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Visions and movements of indigenous peoples for a new community.

In the past thirty years, Indigenous peoples in Asia have been steadily building their movements to assert their right to self-determination and to their territories and resources. Significant gains were achieved, especially, within the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1994-2004). One of these is the growing recognition of the existence and identities of Indigenous and tribal peoples in some countries. This can be seen in the emergence of policies and laws which recognize and protect their rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples. However, this still remains the exception rather than the rule among the countries in the Asian region. Another gain is the increasing empowerment of Indigenous peoples through conscious efforts to create indigenous organizations and networks or to strengthen Indigenous communities to resist destructive development projects.

There are various efforts to reclaim and strengthen Indigenous cultures, religions and knowledge systems. This is notwithstanding the fact that in Asia many Indigenous peoples, especially those found in the uplands or more remote areas, have been converted to Christianity. This is the case in the Philippines, Burma, northeast India, Malaysia, and even Indonesia and Bangladesh. There are also those who became Buddhists and Muslims. In spite of these conversions, however, many manage to practise their Indigenous religions side by side with their new faith. What is more commonly seen is the indigenization of worship services and translation of religious hymns and the Bible into Indigenous languages. Indigenous rituals around birth, marriage and death are also carried out side by side with Christian rituals.

Shared values like reciprocity, collective cooperation, respect of basic human rights, community care of the aged and weak, responsible stewardship over creation, among others, still basically characterize Indigenous cultures. These are also consistent with teachings of other mainstream religions to which Indigenous peoples have been converted. The strength of Indigenous sanctions and taboos to ensure that Indigenous peoples behave consistently with these values is weakening mainly because of modernization. Market values which revolve around competition, profit-making, surplus accumulation, individualism, clash with such indigenous values.

Indigenous knowledge systems around health, natural resource-management, agriculture and forestry, governance, conflict-resolution among others still persist among Indigenous and tribal peoples. There is an increasing recognition of the importance of these knowledge systems, especially on the use of biological genetic resources, so much so that bio-piracy of such knowledge and resources is taking place in various Indigenous territories. Such threats facing the sustenance and continuing control of Indigenous peoples over their knowledge and resources need to be addressed comprehensively.

This paper will present the struggles of Indigenous and tribal peoples in Asia to assert their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms as collectivities and individuals within the countries where they are found and in the international arena. It will look into the gains and challenges they face as they pursue their struggles to strengthen and rebuild their communities. It will also look into the spaces which they have used to pursue these.

Gains amidst tremendous difficulties

Organizing and networking between Indigenous and tribal peoples at the local, national and regional levels within the region has grown by leaps and bounds within the past twenty years. The traumatic experiences of being discriminated against, exclusion from basic social services, development aggression, militarization and economic oppression usually happen at a very local level and this is where most resistance movements emerge. However, in the process of struggling against these problems the realization that such battles have to be waged not only locally but also globally sets in. Developing links with other Indigenous peoples in contiguous areas within the country and even beyond national borders to face a common problem has been crucial.

In the last twenty years, local organizations and national networks of Indigenous peoples have emerged. Some of the national networks are the following:

* AMAN (1999: Indonesia-Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara--Alliance of Indigenous Peoples in the Archipelago)

* JOAS (1998: National Coalition of Indigenous Peoples), Malaysia

* KAMP (1986: Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas--National Council of Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines)

* KASAPI (Philippines)

* NEFIN (Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities), Nepal

* ICITP (Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples), India

* All India Indigenous/Tribal Peoples Coordinating Forum

* Assembly of Indigenous/Tribal Peoples of Thailand

Regional formations have also emerged such as the Asian Indigenous Peoples' Pact (AIPP) and the Asian Indigenous Women's Network (AIWN). Regional branches of international formations like those of the International Alliance of Indigenous/Tribal Peoples of Rainforests are also in existence.

