The State of the Nation: Indigenous nations struggle to be heard over the din of state policies

The State of the Nation: Indigenous nations struggle to be heard over the. din of state policies

During World War II there were fewer than 50 states - countries with centralized governments - in the world, By 1990 there were nearly 70. By the year 2000 the figure could well exceed 200.

Nations - geographic areas inhabited by a common people - however, have not fated so well. We don't know how many there were in the world at the time of World War II, or at any time prior to that. Today there are an estimated 5,000. Prior to the conquest of the Amazon, more than 700 distinct groups inhabited the region. By 1900 in Brazil only 270 remained, and today about 180 are left.

States are systematically attempting to eliminate indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. Programs aimed at minorities are not benign; they are, in fact, rapacious. This is true of right-wing and left-wing states, of religious and sectarian states. According to their reasoning, indigenous peoples belong in the dustbin of history. The must disappear if modern states (e.g., European models) are to flourish. this approach denies the world's realities - that all states are multinational. Nations do not want to melt into someone else's idea of an ideal, homogenous pot.

Elites the world over have been helped in their efforts to erase national identities through many of the United States' development and assistance programs. Foreign assistance, investment, military aid and arms sales, and food for peace all have been used by Third World States to consolidate power. These sources of income, often combined with the states' abilities to control exports and set commodity prices paid to local producers, account for about two-thirds of most Third World states' revenues. This makes government the biggest economic game in town.

Many Third World debts arise from centralizing power in the hands of a few who control the states. Weapons purchase, for example, are equal to about 40 percent of the entire Third world debt (100 percent in sub-Saharan Africa). States use the weapons not against external enemies but against people who are supposed to be citizens. Much of the Third World debt has been used to enrich elites and promote capital flight, which explains why Third World elites have foreign assets equal to the entire Third World debt. These debts are incurred by only a few, they must be repaid by everyone.

The rise of nationalism in the post-World war II period, more visible in the 1990s with the breakup of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union, is a clear indication that the melting-pot model of state formation does not apply to most of the world, and that culture, more than ideology, is the key to peoples' identifies.


Bernard Nietschmann's seminal piece for cultural Survival quarterly on states and nations introduced the first issue in our two-part series, "Militarization and Indigenous Peoples" (vol. 11, no. 3 & 4, 1987). A geographer, Nietschmann mapped the definition of nation, nation-state, Fourth World, and peoples, and presented extensive charts and outlines on the geography of armed conflict. We've chosen much to excerpt here - move than in other sections - but the article in its entirely offers even more.

The nature and geography of global war has changed. The new world war is focused on the Third World, and pits guerrilla insurgencies against state governments and states against indigenous nations. The Third World War, is the war of the states. It is over control of the state and state control over autonomous nations. Most of these wars are over territory, resources, and identify, not politics or economics.…

In almost every newspaper and television news program the terms state, nation. and nation-state are used interchangeably. This is also the case in most popular and academic books on world and regional problem and conflicts. No mere semantic matter, this shell game with words hides opposing sides that shoot at each other.

Nations are geographically bounded territories of a common people. A people who see themselves as "one people" on the basis of common ancestry, history, society, institutions, ideology, language, territory, and (often) religion. Nation peoples distinguish themselves and their countries from other adjacent and distant peoples and countries. The existence of nations is ancient.

Today there are between 3,000 and 5,000 nations. No directory, atlas, or encyclopedia exists that lists or describes all or even most of the world's nations and nation peoples. Most individuals can't even name more than five or six nations. Some nations are very small in population and area - a few score on a few acres. Other nations are huge, with populations in the millions..…

A state is a centralized political system, recognized by other states, that used a civilian and military bureaucracy to enforce one set of institutions, laws, and sometimes language and religion within its claimed boundaries. This is done regardless of the presence of nations that may have preexisting and different laws and institutions. States commonly claim many nations that may not consent to being governed and absorbed by an imposed central government in the hands of a different people. Although most central governments assert that their state is made up of one common people, more than 95 percent of the world's 168 states are multinational, that is, composed of many nations, some unconsenting .…

A nation-state is a rarity. A common people with a common historical territory that is governed by an internationally recognized central political system is a nation-state. Thus only a few of the world's states really are "nation-states": Iceland, Western Samon, East Germany, Poland, North and South Korea, and a handful more. Only a few of the world's peoples live in nation-states.…

