A group of Malaysian indigenous tribes lost their fight to challenge the state's seizure of land to build a mega dam on Thursday, in Malaysia's top court.
The court ruled that the government's seizure of tribal lands in Borneo did not violate the rights of the indigenous tribes people, ending a 12 year battle by the peoples who claimed authorities unlawfully wrestled ancestral lands away from them.
The courts ruling has left uncertain hundreds of cases waiting to be heard by other indigenous Malaysians in Sarawak, with a fear that the decision could pave the way for other land aquisitions and the creation of a large volume of 'internal refugees'.
"The fear now is these people will become internal refugees because they can be forced to relocate," said Colin Nicholas, coordinator of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns.
About 15 000 people were forcibly relocated to make way for the Bakun hydroelectric dam and timber pulp mill in the 1990's, many of whom now live an unhappy existance in unappealing resettlement areas.
The case was brought by members of indigenous tribes including the Iban, Dayak, Kayan, Kenyah and Ukit peoples, some of the many ethnic groups living on Borneo.
The Bakun dam, having experienced a vast series of delays due to cost overruns and legal challenges, is larger than the size of Singapore and estimated to have cost at least USD $2.6 billion, making it one of the most expensive projects in the history of Malaysia.
Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International has labelled Bakun a "monument of corruption", and analysts have questioned how the Malaysian government will recover the money it has sunk into the project.
Land rights have become a key concern for Malaysia's indigenous people's, many of whom say they have been awarded insufficient compensation for their forcible removable from their lands.
The International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People's, although not legally binding, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, and states that indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories and that no relocation shall take place without the free prior and informed consent of the peoples.
Report: Borneo tribe loses land case in top Malaysia court (AP, 8 September 2011)
Report: Malaysia's Borneo tribes lose test case over mega-dam (AFP, 8 September 2011)
Report: Malaysian high court rules against tribes in dispute (Voice of America, 8 September 2011)