These networks and their member organizations are engaged in various activities ranging from organizing, education, training and awareness-raising, policy advocacy, research and publications, mass campaigns and socio-economic work like livelihood development, micro-credit schemes, etc. Issues addressed by these formations range from human-rights violations, discrimination and social exclusion, militarization, cultural renewal, identity and citizenship, development aggression such as dam-building, mining and gas industries, oil palm plantations, and bio-piracy, conflict-resolution and peace-building, natural-resource management, governance, mainstream development and globalization, gender, among others. Indigenous peoples are the ones who have consistently questioned the appropriateness and relevance of the mainstream development paradigm, especially as it applies to them. There are many conflicts between the world-views, systems and values promoted by this paradigm and those of Indigenous peoples.

Negative experiences of Indigenous peoples

The modernization and development agenda of newly created nation-states within the region has wreaked havoc on many Indigenous communities which existed long before such a construct came into being. Indigenous and tribal peoples were divided between nation-states, between regions and between provinces. The Naga of northeast India, for instance, are divided between India and Burma. The Hilltribes of Thailand are found in many countries. The Akha, for example, are found in Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, China and Laos. The Chins of Burma are also found in India and Bangladesh.

Many governments consider Indigenous and tribal peoples as a problem. The programme is therefore to "civilize" them through assimilation, forced acculturation, resettlement or the denial of their identities. National identity-building pushed Indigenous and tribal peoples to assume one single national identity. Even if they have other ethnic identities they have to identify as Malaysian, Filipino, Indonesian, Khmer or whatever national identity the nation-state decided to assume.

Sedentarization of Indigenous peoples who are nomadic and semi-nomadic, hunters and gatherers, shifting cultivators, or those engaged in swidden subsistence agriculture is done both to control their movements and to push them to the cash or market economy to produce surplus agricultural products for the economic growth of the nation. In other countries patronizing welfare-state systems have been put in place. Development is a civilizing project which involves social engineering to bring Indigenous peoples to adopt a major world religion, become part of the national and global capitalist economic system and speak the national language and a global language. Resistance to this agenda has been met with vicious militarization and organized surveillance systems to control so-called subversive activities. Many Indigenous peoples have experienced being displaced into strategic hamlets since colonization up to the present, as this was the best way to control them, tax them and punish them for being disloyal to the colonizers and the nation-state. Various Indigenous and tribal peoples in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, etc. have undergone such experiences. Special laws to control them, like the Special Powers Act of India, are legislated for this purpose.

The capacity of Indigenous and tribal peoples to further strengthen their unity and struggles as peoples became compromised because of this. The nation-states have ignored or deliberately destroyed Indigenous governance, economic and cultural systems and imposed their own systems which are mirror images of those of their colonizers. Discrimination has been institutionalized in government laws, policies and programmes, in the educational system, media and even in religious affairs. This is one of the major root causes of the continuing conflicts between Indigenous peoples and states. If the nation-states' agenda is the imposition of a totally alien economic, cultural and social system on Indigenous peoples, who have long been self-governing and autonomous, such conflicts are inevitable. Indigenous peoples fought valiantly against the colonizing powers from the West because they refuse to be subjugated to a ruling system which destroys everything they represent. The same is the case with nation-states who took over the reins of power from the colonizers. Thus, the struggle to assert the right to self-determination continues.

Community life gets recreated in situations of displacement, which is a common experience among Indigenous people. Dam projects, plantation schemes and mining operations are the main causes of displacement. This is why free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of Indigenous peoples under threat of displacement is crucial for their continuing survival as peoples. In all countries in the region, Indigenous peoples have experienced and continue to go through situations where they are not consulted at all when governments design and implement their development agenda. As a result of their struggles there are now existing policies which recognize the need to obtain the consent of Indigenous peoples as provided for in FPIC. In the Philippines the Indigenous peoples' Rights Act of 1997 does recognize free, prior and informed consent.