The Fourth World comprises the nation peoples and their countries that exist beneath the imposed states. Nation people consider themselves to be members of distinct nations by virtue of birth and cultural and territorial heritage; they may not consider themselves to be citizens of some intruding state government made up of other people from other places. Fourth World nations may be surrounded, divided if dismembered by one or more international states. The Fourth World encompasses most of the world's distinct peoples, about a third of the world's population, and approximately 50 percent of the land area. Nation peoples may be industrialized (Latvians, Estonians, Catalans), or live from hunting and marketing (Inuits), herding (Samis), agriculture (Shan), ranching (Western Shoshone), or commercial and subsistence fishing (Haida). Most academic classifications commonly used in anthropology, geography, sociology, economics, and political science are not very useful in describing Fourth World nations and their geopolitical situations and problems..…

How can a people be an ethnic group in its own nation? Are Palestinians an ethnic group in Palestine? Are Karens an ethnic group in kawthoolei? How can the Mistios be separatists if they never consented to joining the Nicaraguan stare? How can the Sahrawi people be rebels because they resist the Moroccan invasion? When asked by a Sandinista leader if the Miskito people would accept special status as a Nicaraguan ethnic group, Misurasata, coordinator Brooklyn Rivera replied, "Ethnic groups run restaurants. We are people. We have an army. We want self-determination".…

States define nation peoples as "ethnic groups" and "minorities" as a tactic to annex their identities in order to incorporate their lands and resources. Whereas 'a people" has internationally recognized rights to self-determination, subsistence, resources, and national territory an "ethnic group" or "minority" does not.


In 1984 television brought the faces of famine in Ethiopia the faces of famine in Ethiopia to living rooms around the world, and an unprecedented flood of aid was sent to help the victims. But, as Cultural Survival researchers reported through the quarterly and several CS publications, the humanitarian aid was being used by Mengistu and the Dergue, his ruling military junta, to finance a massive resettlement, relocation, and "villagization" progress that served to divide certain ethnic groups from the workings of the country. Here is an excerpt from a 1984 editorial.

There is, once again, famine in Ethiopia. The world has responded, albeit belatedly, with food and the financial commitment to ensure that supplied reach the intended recipients. The media has billed the response to the famine as the largest humanitarian outpouring to a natural disaster in memory. However, the situation in Ethiopia and the response in the West raise two important questions which, to date, have largely been ignored. Why are so many Ethiopians starving? Will assistance relieve or exacerbate the conditions that led to the famine?.…

By excluding other groups from government, the Dergue has provoked secessionist movements by the Oronmo, Somali, and Tigrian peoples. In addition, the Dergue has inherited the long-standing war of liberation with the Eritreans. As a result of these wars and the Dergue's attempts to impose an Amharic identity on all peoples, Ethiopia has produced more refugees since 1974 than any other country in the world. Reports from Ethiopia indicate that even greater numbers of people have been displaced internally.…

Recent reports from Ethiopia indicate that famine assistance has been given first, and sometimes only, to members of the newly formed government workers' party which is dominated both politically and numerically by the military.…

Reports from Ethiopia in November 1984 indicate that people from Eritrea and Tigray are being moved from their homelands to equally dry areas in the south which belong to Oromo. The move clearly has little to do with famine assistance. It is an attempt to move populations from areas that are opposing the Dergue to areas where other ethnic groups are involved in their own secessionist struggled. Such moves, it appears, are intended to weaken the resistance movements in all three regions. Internationally provided humanitarian assistance has been used to finance the moves.…

Agencies and governments giving food or financial assistance to Ethiopia should monitor the impact of their programs to determine if their humanitarian efforts are being used by the Dergue to continue the policies that led to the present situation.

By conducting exhaustive interview with Ethiopian refugee, CS researchers were able to piece together the government's targeting of certain ethnic groups for relocation. Making certain groups dependent on the state exacerbated the famine, and relocation tore apart communities and ate away at their cultural core. This excerpts is from a prepared statements given by CS's Jason Clay before the subcommittees on Africa and Human Rights and International Organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the House of Representatives.

Since 1980, our interviews with refugees from each of the major ethnic groups in Ethiopia indicate that the present government is attempting to systematically destroy the culturally distinct groups within the country. This systematic destruction appears to be based on the goal of creating a strong central state upon which each community is dependent. by confiscating land, moving dissident peoples from their own area onto the land or even into the villages of others, and imposing, under the guise of state socialism, local organizations which destroy the ability of communities to remain self-sufficient in food production, the government is attempting to achieve its goal. As we have seen in the past year, even though the state has succeeded in making these communities dependent by reducing their productive capacity, it cannot provide food for them. This is the context within which Western humanitarian assistance is being used.


