A COMMON STRUGGLE:
TO REGAIN CONTROL
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.
THE STRUGGLE FOR SELF-DETERMINATION
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.
SELF-DETERMINATION: WHAT IT IMPLIES
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:
- the right to the ownership of their lands as the territorial base for the existence of their populations;
- the right to use, manage and dispose of all natural resources found within their ancestral lands;
- the right to control their own economies, and the right to economic prosperity;
- the right to restore, manage, develop and practise their culture, language, traditions and way of life in accordance with their worldview, and to educate their children to them;
- the right to determine the form of self-government, and to uphold indigenous political systems;
- the right to engage in foreign relations and trade if they so desire;
- the right to form alliances and federations with other indigenous peoples for the attainment of common goals; and
- the right to a life of peace and security.
Self-determination, therefore, not only involves restoring to the indigenous peoples their ownership and control over traditional territories, but also involves allowing them to re- establish their indigenous social order as they themselves determine it.
Nevertheless, while self-determination may be the common aspiration of all indigenous peoples, it does not necessarily follow that all indigenous peoples see eye-to-eye as to how to achieve it. Prevailing realities in the political environment that the indigenous peoples currently find themselves in, largely dictates the specific manner in which their right to self-determination is to be achieved.
In the main, however,
indigenous struggles for self-determination follow two paths: the quest
for full independence and the demand for genuine autonomy.
For some indigenous groups, such as the Nagas and the Mizos in India, the East Timorese and the West Papuans in Indonesia, and the Kachins and Karens in Myanmar, nothing short of full independence from the colonizing or national governments is their demand. These indigenous peoples contend that their sovereignty was never surrendered to the invading forces, and consequently the struggle for full independence is actually a struggle to defend their sovereignty.
It is also to be noted that wherever indigenous peoples are seeking full independence, the struggle invariably takes on the form of armed conflict.
Armed struggle is resorted to not only because an appeal to reason is no longer available, but more so because justice for the indigenous peoples is longer forthcoming from the invading colonizers. And where there is no justice, there is invariably violence. The responsibility for violence must therefore lie at the feet of those who deny justice, and who themselves resort to violence to subdue and repress a people.
For the indigenous peoples faced with invasion of their lands, and where their continued identity and survival as a people are at stake, there is a willingness to repel violent domination with violence but only as a last resort, when all other methods fail, and when faced with violent repression itself.
The struggle for
full independence therefore represents the ultimate aspiration of all indigenous
peoples: reclaiming their status as a sovereign people, and establishing
their right to total self-determination.
WITHIN THE NATION STATE
Often, however, existing political realities require that the indigenous peoples seek realizable goals as an initial concession towards the ultimate goal, if not as an end in itself.
Most indigenous groups therefore, especially where they represent a minority in the nation state they have been incorporated into, opt for genuine autonomy. This is the case for the Tribal Filipinos and the Bangsa Moro in the Philippines, the Ainu in Japan, the Adivasis in India, and the Karen and Akha in Thailand, amongst others.
By genuine autonomy is meant the genuine and full guarantee to indigenous peoples for self-governance within the framework of the existing sovereign nation state. Implicit in this term is the recognition of the indigenous peoples' right to their ancestral domain, and their right to conserve, develop, utilize and dispose the natural resources found therein.
Genuine autonomy also involves giving full recognition to the social, political, religious and cultural traditions of the indigenous peoples. It would also entail the establishment of genuine structures which ensures the full participation by the people in all matters affecting themselves.
However, it must
be stressed that genuine autonomy can only be achieved within the context
of a nation state that is founded on complementary structures for the national
peoples as a whole. Genuine autonomy cannot be achieved if, for instance,
the nation state continues to be structured on the capitalist model, or
if indigenous territories continue to be occupied by foreign military bases.
In short, indigenous peoples do not want control over existing institutions
and structures; instead, they want these institutions and structures to
be removed, and be replaced with those of their own.
THE PATH TO
In the struggle for self-determination, whether it is expressed as the demand for genuine autonomy or for full independence, the indigenous peoples in the region have taken various approaches and strategies towards realizing their ultimate aspiration.