Laws, policies and territory

Beyond FPIC is, of course, the ultimate recognition that Indigenous peoples have the right to own and control their territories and resources. As Indigenous peoples existed long before nation-states and they are the ones who nurtured and developed these, they have prior rights and what is left for states is to acknowledge this through national laws and policies. Unfortunately, this recognition is still not there in many countries, and there are few laws and policies which acknowledge some rights for Indigenous and tribal peoples. There are a few bodies created to carry out some of these policies and laws. Some of the laws and policies are the following:

* 1997 Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act (IPRA) of the Philippines, otherwise known as the Republic Act 8371

* Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) of India which recognizes traditional governance systems of adivasis (original peoples)/tribal/Indigenous peoples.

* Act No. 22 of 1999 concerning local government recognizes the existence of Adat communities in Indonesia,

* Special Autonomy Law for West Papua Province in Indonesia

* 2001 New Land Law of Cambodia was passed which contains provisions for Indigenous peoples to gain titles for their lands

* 2002 Forest Law and Sub-Decree on Community Forestry (2003) in Cambodia created legal instruments for Indigenous peoples' management and use rights

* 2003 Act on the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) recognizes 59 groups as Indigenous nationalities

Some spaces created at the national and global levels are as follows:

* National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP, Philippines)

* Commission on Ethnic Minorities (CEMA, Vietnam)

* Ministry for Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs (Bangladesh, 1998), CHT Regional Council (May 1998)

* Creation of Tribal States in India, Jharkand and Chattisgarh

* United Nations Commission on Human Rights

* United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (1982)

* United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2001)

* United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom of Indigenous People (2001)

* Second Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (2005-2015)

While such policies and laws exist, this does not mean that they are implemented as they should be. For example, even the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act of the Philippines which recognizes the ancestral domain rights is still circumscribed within the Regalian Doctrine framework of the Philippine Constitution of 1987. This is a law inherited from the Spanish colonial regime which gives ownership of lands to the Spanish crown and this ownership of lands categorized as public and sub-surface resources is transferred to the Philippine government. Thus, while Indigenous peoples can claim ownership over their ancestral domain, their ownership of sub-surface resources remains contested. The same goes for Malaysia. All lands not held by registered deeds are assigned to the state. The concept of crown lands is similar to this doctrine.

The legal instruments, declarations and policies which emerged at the international and regional processes, whether from the United Nations, its various bodies and specialized agencies, international financial institutions (e.g. World Bank and Asia Development Bank), development cooperation ministries of donor countries (DANIDA, German Development Cooperation, etc.) also have a bearing for Indigenous peoples in Asia. Some of these are the following:

* United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (1948)

* International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)

* International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

* Convention on the Elimination of Racism and All Forms of Discrimination

* Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

* Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

* International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169: Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (June 1989)

* UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1993)

* World Bank: Operational Directive 4.20: Indigenous Peoples (17 September 1991) now revised to be Operational Policy/Bank Policy 4.10

* Asian Development Bank: Bank's Policy on Indigenous Peoples (April 1998)

* Commission of the European Communities: Working Document on Support for Indigenous Peoples in the Development Cooperation of the Community and the Member States

* European Council of Ministers of" Development Cooperation

* Resolution on Indigenous Peoples within the Framework of the Development Cooperation of the Community and Member States of the European Union

* Denmark: Strategy for Danish Support to Indigenous Peoples (July 1994)

* Netherlands: National Advisory Council for Development Cooperation's Recommendation on Indigenous Peoples (26 January 1993)

* Germany: Policy for Development Cooperation with Forest-Dependent Peoples (1994)

* United Kingdom: Guidance on Ethnicity, Ethnic Minorities and Indigenous Peoples (1995)

Challenges and opportunities

It is this situation which challenges Indigenous communities within the region to continue struggling to get the state, dominant populations and the major world religions to regard them in a different light. These entities need to deal with the reality that Indigenous and tribal peoples' diverse cultures and knowledge systems, economic systems, world-views and spiritualities, and socio-political and justice systems persist in spite of all the attempts to destroy them. Indigenous communities and cultures are recreated wherever these peoples are displaced or even in foreign countries where they became economic refugees.

