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Are there Indigenous Peoples in Asia?

At the heart of the worldwide indigenous movement is a serious and complex problem of labeling. A casual review of publications addressing indigenous issues reveals that native and non-native advocates of the `indigenous' cause define `indigenous' in widely varying ways. These definitions and overarching theories include:

-- `Indigenous' Peoples are the original stewards of the environment, holding the land of their ancestors in trust for future generations.

-- They are those distinct and vulnerable `tribes' who possess only a limited ability to participate in, and are most often marginalized by, the development process.

-- They previously had long-term experience of self- governance, and are now often in rebellion against the state.

As a term, `indigenous' is associated with cultural authenticity, spiritual ties to the land, and shamanism, etc. The implication is that learning from Indigenous Peoples is essential for the future survival of humanity.

There are literally thousands of oppressed, culturally distinct minorities (and sometimes majorities) seeking self- determination and rights to territories with which they have long been associated. When allied with other similarly marginalized groups, and in collaboration with environmental and human rights lobbies, they can act collectively as a powerful agent for reform. For instance, `Indigenous' Peoples and their representative organizations (as well as overseas support groups) have successfully begun to transform the ways in which multinational corporations and international lending institutions go about their business in remote areas. This success would not be possible without a unique jargon (e.g. `indigenousness') that permits disparate groups to sit at the same table and compare notes, or at least communicate their resistance and survival strategies via the Internet.

The original meaning of the term `indigenous' is "inborn" or "originating from a locality" (Webster's Dictionary), but in reference to first peoples it has come to mean those who maintain a collective identity through association with specific territories. `Tribal', `ethnic minority', `hunter/gatherer', `indigenous', etc. are used as similar appellations, but meanings vary considerably depending on who sets the boundaries. A powerful elite may ascribe or deny indigenous status to a minority or non- dominant group for its own purposes. It may argue that the word `indigenous' has no clear or unambiguous meaning and stress that the term is best applied in New World contexts -- in places colonized by Europeans. Even if the elite does accept indigeneity as a legitimate status, evoking special rights, it may deny that such a category is applicable to any of the peoples within the national domain. Terms like `tribal', `minority' or `hunter/gatherer' do not capture the land-centered nature of Indigenous Peoples' social identification.

A growing conflict exists between supporters of the newly- emerging UN criteria for indigenousness and the often unrealistic requirements demanded by certain non-native elites, particularly in Asia or Africa. Looking specifically at Asia (with the exception of countries such as Afghanistan, where ethnic groups take pride in their conquest and settlement of the lands they occupy), we see a blanket denial by the power structure of the existence of first peoples, and/or of the idea that any group deserves special treatment because of the specificities of their culture. So, rather than `Indigenous' Peoples in Asia, there are, for example, `hill tribes' (Thailand), `scheduled tribes' (India), `numerically small peoples of the North' (Siberia), `national minorities' (China), `cultural minorities' (Philippines), `isolated and alien peoples' (Indonesia), `aboriginal tribes' (Taiwan), `aborigines' (Malaysia), and `natives' (Borneo). According to Colchester (1995), most of these groups now claim to be `indigenous', for the term is less prejudicial than the aforementioned labels and it links them all in a common struggle.

What does it mean to be `indigenous'? Self-definition would appear to be at the heart of the matter, but leaves groups vulnerable to criticism. Clarification as to what `indigenous' means will strengthen the indigenous cause, especially in Asia, where the issue is perhaps most complicated.

In both domestic and international arenas, self-description as a `hunter/gatherer' might facilitate the granting of access to food and materials necessary to a group's physical, spiritual and economic needs, but to identify as `indigenous' is to further elevate the nature of that group's claims. When representatives of a native fourth-world group or ethnic minority refer to themselves as `indigenous' (as opposed to simply Naga, Maasai or Navaho, for example) they are staking a claim to membership in an emerging global category comprised of (often) similarly subjugated or landless peoples. The degree of marginalization experienced and the extent of dispossession vary considerably from group to group and country to country, but the desired end of the liberation struggle is usually similar: land rights and self-determination, through either a separatist movement or self-governance within the boundaries of an existing state. Some groups stress their former sovereign status as independent nations and insist, as a political bargaining point, that justice will be served only through secession. Often, however, these same peoples have the explicit intent of achieving autonomy within the framework of the nation encompassing their ancestral territory. Others seek autonomy during negotiations but view it as a mere point of departure for the achievement of secession in the future. The principal reason so many countries reject the aspirations of the `indigenous' is that the "indigenous platform" is viewed as divisive and potentially destabilizing.

