An education in captivity – Edith Mirante

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Boarding school for Jahai Orang Asli children, mainland Malaysia. Photo: Edith Mirante

Edith Mirante reports on a Malaysian boarding school escape with tragic consequence. 

A group of children from an indigenous minority group escape an abusive boarding school to make their way home to their families, hiding from search parties along the way. The latest example of this all-too-familiar narrative has a more heartbreaking ending than the 1931 journey by a trio of Australian Aboriginal girls portrayed in the movie Rabbit Proof Fence.

Six girls and one boy, aged seven to 11, from the Temiar indigenous ethnic group, went on the run from a government boarding school in Gua Musang, Malaysia on 23 August 2015. The children evaded searchers until 9 October when Norieen Yaacob, 10 and Mirsudiar Aluj, 11 were located alive. Although emaciated and weak, the girls still tried to walk away from the police who found them on a riverbank.

As the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, an indigenous peoples advocacy group in Malaysia described it, the children had been “not missing, but hiding.” The other five had died from drowning or starvation.

Taking children away from their parents to be indoctrinated in schools that deny them their culture, language and spiritual beliefs is considered a crime against humanity and a practice of decades past. Governments in Australia, Canada and the United States have apologised for it (although not properly compensated victims).

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to implement recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which addressed the grim legacy of the boarding school system inflicted on First Nations people in Canada. But this destructive practice is current policy in mainland Malaysia, where children of the indigenous peoples collectively called Orang Asli are routinely removed from their families at young ages.

Malaysia’s government boarding schools are part of a pervasive disrespect for the cultures and civil rights of the Orang Asli. The Temiars are known for their non-confrontational, inclusive society and their dream and trance spirituality but are marginalised by unsustainable development. Temiar ancestral lands have been confiscated and ravaged by hydroelectric dam projects, mining, logging and massive soil-depleting oil palm plantations.

I have visited Orang Asli boarding schools where Batek, Mendrik and Jahai children were unwilling students. One headmaster told me, “It is a high dropout rate and running away. You see, they are still nomadic, so they prefer to spend from August to October roaming about with their families.” The Orang Asli children were covered up in school uniforms despite the tropical heat, at least nominally converted to Islam from traditional Animist beliefs, and schooled in a regimented, gender-separated manner very different from the egalitarian ways of their ethnic groups. Instruction was in the national language, Bahasa Malay, not their languages.

At the school from which the Temiar children fled, their older sisters had been beaten for going swimming in a nearby river. There are reports of harsh punishments and bullying by teachers at many other Orang Asli boarding schools.

There are certainly other ways to provide an education for children from indigenous ethnic groups. While Orang Asli parents are mostly in favour of educating their children, they are very much against their being taken away at young ages and alienated from their own cultures.

The remoteness of some Orang Asli communities is no excuse for the boarding school system. Mainland Malaysia has an extensive road network and children from other Malaysian ethnic groups go to day schools in their own rural, plantation or forest areas.

Schooling should be provided within home communities for primary and middle school children, starting in their languages and with a curriculum that respects their peoples’ customary knowledge and skills. Orang Asli students learn best in a non-punitive, uncoercive atmosphere.

Malaysian media outlets have investigated the substandard conditions at the Temiar boarding school in Gua Musang, and opposition politicians have criticised the negligent search effort for the missing children, during which their parents were often kept uninformed.

But it is the entire boarding school system that is at fault. The Temiar children’s ordeal and the deaths of Sasa Sobri, eight; Ika Ayel, nine; Haikal Yaakob, eight; Linda Rosli, eight and Juvina David, seven must be the awful catalyst that ends the Malaysian government’s shameful policy. It must stop removing Orang Asli children from their homes and communities to subject them to culture-eradicating education in captivity.

Edith Mirante is the author of “The Wind in the Bamboo: Journeys in Search of Asia’s ‘Negrito” Indigenous Peoples.”