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Armed Struggle and Indigenous People


The two CSQ issues on militarization and indigenous peoples are intended to acquaint our readers with the important role militarization plays in the lives of even the most isolated tribal groups. The articles contained in these issues focus mostly on the consequences of shooting wars and on the increasing number of groups involved in them, directly or indirectly. This increasingly militarized world also affects the lives of indigenous peoples in a number of other important ways.

Nearly 100 percent of the thousands of nuclear tests conducted by states have taken place on the lands of distinct tribal peoples. In no case has the group been consulted; in many cases the tribal people are the last to learn about the tests and their consequent health risks.

Many of the world's uranium mines sit on the lands of tribal people. Mining, too, often takes place without a group's permission and with little if any financial compensation. Mining companies fail to properly explain radioactive tailings and other associated health hazards. Likewise, the mining of a number of strategic metals, essential for the production of alloys used in weapons production, occurs on tribal land without adequate permission, compensation or warning of risk.

A number of countries use the manufacture and sale of arms to subsidize their own public or private industries or to finance new lines of weapons. The US, USSR, China, England and France have long been known as arms dealers for the rest of the world; in fact, the USSR recently passed the US as the world's major supplier of weapons. Israel, fearing dependence on foreign arms suppliers, has a large weapons production program subsidized by sales of weapons to developing countries. Israel recently sold weapons and provided technical advisers to the governments of Guatemala and Sri Lanka to support each government's attacks on and armed conflicts with distinct cultural groups. And along with other countries implicated in the "contragate" hearings, Israel has been used by the US to circumvent laws prohibiting the direct sale of weapons to specific countries.

The issue of arms sales naturally raises the issue of arms purchases. Weapons purchased by Third World states are almost always used on people who live within those states. More often than not, the victims belong to tribal groups being incorporated or forcibly assimilated into a "nation." In the past decade, weapons sales account for one-half of Third World debt. These purchases use scarce foreign exchange. In short, arms take precedence over essential productive imports, resulting in inflation and an economic tailspin. The social tension created by these conditions poses added threats to the ruling group's power, which, in turn, prompts the importation of additional weapons. The cycle continues and the violence increases.

The indebtedness incurred by arming states, especially in the Third World, has escalated to the point at which everyone's lives are affected by the need to increase exports of cash commodities while reducing imports of food and other essentials. As is often the case, the people or groups on the bottom rung of society pay a disproportionate price for such indebtedness. Their lands are invaded and their resources stolen. Because of inflation, their incomes buy less. They often find that the imported weapons are used to exact higher taxes, contributions and payments (including the seizure of their land) to the state - a state that created the debt in the first place by importing weapons and items of conspicuous consumption for the elite.

This argument may seem a bit abstract. In real terms, however, the world spends $800 billion on arms, a sum equivalent to all Third World debt. It has been estimated that less than half of one percent of this sum could make all countries self-sufficient food producers in 1990. States spend, on average, $30,000 per soldier but less than $500 per student.

Causes of Conflict

Many of today's armed struggles share a number of common features, some of which contribute to the underlying causes of conflict, others to the duration or outcome of such conflicts. Listed below are some factors that are important components in understanding conflicts that involve tribal or ethnic groups. The list is not definitive, and the order of the issues listed is not significant. When possible, examples of peoples, groups and states are listed for each category; these, too, are not exhaustive. CSQ readers are encouraged to expand this list or the examples mentioned with their own experiences. The issue of militarization and conflict seriously threatens indigenous peoples throughout the world. Cultural Survival wants to continue its research and publications in this area, and welcomes your comments on the issues raised by - or omitted from - this introduction or any of these articles.

Perhaps the most important factors that determine the intensity, duration and ultimate conclusion of conflicts are the causes that precipitate them. What are groups fighting to obtain or retain? Some common areas of conflict suggested in these two issues include independence, autonomy, self-determination, representation, local political control, resource control, land rights, religious or linguistic rights, military conscription and taxes or other state contributions. How can these causes affect the duration of conflict or the fighting ability of groups? How are such causes manipulated by outsider groups, such as states, religious groups and political parties? These are some of the questions that are discussed below.