The Indigenous peoples' movements contributed to the emergence of national and intergovernmental soft and hard laws which recognize their rights of self-determination, to their territories and resources and their cultures and identities. These also led to the creation of local, national and global spaces where they can participate and assert such rights. The challenge is to ensure that these policies and laws and the spaces created are used to further strengthen possibilities for Indigenous peoples' rights to be recognized.

In many Asian countries the basic struggle still remains of getting states to recognize the existence and identities of Indigenous peoples. Up to now "ethnic minorities" is the category used by many Asian states to refer to their Indigenous peoples. Even China, which used to refer to its Indigenous peoples as minority nationalities, has now shifted to the term ethnic minorities. Minority nationalities means that even if they are minorities in terms of population, their claims to a nationality or even a nation are recognized. Ethnic minorities may claim rights to exercise their own cultures and speak their own languages. However, it is more difficult to justify claims for right to self-determination and right to territories and resources. Nepal also calls its Indigenous peoples "Indigenous nationalities".

This is the same in other countries. India and Bangladesh recognize tribals or hill-tribes (in India they are referred to as "isolated primitive tribes"). In Indonesia the term masyarakat adat communities, which literally translates to "customary law communities" is used. The claim of these states is that all of the people, with the exception of the Chinese minorities, are Indigenous peoples. The reality now, however, is that representatives of the hill-tribes, tribals, adat communities and ethnic minorities from India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Pakistan, Japan, among others, have self-identified as Indigenous peoples and they are now participating in the spaces created for Indigenous peoples or their issues within the United Nations. These are bodies like the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Their issues are presented at these bodies and within the country they are asserting their identities and claiming their rights as Indigenous peoples.

This is one major challenge. How can we get these countries to recognize that sections of their populations are claiming their identity and rights as Indigenous peoples? There needs to be more dialogue between Indigenous peoples and states in such countries to deal with this issue. Some Indigenous peoples cut across various nation-states. In such cases, contacts and relationships between Indigenous peoples across countries should be facilitated. It is folly for states to think that by denying Indigenous peoples their identity, the issue will die down. The more repression and denial, the more difficult it will be to resolve the conflicts between Indigenous peoples and the government. Peace-building initiatives have to factor in this issue very seriously.

The new community being envisioned by Indigenous peoples in Asia is one where they can freely assert their right to their distinct collective identities. This community could be within a nation-state or can cut across more than one nation-state. These nation-states recognize their collective rights as Indigenous peoples. This includes the recognition of their right to continue practising their own religions, cultures, traditions and knowledge systems, and their right to own and control their territories and resources. This also means a community where they can practise their right of self-determination, and freely determine their political status vis-a-vis the state and also their economic, social and cultural development. In precolonial days, such communities existed and remnants of these still persist. It is therefore the responsibility of the state and the international community as represented by the United Nations to enable such communities to be created or to flourish.

These communities which are being built or strengthened can be helped by conducting more trainings and workshops on the existing national, regional and global instruments which they may use to further their rights agenda. Representative of these Indigenous communities and formations have to occupy the spaces created nationally up to the global level. It was through sheer hard work that such mechanisms and spaces came into being. It is a pity, therefore, if we do not share more widely and deeply these soft and hard laws which can promote the rights of Indigenous peoples. More workshops should be held where Indigenous peoples can be trained to use such policies, mechanisms and spaces in their favour. The policies of donor bodies, for instance, has to be known by Indigenous peoples. In many cases these policies are only good on paper', and there is still a long way to go for their implementation. If Indigenous peoples remain ignorant of them, then they cannot use them to ensure that donor bodies are implementing their own policies.

