Russian humanitarian worker Valeriya Astashova was teaching English at an Orang Asli village in Perak until early March, when the Department of Orang Asli Development (Jakoa) abruptly terminated her permit to conduct community programmes.
At the time, she and the villagers at Pos Woh in Tapah, Perak, were informed by Jakoa that the English language class programme she was conducting there had to be cancelled because Astashova did not have the proper visa.
However, on April 2, it was reported by Bernama that Malaysian authorities would take “stern action” against her for allegedly continuing to collect donations for an Orang Asli community programme in Tapah, even though the programme had been cancelled.
Rural Development Minister Abd Latiff Ahmad was quoted as saying Jakoa had previously issued a letter of approval to Astashova (above) to conduct an English Language Class programme in Kampung Orang Asli Pos Woh, Tapah, on Dec 14, 2020.
He said Jakoa had given the approval to provide an opportunity to individuals and non-governmental organisations (NGO) to work hand in hand with the government in an effort to improve the level of education of the Orang Asli community.
"However, Jakoa had learnt that the activist concerned had misused the hall in the village, using it as private accommodation, besides bringing in other individuals without approval. The collection of donations was also not done through any registered organisation," Abd Latiff said.
Yesterday, Perak Menteri Besar Saarani Mohamad commented that Jakoa should exercise caution when providing approval letters to allow any party to enter Orang Asli settlements for any activity.
A distressed Astashova said she was surprised and confused to learn about this through the news, stating that the allegations against her were untrue.
“I cannot quite believe it is happening. I am not hiding, the police and the authorities have my number, they know my location, but I find out about this from the news, so this is surprising.
“I believe it is miscommunication and a misunderstanding. It can be solved if we could just sit down and talk, not communicate through the press,” she implored when contacted by Malaysiakini.
Astashova said she does coordinate donations related to clothes, toys, food and so on for the Pos Woh village, but the receiving side is always the villagers.
She added that she had never collected monetary donations for the Orang Asli community, but had passed the contacts of any interested donors to community leaders directly.
Astashova said her assistant teachers helped in distributing the donated goods, since her permit was terminated.
Currently on a social pass
As for the March termination of her permit due to her not having the proper visa, the Russian national said she is currently in Malaysia on a social pass and that there is a visa amnesty in effect until the end of the movement control order (MCO).
Also, Jakoa was aware of her visa status when she first applied last year for the permit to conduct English language classes for the Semai villagers in Pos Woh, she said.
Astashova also addressed claims that she had misused the hall in the village as private accommodation and that she had brought other individuals to live there without approval.
She explained that she had asked Jakoa about bringing her 10-year-old son with her to the village.
“They told me it was okay (to bring my son with me).
“I also never lived in the hall. There was a room behind the hall that was empty and unused, very run-down.
“I was living with the village head and his family until the last two weeks.
They told me I could use that room behind the hall if I cleaned and fixed it. I only stayed in that room for two weeks,” she said.
Astashova also denied the claims that she had criticised the health services provided by the Health Department for the Orang Asli community on social media.
She said she had even assisted the medics who visit the village every few weeks.
Astashova noted that she did write in an earlier Facebook post that Orang Asli women may feel uncomfortable talking about issues related to gynaecology with a male medical officer.
But she said she did not mean it as a criticism but rather raised the issue so that everyone could work together to discuss and address such problems.
Stranded due to MCO
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Astashova had lived in Thailand for seven years, from 2013 to 2020, and she last ran a hostel on Koh Tao island.
She and her son were stranded in Kuala Lumpur in March last year, after she had spent several weeks volunteering in a community centre for Afghan refugees and they were denied re-entry into Thailand.
She eventually received permission to work on the Orang Asli community project until its abrupt termination.
Astashova said she was also confused by claims that she had refused to heed the directive to leave the village after her permit was terminated and that she continued to release disparaging comments against Jakoa, the Rural Development Ministry and the Malaysian government.
“I have never refused to heed directives. I left as I was asked in the terms.
“I have never released disparaging comments against Jakoa, the ministry and the Malaysian government. I wouldn’t do this. I am very confused,” she said.
Astashova is now in Kuala Lumpur, she said, because she is trying to petition Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to reconsider the termination of her permit so she can go back to teaching English in Pos Woh, Tapah.
She added that the Pos Woh village’s Majlis Penasihat Pembangunan Kebangsaan Orang Asli (MPPKOA) chairperson, secretary and the village tok batin have signed a letter of support for her.
“Regardless of everything that has happened, I am still hoping they will allow me to teach.
“I am hoping to stay and teach for at least six more months, or more, because we have started so many projects and my students, they were doing so great,” she said.
Malaysiakini has reached out to Jakoa director-general Juli Edo and the Russian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur for a response to this matter.