As is shown by the example of Ethiopia - and India and many other Third World states - the fall of Western colonialism only gave rise to a new kind of colonialism based on the old white system. This excerpt is from another article by Bernard Nietschmanu that explores, the examples of Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Third World colonialism has replaced European colonialism as the principal global force that tries to subjugate indigenous peoples and their ancient nations. European colonial empires became powerful through the forced incorporation of distant peoples and territories. Wars of independence and national liberation and post-World War II decolonization created today's Third World countries largely on the artificial outlines outlines of the vanquished colonial empires.

Invasion and occupation of indigenous nations once done by foreign white expansionist powers are now done by foreign brown expansionist powers. The majority of these artificial Third World states can only be maintained by the invasion and physical incorporation of lands and resources of hundreds of indigenous nations. What is called "economic development" is the annexation at gunpoint of other peoples' economies. What is called "nation-building is actually state expansion by nation-destroying. "Territorial consolidation," "national integration," "the imperatives of population growth," and 'economic development" are phrases Third World states use to cover up the killings of indigenous nations and peoples.

The capture and control of geography, not the extension of politics or economic philosophy, is the objective of the Third World invasions. Most Fourth World indigenous nations have maintained the quality of lands, waters, and resources while Third World states have nor. Systems that do work are being destroyed to prolong systems that don't work. Over one-half of the world's conflicts are being fought over Fourth World geography, not East-West politics or North-South economics.…

Aided by the slogan "Unity in Diversity," Java has moved to expand its domination over unconsenting nations by military invasion and occupation, deployment of Javanese settlers, and compulsory "Javanization" programs to 9 change religion, nationality, language, and allegiance. This has and is being done, for example, in the South Moluccas (invaded in 1950), West Papua (invaded 1962), and East Timor (invaded 1975).…

Within the state of Bangladesh is the over-population Bengali nation, just as within the state of Indonesia is the over-populated Javanese nation. Each of these two states is a ruled by one dominant nation the forces less powerful and less populated nations to accede to the fiction of an Indonesian and a Bangladesh "nation."

The term tribalism is often used as an excuse for the many nations-state conflicts in Africa. But it is the suppression of this tribal identity that may be leading to much of the continent's strife.

Progressive Africans argue that tribalism is one of the most disruptive influences confronting newly independent sub-Saharan African states. Tribalism, they argue, is the basis for hatred between peoples within a country as well as between countries. If African states are to take their rightful place in the world, progressive African believe, tribalism must be destroyed. There is little evidence, however, that tribal identity is on the wane, even among the most progressive elements within the newly created states. Furthermore, there is on the wane, even among the most progressive elements within the newly created states. Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that post-independence efforts to eliminate tribal identities may have contributed significantly to Africa's contributed significantly to Africa's catastrophic problems.

What accounts for the resilience of cultural identity in the face of efforts to eliminate it? The answer to this question is at the heart of our understanding such topics as famines, refugee crises, and the numerous coups and secessionist movements that plague contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. The very terms that are used to describe oneself or others in Africa - nations, nationality, tribe, ethnic group - are highly charged and skillfully manipulated by friends and foes alike.


Many legislative efforts have taken place, through the United Nations and other international agencies, to ensure that children will not be targets in wars and will not be recruited as soldiers in wars. The reality, however, it another story. State armies and rebel groups alike frequently use children as recruits - in fact, they are their "best" soldiers when taught at an early age.

The overwhelming majority of victims in today's wars are indeed children. While most of these fatalities results from indiscriminate bombings or attacks on cities and villages, others do not. Rather, adolescents, young boys and girls, and infants are singled out, injured, and killed as part of a calculated strategy. Moreover, thousands of children are currently bearing arms in at least 20 ongoing conflicts. Even children as young as nine years old are used as frontline combatants in unwinnable battles, as decoys to lure opposing forces into ambush, and as human mine detectors to explode bombs in front of advancing adult troops.