Size of Group

Ruling minorities are often threatened - or think they are threatened, regardless of how passive the majority populations may appear - by disenfranchised majorities. Repression often occurs in such situations because of the long-term threat that the minority-dominated state believes is posed by the majorities. Recent cases of this type that have involved shooting conflict, displacement and relocation include Guatemala (whites versus Indians), Ethiopia (Amhara versus Oromo, Anuak, Tigray, Somali, Komo, Sidamo and Afar), Burundi (Tutsi versus Hutu) and South Africa (whites versus blacks).

Creating a National Culture

In a new state, a dominant ethnic group - whether a majority or minority - often attempts to create a national culture (through religion, language, dress, laws) in its own image. The dominant group fears the persistence or growth of dominated groups. Israel expresses great concern that the high birth rate of Arabs will cause them to soon outnumber Jews. Greater Ethiopia submits to Amharic language and culture due to the military conquest and colonization of most of the empire nearly a century ago. In Turkey, Kurdish is technically forbidden and Armenian churches were looted and dismantled long ago. The Indonesian state reportedly converts tribal people to Islam "on the point of a sword" and forces them to wear "modern" clothes. In the 1930s, the El Salvador ruling party attacked Indians for wearing distinctive clothes; Guatemalan soldiers in the early 1980s were taught to identify some people by the weaving of their clothes and to detain those from certain areas.

Manifest Destiny

Ruling groups often see their domination, power and authority as a right or obligation, a form of manifest destiny. This is true of the Tutsi in Burundi, Muslims in Sudan, Han Chinese throughout China and Tibet, Russians throughout the USSR and governments and colonists alike throughout the Americas, Australia and Indonesia. This belief in a group's destined right to civilize can also apply to religious groups such as Christians (Protestants, Catholics, Coptics), Muslims or Jews. Westernized groups or descendants of Western colonists often assume the superiority of their Western traditions and modern ways over those of tribal groups, which they believe should be eradicated. Dominating groups often use ideology, however, to mask more important economic motives; dominated groups often come to understand and reject this manipulation. This, in turn, can produce volatile situations.

Population Density

Some groups would not appear to be large enough to pose serious military threats to states or other groups. However, some post-World War II cases indicate that a group of a few hundred well-organized people fighting on their own terrain can pose significant military and security problems. Rugged, familiar terrain allows such a group the protection it needs to remain hidden. But a state's modern technology, which can penetrate mountainous terrain or rainforest areas, shifts the balance. This is why helicopters and radio communications systems are so important to states in their efforts to impose "the final solution" on such groups. The provision of such equipment by Western states, often under the guise of development or humanitarian assistance, irrevocably shifts the balance of power in such conflicts. Guatemala argued successfully that unarmed Bell helicopters were not weapons and should be available for purchase from the US - even though its human rights record had led to a cutoff of all US military aid. It later became obvious that the Guatemalan government had used the helicopters to coordinate attacks on guerrilla positions and Indian areas. Communications equipment paid for by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and humanitarian assistance aimed at colonizing already inhabited areas have been used by the Ethiopian government in its military attacks on areas where the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) has been active. US-provided helicopters for an opium eradication program in Burma have been used to destroy the crops of hilltribe people who are fighting for government recognition of previously negotiated autonomy treaties. There have even been reports that Burma mounted machine guns on US-provided helicopters to carry out attack missions on civilian populations.

Democracy and Socialism

In many cases, either democracy or socialism empowers dominant groups to abuse the notion of "the greatest good for the greatest number." In the name of the "national" good, majorities can deny rights (including the control of land or other resources) to minorities. Throughout the world pastoralists, hunters and gatherers or small, distinct groups that own coveted land or resources are simply displaced, regardless of state laws that would otherwise guarantee their rights. In some cases, such as the Kurds and oil in Iraq, groups have been relocated forcibly so that they can never lay claim to the resources located in the lands that they have occupied for centuries.

Cultural Traditions

Observers have long noted that some groups refuse to resist when their rights are denied, even if this means that they will be eliminated or assimilated. Some groups will literally fight to the death of the last person; others will resist through negotiation, international lobbying and beneficial group alliances.

Religious Differences

Opposition groups that profess religions different from the dominant group are often persecuted (Christians and animists in southern Sudan, Hindus in the Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh, Muslims in the southern Philippines, numerous groups in Lebanon, Mekane Yesus and Pentacostals in Ethiopia). In some cases dominated groups use religious differences as a rallying point for the expression of frustration with political domination by outsiders (Buddhists in Tibet, Muslims in Afghanistan).

