Remaining Indigenous

Published: 20 July 2006



Indigenous Peoples in Southeast Asia in the context of current
Political, Economic and Technological Developments

Colin Nicholas

Resource paper presented at the 2nd Regional Network on Indigenous Peoples (RNIP) Workshop and Intervision Meeting, a joint-inititaive of Isabella State University, the Philippines and Leiden University, the Netherlands. Environmental Information Centre (EIC) Building, Isabela State University, Cabagan, Isabela, The Philippines, 10-15 July 2006.

There are over 200 million people belonging to 950 distinct indigenous communities in Asia. This is more than half of the world population of indigenous peoples. Indonesia, with 300 ethnic groups, ranks first in diversity while China and India with 91 million and 51 million indigenous people are at the top in terms of sheer population. About 33 million indigenous peoples are to be found in Southeast Asia.

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. Meeting in Chiangmai in March this year, about 50 indigenous representatives sat down and came up set of common experiences and issues that identify indigenous peoples in Asia. This is not a definition per se but rather a working checklist as to what constitutes being an indigenous people in Asia. The issue is particularly pertinent in countries like Malaysia where either the majority ethnic group consider itself equally as the indigenous people of the country, or in Japan where the Ainu are denied that identity.

In essence, the indigenous peoples of Asia trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of a territory. 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.

However, 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. In some cases, these policies are enforced with military might and in others more subtle means to control and subjugate a people, including legislative processes, are employed.

At the same time, with unfettered capitalism and globalisation continuing to be hot on the heels of indigenous peoples and their land, the survival and continuity of many indigenous communities are being threatened daily.

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

More significantly, however, nation states have learned that they can ensure the annihilation of the identity and status of indigenous peoples by simply 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 indigenous spirituality 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 acted to draft a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that has recently been endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council.

But the fact remains that, today, as it was in the past, indigenous peoples in Southeast Asia are today living in a state of conflict or non-peace. There is a general feeling of loss of control over their lands and, consequently, of their way of life and their destiny. Invariably, the common desire for all indigenous peoples is to regain control, to exercise self-determination.

Indigenous Peoples and Self-Determination
Indigenous peoples today essentially seek recognition – by governments and the international community. Indigenous peoples seek 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 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 people to another, their demand for the right to self-determination would generally include, but not be limited to:
    • 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 sovereignty and full independence, and the demand for genuine autonomy.

For some indigenous groups, such as the West Papuans in what is now Indonesian Irian Jaya, and the Kachins and Karens in Burma, 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.

Most other indigenous peoples in Asia, however, seek a form of genuine autonomy. This is the case for the Tribal Filipinos and the Bangsa Moro in the Philippines, 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.

Economic and technological developments
and their impact on indigenous peoples

We tend to get caught up with new terms for old things. Globalisation, for indigenous peoples, is just a new term for something old. It came in the form of imperialism, colonialism and capitalism, to name a few all of which systematically worked towards marginalizing and denying indigenous peoples and their cultures. All sought to expropriate indigenous peoples from their traditional lands; and all treated indigenous peoples as expendable commodities.

However, globalization does all this on a different scale altogether, using more subtle but more effective means to exploit and expropriate on magnitudes that are too difficult to even try to imagine. The tentacles of big business reach out into every single nook and it is not just monetary profits that are being appropriated from the indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples now find their traditional territories, and the natural resources found therein, highly coveted by others. This is because, today, the indigenous peoples occupy the last remaining resource frontiers. The potential profits that indigenous peoples' lands and resources can bring to these corporations are so substantial that basic humanity – that is, the basic spiritual obligation to be humane and co-responsible for all humankind (the Semai call this tenhaq) – is overlooked or, worse, scorned upon as a primitive value.

The profit-grabbing does not stop at the mere theft of their lands and resources.  The more sophisticated and technology-based corporations of today are extremely responsive to the enormous financial profits that can be reaped from what the indigenous peoples know of the huge store of beneficial uses the good earth has bequeathed humankind, and which the indigenous peoples took years of careful experimentation and research to discover.

Not surprisingly, therefore, indigenous knowledge is now an efficient and highly cost-effective shortcut for large pharmaceutical companies to extract the 'green gold' that our diverse biological resources have to offer. Local and international laws however seem to encourage the theft and piracy of indigenous knowledge and even serve to protect the presumed rights of these corporations to their so-called new discoveries.

Greenwash and People-wash
Because of growing awareness and aggressiveness of indigenous communities and friendly NGOs, governments and the private corporations have been forced to spend a considerable amount of money on public relations efforts to reverse the negative portrayal of their business ventures. Similarly, a considerable amount of money and effort is also spent on courting community leaders or committees who will be amenable to the wishes of the government or the private corporation.

Under the guise of being eco-friendly and environmentally-conscious, the big corporations and some international financial institutions have greened their business activities. Biodiesel may be a good alternative to non-renewable petroleum-based fuel but biodiesel is only possible if huge tracts of monoculture crops like oil palm are cultivated - invariably on indigenous peoples' land.