Between 1982 and 1984, the Guatemalan army (by its own determination) destroyed 400 Indian villages and killed between 30,000 and 50,000 men, women, and children during its military campaign against the guerrilla movement in the countryside. Yet, in the midst of this violence directed at Indians as a whole, children in a number of villages were tortured and killed while their adult counterparts were left physically unharmed. In some cases, these victims were older boys and adolescents whom the military thought were or might someday become guerrilla soldiers. Others, however, were babied and toddlers still too young to leave their mother's side.…

To destroy what is of highest value to someone is clearly among the most effective forms of terrorism imaginable; to kill and injure children is to rob a family or an entire group of its future. What better way to undermine whatever popular support may exist for any given cause than to attack the very beings we love and value most in life?.…

Despite this legislation, there are at least 20 countries in which children from 10 to 18 years of age are involved in civil wars, armies of libations, and even international war. Recruitment of child soldiers often has been associated with heavy indoctrination programs that merge the call to duty with national or religious symbols, drawing upon the media and the educational system to glorify war. Such is the case in Iran where, after receiving special religious training in martyrdom, thousands of 10 - and 11-year-old children have been sent off to their deaths literally carrying the keys they were given "insuring" their entrance into paradise.

Cultural Survival Quarterly's special issue on children, "Children: The Battleground of Change" (vol. 10, no. 4, 1986), featured many articles on children and war. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni formed the National Resistance Army (NRA) in 1981 to mount an armed guerrilla war against Milton Obote's Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). As children began to be protected and taught self-defense training by the NRA, they were found to be highly motivated soldiers eager to average UNLA atrocities against their families.

Yoweri Museveni and other NRA officers feel that much too much "fuss" has been made about child soldiers by Western reporters, diplomats, and agencies such as UNICEF. They point out that the Geneva Convention, which prohibits children under the age of 15 to bear arms, was written by predominantly Western countries and that it does not apply to Uganda's situation. They claim that children in Uganda are taught to fight with sticks and to defend livestock herds from predators at very young ages - five or six years. They maintain that training in the use of a gun is just an extension of these traditional values, and the even for the child soldiers who have experienced front line actions, there is no basis for concern about psychological scars and aftereffects.


Many states gain control over an ethnic minority or an indigenous group by simply outlawing and banning that group's cultural practices - language, dress, religion, education, Nowhere is this more true than in China's iron rule over Tibet; the twist in this case is that cultural practices are permitted sometimes - when they serve the tourism industry.

In the wake of the wide-scale riots that greeted the exile government's fact-finding missions. China has forfeited its effort, pursued in the early 1980s, at compromise with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees. Where the earlier policy saw a wooing of the Tibetan leader in the hope that he would return to stabilize the region, the reconstituted goal features a cancellation of all dialogue. In its places, [china] has adopted a final solution for Tibet: the rapid sinocization of the country within 10-20 years and with it the demise of the Tibetan race itself…

After much agitation, the Chinese have permitted Tibetan street names to be placed above those in Mandarin in major cities - only, however, in sections visited by tourists..…

Many children did not even know the Tibetan alphabet - nor surprising, since 70 percent of all Tibetans are still illiterate, a fact admitted by China. By way of remedy, it has sent 17,000 children to nine provinces for three years of schooling. Unlike the 1,200 Tibetan students in the four national minorities institutes, who, living in large groups, have maintained their identity, these children are being scattered in small contingents of 30-40. The plain intent is to sinocize them for future cadre work - the intent, as well, of education in Tibet.…

The child who does manage to finish school hardly emerges with what could be considered a proper education. Chinese and Tibetan children are segregated. Chinese classes often outnumber Tibetan ones and, because Chinese officials are uncompromising in regard to their own children's educational standards, they invariably receive the best teachers and facilities. The Tibetan child studies Mandarin, Marxism math, and physical education. Within this system, the recently granted permission to study Tibetan language has, practically speaking, proved useless…

Making, a business of belief is, in fact, the highest aim of religious "freedom" in Tibet. Not only do the admission and photo fees charged commercialize faith, they intentionally demean the monks, particularly in the eyes of Tibet's younger generation, who cannot help but view them as parasitical.

In Burma cultural suppression is the norm, too, and this has spawned many insurgent groups that are demanding freedom to express their cultural identity.

In its attempts to gain control over the diverse people who inhabit Burma, the government has attempted to regulate Buddhism and to suppress non-Buddhist religions such as Christianity and Islam. Mass arrests, detention, and forced registration of Arakanese Muslims have frequently occurred. In 1978, 200,000 Arakanese fled to Bangladesh, fearing detention as illegal aliens. Nonindigenous citizens (defined as those whose families arrived in Burma after 1824) were denied rights pertaining to employment and residency under a 1980 citizenship law.