There are perhaps 400-500 million `Indigenous' Peoples worldwide, and as rapidly-evolving UN operational directives and emerging norms in international law and practice potentially provide `Indigenous' Peoples with far more extensive rights than `tribals' or those claiming `ethnic minority' standing, more and more peoples are defining themselves, or are being defined, as `indigenous.' The hypothesis is that denial of access to land threatens the continued existence of an `indigenous' cultural entity. Therefore, an essential aspect of the recognition of the `universal' human rights of Australian Aborigines, Papuan Amungme, or Brazilian Xerrente, and so on, is the recognition of their collective right to their ancestral lands. Indeed, this is the fundamental plank in the `indigenous' rights platform.

Ethnic groups acknowledged by international opinion as belonging to the `indigenous' category proclaim their right to determine (or at the very least their right to be consulted regarding) the nature of developments proposed for lands with which they are traditionally associated and to which they lay claim in their negotiations with the dominant state. Such a right is enshrined in a range of international covenants -- International Labor Organization Covention 169 (ILO 169), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and various Draft Declarations -- and the provisions of these documents continue to be enshrined in national laws throughout the world.

This rights platform contrasts strongly with provisions of earlier assimilatory or individual rights-based instruments (eg., ILO 107, Universal Declaration on Human Rights) where first peoples, if mentioned at all, were viewed as `remnant' populations facing extinction and requiring integration into mainstream society, and in dire need of government assistance.

While the World Bank currently lists various criteria for indigeneity -- a veritable series of boxes to be checked -- no UN instrumentality has been willing or able to agree upon a single definition that applies equally to groups as distinct as the Bedouin or Maori. The 1993 Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples avoids the topic, whereas International Labor Organization Convention 169, formulated in 1989, promotes self- definition, but with a caveat: it concerns tribal peoples who distinguish themselves from other sections of the national community and who are regarded as indigenous on the basis of their descent from pre-conquest populations. The Convention does not specify who makes the final decision. A tentative working definition in UN practice makes reference to five criteria: self- identification, historical continuity with pre-invasion or pre- colonial societies, non-dominance, ancestral territories, and ethnic identity. But there is another criterion. According to Maivan Clech Lam (2000), "A contemporary condition of subjugation to the domination, exploitation, and territorial appropriation that states controlled by culturally alien peoples either inflict or allow" is the characteristic all `Indigenous' Peoples claim to share. The term `indigenous' is therefore symbolic of resistance, human rights, and social transformation, and has become an avenue for the alignment of peoples from widely diverse backgrounds.

While the Draft Declaration upholds self-ascription as `indigenous' as the universally accepted means of `definition' amongst those claiming such status, it is also the most contentious point for non-Indigenous Peoples. Under such terms, no group can be excluded from claiming special rights in relation to the state, a potentially chaotic situation. Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves) in Suriname, for example, whose forebears entered into treaties with colonial powers and who today constitute a culturally distinct entity that regulates its own affairs according to unique laws and customs, meet the international definitional criteria as tribal under ILO 169. They therefore enjoy the same rights as Indigenous Peoples under international law (see Kambel and Mackay, 1999). This leaves the door open for others, like Indian Fijians, to claim similar rights along the lines proposed by their advocate, Salman Rushdie, who feels that their `indigenous' claim to the Fijian islands is equal to that of Ethnic Fijians. Then there is the case of formerly dominant groups such as Afrikaners. Where should the line be drawn?

Even UN-contracted special rapporteurs have difficulty in adhering to this nascent principle of indigenousness. For instance, in 1998 Miguel Alfonso Martinez completed his ten-year report on treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements between states and indigenous populations, but his findings fail to acknowledge an indigenous presence in either Africa or Asia. He simply declares the issue too complex, a judgment eliciting condemnation from organizations such as the Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network (see their Annual Report 1999). How could he have failed to consider, for example, the former World Bank- sponsored Qinghai project in western China and the plight of the 2000 Mongol nomads whose land is soon to be invaded by 60,000 voluntarily resettled and impoverished Ethnic Tibetans and Han Chinese? While the relocatees are expected to enjoy substantially improved living standards on the newly-irrigated lands, the nomads' way of life will be terminated. Is the answer simply that the Mongols do not have a significant international lobby? In the absence of such sensitive outside support, was the rapporteur not prepared to take a stand and thus further the debate on this important and controversial issue?