The Kyoto Protocol, in which the developed nations agreed to limit their greenhouse gas emissions, relative to the levels emitted in 1990, has a very complicated way of going about compensating so-called green efforts by a system of carbon credits. The system however excludes small farmers and owners of traditional forests in its unique 'reward mechanism' of carbon credits. Instead, big forestry corporations are compensated if they convert lands, such as those of the indigenous peoples, into monoculture plantations.

Big Funding, Big Problems
Even the international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are being accused of collaborating with national governments in schemes that rob indigenous peoples of control over their traditional ands and of their own economic wealth. Aid from governments of wealthy nations – Overseas Development Assistance, ODAs – are also becoming an increasing feature in developing countries. These institutions are big and their eyes are on mega-projects that require the involvement of big corporations and, frequently the dispossession and marginalization of indigenous communities.

Most of these projects tend to be environment-related such as large dams, incinerators and monoculture reforestation. It is no coincidence therefore that of the almost 700 victims of killings since President Arroyo came to power in 2001, 17 of them are environmental activists who actively campaigned against environmentally destructive projects such as large-scale mining, commercial logging and mega dam projects.

In fact, it is safe to say that all big 'development' endeavors of the last few decades have resulted in the indigenous peoples' material and cultural expropriation, especially if it was 'development' the indigenous peoples did not want.

Indigenous Development
Clearly such 'development' activities are at variance with what indigenous peoples regard as genuine development. For indigenous peoples, the concept of development is based on the implementation of indigenous rights which focuses not just on individual but, more especially, on collective rights. Indigenous development, therefore, is based on the special relationships that indigenous peoples have towards the features of their world.

These special relationships form parts of their collective identity and provide them with the means of life. So, for indigenous societies to become culturally and materially healthy again, a corrective to development is needed.

However, the modern state has been so successful in limiting access to plausible alternatives to the way we live, that we seem to have lost all imaginative capacity to entertain serious alternatives to the less-than-satisfactory models we have now.

Nevertheless, several people have suggested that for an alternative model of development, a few basic elements must feature. For one, the development should take into account both the interests and the expertise of those in the areas to be developed, ensuring at the same time that people develop along lines of their own genius without any imposition from outside.

Also, the results of development programmes should be judged by the quality of human life that is evolved, not by economic statistics. Steps must also be taken to arouse awareness, form local organisations, and meet social and economic needs - without the creation of dependence.

The leadership and participation of women should also be ensured.

In any case, an important first step for genuine indigenous development is for them to regain control over their lives – that is, to regain autonomy and self-determination. For the purpose of immediacy and strategy, this should logically translate into first regaining ownership and control over their traditional territories. This however is not to deny that other issues – such as the threat of assimilation or the erosion of political autonomy – are less significant.

Remaining Indigenous
In the attempt to regain control and determine their own destiny, indigenous peoples sometimes take on the methods and ideology of the dominant party. For example, in order to uplift their livelihoods to be on par with the (upper) mainstream society, some indigenous communities embark on large-scale agricultural or other enterprises, causing damage to environment, and applying cold business practices that these same indigenous peoples were complaining about earlier.

There is a need therefore to ensure that the community remains indigenous not just in form but as true indigenous communities guided a spirituality that is both localised and indigenous in content.

Indigenous peoples should be seen as wanting to pursue their rights only because they want to bring about the transformation and reorganisation of society along ideals enshrined in indigenous tradition and spirituality.

Politically, this would mean having the genuine democratic participation of all individuals; economically, it is the shared ownership of the means of production; ecologically, it is the wholeness and interrelatedness of humankind and nature; socially, it is the restoration of community belonging and co-responsibility; and spiritually, it is the maintenance of harmony and wellbeing between fellow human beings and between human beings and nature.

People and their environments are apparently not the focus in governance anymore. The present human and environmental crisis is, after all, the direct result of human over-consumption, human disruption of natural cycles, and human simplification of ecosystems – all being allowed to occur because there is no accounting to a higher ideal or a higher spirituality.

Traditional indigenous spirituality and systems of governance can offer an alternative to existing systems and solutions. But indigenous peoples themselves must be convinced that these systems are good enough for them as well.

The Reality Today
Indigenous peoples and indigenous society are not the same anymore. The world around them has changed. There is more pressure placed on the land. And more pressure placed on their spirituality and indigenous systems.

Indigenous peoples today have to decide what is it that they really:
    • To protect their lands and therefore their material
      wellbeing as well;

    • Or to reassert their right to be a people, on their
      own land – a uniquely distinct people who have the
      traditions and knowledge systems to show the world
      how to heal itself.

If indigenous peoples decide to remain indigenous and want to regain and continue practising indigenous systems in their societies, then a major task for them is to reform mainstream society. Not to conform to it.