Some of these measures
are categorized below, though it should be stressed that the list is not
Indigenous peoples have realized that their struggle for self-determination can only advance through unity among all indigenous peoples. They have also realized that efforts at creating divisions between themselves exist overtly and covertly; as in the case of the Akha and Karen in Thailand when the introduction of non-indigenous religions divide a village into followers and non-followers, or as in the case of Taiwan where the government classifies the indigenous peoples there, literally, as lowland mountain-people and mountain mountain-people in an apparently deliberate attempt at 'divide-and-rule.'
In response to the
need to be united, indigenous groups have formed alliances and federations
with other indigenous groups who have similar aspirations and who are faced
with similar problems. Traditional institutions of the indigenous social
have been used to bring together such groups as was successfully done in
the Cordilleras when the bi-lateral peace pacts between the Tribal Filipinos
led to the multi-lateral Cordillera Bodong Association.
Depending on the receptiveness of the colonizing government, indigenous groups have utilized 'soft' methods aimed at getting some concessions. Litigation through the courts have been resorted to in order to get rulings in favour of the indigenous peoples (as was the case when the Naga Peoples' Movement for Human Rights won court decisions against the actions of the Indian military occupying their lands). Legal litigation have also been used, though with only a limited success, to coerce national governments to enforce rights and guarantees for the indigenous peoples which are enshrined in the national constitutions.
Negotiation has also
been resorted to in an attempt to achieve an amicable solution to the prevailing
problem. So too have other nonviolent tactics such as civil disobedience,
boycotts and non-cooperation. At times, the existing political framework
was also exploited as when the tribal peoples in Bihar (India) formed their
own political party, the Jarkhand Party, which at its height in the 1950s
held over 30 seats in the state assembly and became a major opposition
Indigenous peoples have also seen the need to embark on conscientization programmes both for their own peoples as well as for the non-indigenous population. In this respect, protest marches, rallies and demonstrations, as well the media, forums, and other platforms have been utilized to inform others about their situation and their aspirations.
Among the indigenous
peoples themselves, much awareness-raising and conscientization were needed,
especially in cases where the indigenous identity and social order were
on the verge of extinction. Traditional institutions, such as the village
council or traditional communal feasts, have been used to expound and discuss
communal issues on a more political level.
Indigenous peoples today also recognize that there are other sectors in the national society whose members are being equally oppressed by the system. Workers, women, and the peasantry, for example, are also victims of the national ideology. Furthermore, it is also true that indigenous peoples themselves constitute these sectors as well, particularly the peasantry. Recognizing that there are areas for cooperation in the effort to transform the present society, indigenous peoples have collaborated with these sectors in the national society.
peoples have also recognised that there are genuinely progressive elements
within other sectors of society: students, public interest groups, and
other non- governmental organizations, amongst others. Apart from their
being genuinely sympathetic to the cause of the indigenous peoples, sometimes
the 'cause' is a common one, as when indigenous and non-indigenous peoples
protest the building of nuclear plants or dams in traditional lands on
a land rights as well as an environmental platform.
Indigenous peoples have also recognized the important role that international solidarity plays in bringing them a step closer to their goals. National governments have been known to give in, albeit more as a concession rather than in totality, to the demands of indigenous peoples especially if such demands are backed by the international community. The struggles of the East Timorese and those of the Penans in Sarawak are examples of instances where massive international support was able to be mobilized in their favour. Inevitably, however, it would seem that even international furore and concern often give way to vested national interests.
RESORT TO ARMED
There are occasions, however, when the futility of the forms of nonviolent protest is evident. Those who are bent on possessing the lands of the indigenous peoples, those who want to colonize and control them, invariably resort to the use of unrestrained violence and repression to achieve their intentions. In such circumstances, where their own individual lives as well as the survival of their race is at stake, indigenous peoples are forced to abandon their peaceful struggle.
These are some of
the measures which indigenous peoples have taken in the pursuit of their
ultimate goal of self-determination. Again, it should be stressed that
the above processes do not follow any order of priority; rather, using
a good eye of the prevailing political situation, indigenous peoples have
used some or all of these processes simultaneously in their effort to achieve
their goal - to regain control.
© 1996 Colin Nicholas, Center for Orang Asli Concerns
photos by Antares & Colin Nicholas
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