Ascription as indigenous is a two-sided affair -- a matter of agreement between both the powerful (and sympathetic) and the oppressed. In defining themselves as `indigenous' according to accepted UN guidelines, native peoples open themselves up to criticism from those whose interests might be threatened, or power base weakened, if national or international recognition is forthcoming. In worst case scenarios, in Africa and Asia, some groups fear that in being distinguished as indigenous, they will be singled out for discrimination and mistreatment. The most common accusation in less politically charged atmospheres is, of course, "the fraudulent land claim" by a group whose assertion of `indigenousness' is considered to be based on deception. Even in Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas, where the category `indigenous' is often considered unproblematic, such accusations are par for the course.

Yet older labels such as indigeny and exogeny (which roughly translate as autochthonous versus foreigner), are just as difficult to work with. In the United States, for example, a sliding scale of first peoples locates Hopi and Native Hawaiians at one end and overseas Chinese, African-and European-Americans at the other, with Romany (gypsies) somewhere in the middle. This is an unsatisfactory basis for defining justice-seeking groups because so many `Indigenous' Peoples have been forcibly dispossessed of their lands, married into and out of, or assimilated into the dominant culture, and as such might be considered somewhere down the scale towards exogeny -- no longer `authentic' first peoples.

The current problematic non-definition of `indigenous' calls forth a potential unanticipated development. It implies that `indigeny' is a transitory state, a passing phase on the way to the achievement of full autonomy. When `Indigenous' Peoples achieve what ILO 169 promotes -- for self-ascribed `Indigenous' Peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life, and economic development and to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions within the framework of the states in which they live -- will such peoples still be able to justify their presence at international `indigenous' fora? That is, will achievement of their collective rights remove them from the current UN definition? A condition of such status is in many ways linked to landlessness, marginalization, and non-dominance. When Karen, Yolngu, and Xavante, etc. coexist in peace and harmony with other segments of the pluri-ethnic nation, will their claim to special status be null and void? If `indigenousness' is a temporary condition, it would make nonsense of the aspiration for a Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples at the UN. Perhaps a Permanent Forum for Reconciliation Within Pluri-Ethnic States should be established in its stead, with an emphasis on the promotion of the rights of ethnic minorities or the disempowered.

Self-categorization as `indigenous' on the part of first peoples (and their supporters in developed countries) is part of a broader strategy for the realization of specific rights in relation to the land and in relation to those who have previously denied them such rights. But there is a real danger that the term `indigenous' will lose its power and meaning if it is spread too thinly in an attempt to cover other (sometimes questionable) claims. Still, the answer is not simply to ignore indigenous claims in Africa and Asia. While I wholeheartedly support `indigenous' self-description in these settings, the word itself now has little meaning outside of the struggle for rights and dignity on the part of minorities and the oppressed.

The most significant difference between an `ethnic' minority and an `indigenous' nation is that the latter has a specific historical and cultural tie to land that gives it priority over the former (and others) in its claim for self-determination within that territory. It is important to retain this distinction, and not just while Indigenous Peoples remain powerless and oppressed. Sympathetic supporters of the indigenous cause stress the need to maintain and promote the earth's rich human diversity, but the right of self-definition has a more fundamental purpose: it is a tool facilitating nation re-building. It is the foundation for Indigenous Peoples' full participation in the pluri-ethnic world society.