The insurgents' stated reasons for fighting the Burmese government include suppression of religion, language, and culture; the imposition of the socialist economic system; human rights violation (such as torture and forced labor); the rights to secession granted in the first constitution; procolonial territorial claims; and perceived government intention to "exterminate" minority groups. In many cases, grievances arose because the government was fighting the insurgents in the ethnic minority areas, with government abuses provoking local support for the insurgency rather than suppressing it.

Along with the ethnic rebels, groups such as the Communists and [the Kuomintang] are fighting the Burmese government. The Burma Communist Party (BCP), which 10,000 troops, is one of the world's largest Communist insurgencies. Its troops are mainly from minority ethnic groups such as the Wa and Shan. Since Chinese support has been reduced, the BCP has become a major opium trading organization and has been known to collaborate with KMT forces on opium trade and transport.

A coalition of 10 ethnic insurgent groups, the National Democratic Front, has become a viable political and military alliance. The NDF has expressed willingness to negotiate an end to the war. The few attempts at negotiation in the past have failed, however, and there has been no internationally sponsored mediation.

The Gulf War catapulted the Kards into the international spotlight this year, but they have been a repressed minority for years, and from all sides - by Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Here are some stories from the Turkish camp.

The owners of shops with Kurdish names - HEVAL (comrade or WELAT (homeland) - were threatened and ordered to change the signs within the hour…

It is illegal for parents to give children Kurdish names; they must select Turkish names of face punishment.

In a raid on the village of Doganbey, the gendarmerie, whose garrison commander was quoted as saying, "We shall exterminate all Kurds," tortured the imam (holy man) of the village for several hours. The inhabitants were then forced to speak Turkish. The women, who did not speak Turkish, however, could not understand the commands. When the village guard translated them into Kurdish he was beaten. When he tried to explain that he had to translate because the women spoke no Turkish, the commander ordered the villagers tortured because they did not speak Turkish.…

The persecution of Kurds is without contemporary equivalent in Europe, yet is condoned by the silence of Western powers that continue to furnish Turkey with military and economic aid. The West may well fulfill the role hypothetically cast for it by Turan Gunes, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, at a recent session of the Council of Europe, as he responded to the issue of Kurdish independence:

Let me tell you, with the tolerance of just a few countries like West Germany, France, and England, we will have no problem liquidating millions of Kurds.

Again in Uganda, the "Banyarwanda," who had lived in what is now Uganda since shortly before it became a British Protectorate at the beginning of the century, find that they are not welcome in a country of which they are supposed to be citizens.

Anti-Banyarwanda sentiment is not new in Uganda, although it has varied in intensity for decades. Ugandan leader Milton Obote ordered the registration of all "people of Rwandan origin" in 1969, in what many believe was a first step toward their expulsion. The takeover of the Ugandan government by Idi Amin in 1972 precluded implementation of the expulsion. For this reason many Banyarwanda welcomed the arrival of Amin and identified with his government. After Amin's flight from the country in 1979, this identification provided a basis for anti-Banyarwanda sentiment. Steps were taken by Obote and others to assure that the Banyarwanda were not allowed to vote in the elections of 1980 which resulted (many believe through vote fraud) in the return of Obote to the presidency and control of the government by his party, the Uganda People's Congress (UPC).

Since that time, the anti-Banyarwanda sentiment of the UPC has been openly expressed. Some officials have blamed atrocities of the Amin regime on the Banyarwanda and have accused them of being in the forefront of illegal antigovernment activities since the elections. Most knowledgeable observers, however, dismiss these assertions as attempts by Obote and the UPC to make the political opposition scapegoats for the barely functioning economy and massive inflation. The Banyarwanda's Catholicism is also a factor causing friction in their relations with the UPC...."

In late September 1982, officials of the government and the UPC, including cabinet-level ministers and members of Parliament, approved a large-scale, centrally orchestrated displacement of Banyarwanda. Affected were those who had always lived in Uganda as well as refugees who had arrived in the sixties - citizens and noncitizens alike. Beginning on October 1, teams of local officials, members of the "youth wing" of the UPC, and special forces of the police attacked Banyarwanda homes. These were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable as the mud walls were pushed in or the corrugated metal roofs were stolen. Even homes on the perimeter of long-established refugee settlements were destroyed.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: