife were shown their daughter’s remains in a cardboard box – she could only be identified by her necklace and bracelet.
There is something very puzzling about this tragic story. The police and army had been searching a vast area using sniffer dogs and helicopters, yet the children were less than 2km from the school. So why did it take so long to find them?
One reason is that the search operation did not begin immediately when the children’s trail was fresh.
Instead the police came to the village late at night to search a number of homes, apparently suspecting the parents of hiding their children.
Then on 2 September, 11 days after the children disappeared, their families got a letter saying the pupils would be expelled unless they immediately returned to the classroom.
Norieen’s mother, Midah, says the police and officials from JAKOA, (Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli) the government agency for the Orang Asli, “treated the families like criminals”.
Remarkably, when the search and rescue operation began in earnest, Ika’s father and other villagers were told they were not allowed to take part.
“They sent in soldiers used to hunting down enemies and smugglers,” says Colin Nicholas from the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, a lobby group for Malaysia’s indigenous people. “If you really put yourself into the mind of a child and you see a bunch of guys looking for you in military fatigues and armed with machine guns – are you going to shout out, ‘I’m here’? Of course not! Those kids were obviously running away.”
Eventually an Orang Asli police unit was brought in to help, and it was their trackers who found the children.
Some were horrified that the authorities took so long to react to the children’s disappearance and then to find them.
“Are the lives of Orang Asli kids less worthy of protection than Malay, Chinese or Indian kids?” asked Lim Kit Siang, leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party.
“We must feel heart sick that such callousness, inhumanity, negligence and gross incompetence can happen in modern-day Malaysia.”
The lawyer, Siti Kasim, is trying to get a clear picture of events from the children who attended the school, in preparation for possible legal action against both the school and the government.
“Don’t be afraid – tell me the truth!” she says. “Who went to swim in the river and who was beaten?” she asks.
The children are shy and it’s not easy extracting information from them. Norieen herself, while she has recovered physically, is still deeply troubled, and wakes up crying in the night, her mother says.
Miksudiar, the other survivor, is still in hospital.
When I visit the school in Pos Tohoi, the teachers are reluctant to speak and ask me not to use their names. But when I ask about the alleged beatings, one of them laughs nervously. “No, no completely untrue,” he says. “It is just rumours,” says another.
In Kuala Lumpur, Deputy Education Minister P Kamalanathan tells me the government is doing everything it can for the Orang Asli.
He bemoans the high number of children who drop out from school – more than 40% in some areas – but says it is often because parents would rather their children helped them pick beans in the jungle.
When I ask about a new school for these villagers – who no longer want to send their children to Pos Tohoi – he’s non-committal.
He adds that the case at Pos Tohoi primary school is still being investigated but insists corporal punishment is not allowed in Malaysian schools.
“If there is something of that nature all people need to do is come and lodge a complaint and we will surely take action,” he says.
Siti Kasim, the lawyer, says the deputy minister is “living in cloud-cuckoo land” if he is unaware that there have been many complaints from the Orang Asli about the schools their children attend in the interior of the country.
In June at a school in nearby Kuala Betis a 10-year-old Temiar pupil was allegedly tied up, kicked and beaten up by her teachers after being accused of stealing money from one of them.
Kelantan police chief Datuk Mazlan Lazim confirmed the case and said it was being investigated.
In another incident, says the lawyer, four girls were slapped by a teacher because they refused to recite a Muslim prayer.
“Those girls aren’t Muslim so why should they be forced to say a prayer before they eat?” she says. “There are plenty of police reports and letters of complaint but nothing happens.”
The government says it aims to bring the disadvantaged Orang Asli into the mainstream of society.
But Colin Nichols argues that the government has little interest in protecting their identity and says indigenous people are being increasingly sucked into a Malay-centric nation state.
“You pluck young children – seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds – from the village,” he says. “Then put them in a school hostel for three months at a time without seeing their parents, give them a new education, give them a new culture, give them a new language and sometimes a new religion, and in one generation you have people who are no longer Orang Asli.”