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A Batek woman walks near her village in Kuala Koh, Kelantan, Malaysia. © 2009 Reuters

(New York) – Malaysia’s Health Ministry should release the results and act upon its investigation into the deaths of 16 Batek villagers in mid-2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The deaths occurred amid reports of contamination of the Indigenous community’s water supply and infringements on their customary land.

In May and June 2019, illness swept through the Batek villages of Kuala Koh in Kelantan state in Malaysia. Sixteen people died and more than half the village’s nearly 200 inhabitants were hospitalized.

The Malaysian government promised a full investigation and recovered the remains for post-mortem examinations. On September 26, 2019, the health minister, Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, announced that the deaths were all due to measles and that the village water supply met water quality standards. However, the government has yet to release the post-mortem reports or the results of soil toxicology and water tests.

“Concerns about possible chemical and heavy metal contamination in the water and soil near Kuala Koh make it crucial for the government to publicly release the full results of its investigations into the villagers’ deaths,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Without full disclosure, questions about both the cause of death and the water quality will remain.”

The Batek are an Indigenous people living primarily in northeastern Peninsular Malaysia who have suffered a loss of forest habitat and been subjected to government relocation programs. The only water available to the communities of Kuala Koh comes from a water catchment area two kilometers downstream from a manganese mine.

After the Batek fell ill, the deputy water, land, and natural resources minister announced that the manganese mine would be closed, but noted that it was only one of a number of mines in the area. The Kuala Koh area is also suffering from deforestation and is surrounded by oil palm plantations.

In September, the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations, Malaysia (FPMPAM) announced that independent tests of the Kuala Koh water supply had revealed manganese in concentrations of 2.53 milligrams per liter – 25 times the World Health Organization (WHO) safety recommendation of 0.1 mg/liter. The health minister, while conceding that the water tests revealed the presence of heavy metals, stated that they were not present in lethal quantities and that heavy metals were not the cause of death.

Whether or not heavy metals in the water were a direct cause of death, water quality in Kuala Koh is a matter of serious concern to the Batek and other communities, and the full results of water and soil tests should be publicly disclosed.

The Malaysian authorities should end the neglect and marginalization of the country’s Indigenous peoples and ensure equal protection under the law.

National and local authorities should also make a public commitment to carry out the recommendations of the 2014 report by SUHAKAM, Malaysia’s national human rights commission, in its national inquiry into the land rights of Indigenous peoples in Malaysia.

The report makes 18 recommendations with regard to six main issues: recognize Indigenous peoples’ customary rights to land; provide a remedy for land loss; address land development issues and imbalances; prevent future loss of native Indigenous peoples’ customary land; handle land administration issues; and recognize land as central to Indigenous peoples’ identity.

The United Nations special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights also made a number of recommendations to the government on Indigenous peoples’ rights following her visit to Malaysia in 2017.

The Malaysian government should develop a clear plan to promote and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples in Peninsular Malaysia, as well as the states of Sabah and Sarawak, consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“The Batek are entitled to see the full analysis of the water they drink and the soil on which they live,” Adams said. “Keeping this information in government file cabinets would not be acceptable for residents of Kuala Lumpur, nor should it be considered acceptable for an Indigenous community.”

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