The Batek started to die after being forced from their land. Were they poisoned by the plantations and mines that replaced their homes? The government is in no hurry to find out
It swept over the settlement like a plague. First came a fever, then their throats swelled up, their eyes became bloodshot and their lungs rattled with coughing. And then they began to die.
Over two weeks in May, 15 members of Malaysias last nomadic people, the Batek, were killed by this mysterious disease, while more than 100 were hospitalised. By the end, only about 20 of the 186 people in the tribe living in their Kuala Koh settlement were left untouched.
It was very scary for us, said Sita Keladi, a member of the tribe. We did not know what was happening but people were dying around us. I got sick, my eight children got sick, my granddaughter got sick too, and she is four months old.
A full government investigation was pledged, including autopsies of bodies that could be recovered from the jungle where they had been given traditional burials. Yet, four months later, nothing has materialised. It is the latest never-fulfilled promise to be made to the Batek people since their jungle home, south of the Thai border, began to be torn down over a decade ago to make way for palm oil plantations and, more recently, manganese mines stripping them of their way of life and autonomy.
They cut down our jungle, destroyed our home, and then poisoned our environment, said Uncle Johan Tahun, who at 60 years old has become one of the oldest men left in Kuala Koh. Everyone else his age has died.