The situation of Indigenous Peoples in Asia is abysmal. While countries such as Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines acknowledge the presence of Indigenous Peoples within their national boundaries, indigenous policy makes a mockery of human rights in these countries. In the Philippines, the expression `Indigenous Peoples' once referred specifically to non-Christian tribes, and government `indigenous aid' agencies have contributed to the devastation of tribes suspected of harboring, or being, communist sympathizers. In Japan, indigeneity is a notion equated with a distant, exotic past, but not the contemporary Ainu struggle for self-determination. In Malaysia, support for the Orang Asli (or first peoples) must be kept semi-secret because the government suspects that all outside assistance is a front for foreign interests. In Bangladesh and India, those in power stress that there are no `Indigenous' Peoples within their national boundaries. When pushed on the point, however, India will acknowledge the `existence of scheduled tribes, defining them as people yet to be assimilated into the national society. In Thailand, many Indigenous Peoples are issued tribal identity cards that severely restrict their movements, and are denied citizenship rights. In Indonesia, the only concessions to `indigenousness' relate to customary law or Adat, but the concession extends only to areas under cultivation or occupancy. East Timorese are often referred to by their supporters overseas as `indigenous', but the categorization does not extend to their brethren in West Timor. The whale hunters of Lembata or the Toraja of Sulawesi do not claim to be original peoples, but, as distinct cultural groups, they are struggling to uphold traditions in the face of an unsympathetic government that views them as backward and irrational; as seekers of self-determination, they fall easily into the category `indigenous'. Can Christian South Moluccans in exile in Holland, or members of the Islamic breakaway movement in Aceh also benefit from such self-description?

This issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly focuses on Myanmar (Burma), a country that presents a fairly typical case for `Indigenous' Peoples in Asia. `Indigenous' status is ascribed to Burma's 135 ethnic minorities by those sympathetic to their cause, but the terms `indigenous', `tribal' or even `ethnic minority' are considered offensive to many representatives of such groups as the Kachin or Buddhist Mon. The idea of being associated internationally with such marginalized isolates as Amazonian Indians or Andaman Islanders is also deemed inappropriate by the four million Karen who view themselves as a nation and aspire to a strong system of federalism within the Burmese state. However, for the ruling Burmans, talk of federalism is linked with tribalism and is rejected as "evil separatism," and advocates are lambasted for "possessing a colonial mind." (Smith 1995)

More than half of Burma's land mass is controlled by linguistic collectives such as the Karen, the Mon-Khmer, and Tai, as well as smaller groups like the Was, the Kayans, and sea gypsies. Despite a 1974 constitution that promotes the cultural, religious and language rights of these minorities, the Karen and others accuse the government of a concerted campaign to annihilate or assimilate them.

While ethnic leaders expected that independence from Britain in 1948 would facilitate their representation within a central government and herald an end to the divisiveness of prior colonial practices of divide and rule, the reality has been far different. Civil war has raged in Burma since 1948, and the repression of minorities continues unabated.

Upward of 70,000 Karen have fled the war zone to Thailand (where the Thai military often forces them to return), thousands of Kachin refugees live along the Chinese border, and hundreds of thousands of Rakhine Muslims have escaped to Bangladesh. There is a growing heroin problem, prostitution and semi-slavery affecting young hilltribe women lured into Thailand is endemic, and a rapid intrusion of foreign companies has resulted in overfishing, deforestation, and mineral depletion. Sustained international pressure and the activities of a dedicated human rights network in Massachusetts led to the introduction of the Massachusetts Burma Law that aimed to boycott companies that were doing business in Burma. While this law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2000, the oppression of Burma's many ethnic peoples has been brought to the attention of a wider audience. Another avenue for the support of these oppressed ethnic groups includes, of course, `indigenous' international fora, and with our publication of a series of essays in this issue of the journal, we hope to further their cause.

References & further reading

Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network Annual Report 1999. The Universality of Indigenous Peoples. Commentary and recommendations to the Special Rapporteur on the study on treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements between states and indigenous populations. New Delhi, India.

Clech Lam, M. (2000). On the Edge of the State: Indigenous Peoples and Self-Determination. New York: Transnational Publishers.

Colchester, M. (1995). "Indigenous Peoples' Rights and Sustainable Resource Use in South and Southeast Asia" in R.H. Barnes, A. Gray, and B. Kingsbury, eds. Indigenous Peoples of Asia. Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies.

Kambel E.R. and Mackay F. (1999). The Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Maroons in Suriname. Copenhagen: IWGIA Document No 96.

Smith, M. (1995). "A State of Strife: The Indigenous Peoples of Burma" in R.H. Barnes, A. Gray, and B. Kingsbury, eds. Indigenous Peoples of Asia. Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies.

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