Colin Nicholas

Lumoh and Nadi of Pertak, Selangor (1996)The indigenous peoples of Asia number more than 150 million. This is more than half of the world's indigenous population. Labels such as cultural minorities, hill tribes, aboriginals, tribals, natives and indigenous minorities may apply well to local contexts but they inadequately describe the true picture. Nation states have also manipulated definitions to suit their political needs, labelling indigenous peoples as 'backward tribes', 'mountain peoples', and 'remote area dwellers.'  However, indigenous peoples do not wish to be labelled as anything other than what they call themselves. Each group sees itself as a distinct people.

Yet, despite their cultural and ethnic diversity, indigenous peoples share many striking similarities by which they are identified. For one, they trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of a territory which has been lost to others by conquest or deceit. They consider themselves distinct from the dominant culture and society of which they now find themselves a part of. And they have their own language, religion, customs and worldview   which they are determined to transmit to future generations.

More importantly, all indigenous peoples have a special relationship with their land, which they see as being imbued with a spirituality and sacredness not generally comprehensible by others. The land for them is more than just a habitat or a political boundary; it is the basis of their social organisation, economic system and cultural identification. And it is threats to their land and their lifestyles that have come to signify the fate of indigenous peoples the world over.

Realising the need to unite in pursuit of their common aspirations, indigenous peoples movements and organisations in Asia established the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact. This was to be a forum for indigenous peoples movements in Asia through which indigenous peoples could address their problems, draw support from each other, and plan, develop and launch programmes at various levels. The Pact was formally inaugurated at its first general assembly in Bangkok in May 1992.

At this general assembly, it was very evident from the deliberations that the indigenous peoples of Asia had many experiences in common. In particular, they were united in that they all faced one aspiration: the struggle for self-determination.

Indigenous peoples in Asia are today living in a state of non-peace or conflict. There is a general feeling of loss of control over their lands and, consequently, their way of life and their destiny. Invariably, the common desire for all indigenous peoples is to regain control.

Theirs is a history of invasion, colonization, and domination. Sadly, however, history for the indigenous peoples extend into the present day. Peoples like the East Timorese, West Papuans and Nagas continue to battle invading forces while most other indigenous peoples continue to experience subjugation by the dominant society in a situation commonly referred to as internal colonization.

Through the polity of the nation state, new worldviews and values are foisted onto the indigenous peoples. Policy objectives of assimilation and integration are aimed at eroding indigenous identity and status. At the same time, the current notion of development invariably threatens the survival of many indigenous communities. Not surprisingly, therefore, indigenous peoples in Asia consider western industrial society and western values the greatest driving force behind their obliteration as a people.

Within nation states also, indigenous peoples are politically disenfranchised and economically marginalized. The state, for its part, often has no qualms using whatever means at its disposal to suppress and control indigenous peoples. Apart from employing the military might and the legislative powers at its disposal to undermine indigenous interests, nation states often adopt more subtle means to control and subjugate a people.

Through the introduction of education systems based on the perceptions of the dominant society, younger generations of indigenous peoples are being encouraged to assimilate with the dominant society. Inevitably, a future generation of indigenous peoples will prevail one with weak roots to their land and ignorant of their indigenous worldview. Religion has also been used to divide indigenous communities or deny indigenous peoples their own spirituality.

More significantly, however, nation states have learnt that they can ensure the annihilation of the identity and status of indigenous peoples by removing their attachment to the land. Once this spiritual and cultural basis of indigenous peoples is destroyed through the destruction of the environment or as a result of outright dispossession their ability to practise and continue their way of life and worldview are threatened, initiating a slow, but sure, cultural genocide.

But indigenous peoples are not being passive to what is happening to them. They have formed alliances and coalitions within nation states as well as on a global scale. They have participated in international fora and have supported the move to draft a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. More importantly, they have asserted their right to self-determination and, in varying forms, continue to struggle towards this end.

Indigenous peoples today essentially seek recognition by governments and the international community of their existence, of their problems, and of their perspectives. They seek recognition that their ancestral lands are essential for their economic, social and spiritual development; and they also want their lands back. They seek recognition that they have been robbed, oppressed and discriminated against by the colonial and national governments; and they now want to govern themselves. They seek recognition that they possess complex, flexible and appropriate social institutions; and they now want the right to practise them.

Indigenous peoples also want recognition of their right to develop their own cultures, languages and customs; and to be able to transmit them to future generations. They also seek an end to racial discrimination, religious persecution, economic marginalization, political oppression, militarization and all forms of ethnocidal attacks on them.

In a broad sense, therefore, indigenous peoples today are re-asserting their right to be able to develop and progress as individuals and as a people, based on a social order that they themselves determine. Hence, whatever their current political and social situation today, and wherever they are to be found today, indigenous peoples have one common aspiration: to reclaim their right to self determination.

While the particular components of the indigenous peoples' definition of the term may differ from one group to another, their demand for the right to self-determination would generally include, but not be limited to, the following:

© 1996 Colin Nicholas, Center for Orang Asli Concerns
email: coac@streamyx.com

Temuan kids on the Luit River
photos by Antares & Colin Nicholas