Postcolonial States

Those who rule are often viewed as having obtained their power as a result of colonialism. In the cases of Western Sahara, East Timor, the Moluccas, West Papua and Eritrea, immediate occupation by a Third World colonial power upon the departure of a Western colonial power is considered by many indigenous inhabitants to be a continued colonial occupation to be resisted accordingly. Other states expand into the traditional areas of indigenous peoples through the intervention of colonists (particularly in rainforest areas) but the expansion is not (yet) confronted with weapons. States, and organizations of states such as the United Nations, rarely oppose such "internal" colonization.

In Ruanda and Burundi a hand-picked tribal minority (Tutsi) was placed in power by Belgium, the departing colonial power. The resulting blood bath left numerous people dead or displaced within the new states and forced tens of thousands to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Other countries have encountered considerable conflict after transferring large numbers of people to a colonized area and then leaving them there when that area achieves statehood. This creates a particularly difficult problem when the colonists outnumber the indigenous peoples, as in Israel, New Caledonia, Fiji and Guyana. It can also pose problems for the colonial minorities who are subsequently persecuted in the new states (Banyaruanda in Uganda, Indians in East Africa, Indians and Sri Lankans in Malaysia, blacks in the US or Panama).

Superpower Involvement

In many regions of the world superpowers pick a tribal or ethnic group to back militarily in an attempt to install them as the dominant group at the state level (US and USSR in Angola, USSR in Afghanistan, US and USSR in Ethiopia).

Past Conflicts and Grievances

In many cases centuries-old conflict is at the heart of conflict between the ruling group and subordinated but distinct tribal, ethnic or religious groups. In Ethiopia Oromo, Somali, Afar, Tigray and Sidamo have long fought with Amhara. Brennan's article on Angola in this issue demonstrates the longstanding tribal conflict, based in part on former slave trading, that most recently found voice in armed political struggles. Some historical conflicts between local groups - even villages - can determine which sides groups will take in any conflict. Although such a conflict is often described in ideological terms, as in Peru with the growth of Sendero Luminoso, ideology is not normally an important cause.

Illegitimate States

Some state occupations of regions are considered illegal because international treaties, compacts, agreements of free association or decolonization processes were violated. This is true of Eritrea, much of Burma, the Chittagong Hills, the Moluccas, East Timor, West Papua, Western Sahara, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan, to name but a few instances.

Access to Weapons or Cash

Often specific tribal or ethnic groups in conflict with each other or with states produce valuable cash crops (drugs in the Golden Crescent or the Golden Triangle), receive assistance from humanitarian agencies or governments (various tribal, ethnic, religious or ideological movements in Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Mozambique, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Sri Lanka), obtain remittances from group members living abroad (Sikhs in India, Tamils in Sri Lanka, IRA in Northern Ireland, Kurds in the Middle East) or contact states interested in destabilizing a ruling government (some Islamic states with groups in Afghanistan, Israel, Chad, Lebanon, the Philippines and Ethiopia; US in Angola, Afghanistan and Nicaragua; Ethiopia in Somalia and Sudan; Libya in Chad). In the early 1980s the conservative US lobbying organization. The Heritage Foundation, recommended that the Reagan Administration's foreign policy be based in part on the funding of tribal and ethnic groups to overthrow governments such as those in Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Cambodia.

Refugees - A Litmus Test of Militarization

The presence of refugees usually indicates persecution and discrimination in their country of origin - they serve as a litmus test of plural societies. Refugees, usually guilty of incurring a group's wrath only by virtue of the fact that they were born into the "wrong" group or practice the "wrong" religion are, for the most part, innocent bystanders caught up in conflicts beyond their control. Some refugee camps (Palestinians, Khmer Rouge, Miskitos, Bushmen) or individual refugees support resistance movements with remittances, fighters, safe haven for families and contacts with Western press and agencies. More often than not, refugees are merely an indication of ongoing struggles (Palestinians; Kurds; Bushmen in Namibia; Mayan Indians in Mexico; Miskitos in Honduras and Costa Rica; Oromo and Somali in Somalia; Anuak, Tigray, Oromo and Eritreans in Sudan; Banyaruanda in Uganda; Khmer Rouge in Thailand; various Ugandan tribes in Sudan).

Many of the issues raised here overlap and, indeed, probably should not be separated. They do, however, provide the basis for reflection. At the very least they might give one pause the next time a journalist uses the terms rebel or terrorist. We welcome comments from readers and would be happy to publish them, with attribution, in subsequent issues.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.