The spaces which were opened up and created should be occupied by Indigenous representatives who are accountable to their constituencies. If these are occupied by Indigenous individuals who do not have the commitment and energy to work hard to promote the rights of Indigenous peoples, then such spaces will be wasted. It is one thing to make sure that responsible and accountable Indigenous representatives occupy such spaces. It is another to improve continuously the way these spaces are working. For instance, the commissioners of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines are presidential appointees. It is hard for them, therefore, to have independent positions that contradict regressive policies of the president as they owe their appointments to her. This situation should be changed.

In Asia, more Indigenous peoples should be able to use the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous peoples. So far, it is only the Philippines which has officially invited him to carry out a mission in the country. This happened in 2002 and Indigenous organizations, like Tebtebba, played a key role in making this visit a success. Indigenous peoples have not tapped very well the value of attending the Commission on Human Rights sessions. All the agenda items under discussion in the Commission are relevant for Indigenous peoples. Aside from agenda item 15 which is on Indigenous issues, all others are important too. These range from human-rights violations, right to development, economic, social and cultural rights, civil and political rights, children's rights, women's rights, reports on national machineries for human rights, among others. Since all the member-states of the Commission are present and even observer states are there, this is a good opportunity to deliver messages to governments.

If it were not for the struggles waged by Indigenous peoples since the colonial era up to the present, they and their nations and communities would have long since disappeared. The emergence of laws, policies and spaces for them brought about more terrains for the struggle. Several Indigenous peoples in Asia have been forced to choose the option of taking up arms to fight the state, after they have exhausted all possible non-violent means. Since there are very few decisive moves by states to deal with Indigenous peoples' demands, the armed conflicts in some countries continue. This need not be the situation.

It is within the power of states concerned to go out of their way and engage in serious and genuine dialogues with Indigenous peoples. We have seen some peace agreements negotiated and still in the process of negotiation. Unfortunately, those negotiated still have a long way to go to be implemented. The case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord is just one example of a peace agreement which remains to be implemented adequately. Indigenous peoples in Nepal are the ones who suffer the most with the growing strength of the Maoist armed movement in Nepal and the proclamation by the king of Nepal of a state of emergency. Their issues should occupy a central place in the future negotiations between these two protagonists. The new developments in the peace negotiations between the government of India and the Naga Socialist Council-Muivah/Israel faction, are worth monitoring and supporting.

The negotiations between the government of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front/New Peoples' Army/Communist Party of the Philippines is in an impasse. Indigenous peoples' issues should, likewise, occupy a significant space in these talks. The breakdown of ongoing peace negotiations, e.g. between Maoists and the Nepali government (recently dissolved), the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), among others, bodes ill for the future. Third-party mediators may play crucial roles in these cases. Indigenous methods of resolving conflicts which integrate the important role of Indigenous women have also been tested in many conflict situations. The mobilization of Indigenous women and the provision of the wherewithal for them to be closely involved in peace-building are very important.

It is important to remember that peace-building cannot be sustainable if the root causes of the conflicts are not dealt with comprehensively. In Indigenous territories these range from discrimination, social exclusion, violation of the most basic rights and fundamental freedoms, to extreme poverty because they do not have control over the use of their lands and resources. While it is not feasible to think that these can be addressed on a short-term basis, the laying-down of the necessary foundations for these to happen can already take place. The preoccupation of governments to pressure armed groups to surrender and lay down their arms does not work. Earnest efforts to address the causes of the conflicts are crucial for the creation of new communities of peace and mutual respect and co-existence.


Duncan, Christopher ed., Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of Minorities, Cornell UP, Ithaka NY, 2004.

Roy, Chandra K., Victoria Tauli Corpuz and Amanda Romero-Medina eds, Beyond the Silencing of the Guns, Tebtebba Foundation, Valley Printing Specialist, Baguio City, The Philippines, 2004.

Tauli Corpuz, Victoria and Joji Carino eds, Reclaiming Balance: Indigenous Peoples, Conflict Resolution and Sustainable Development, Tebtebba Foundation, Cacho Hermanos, The Philippines, 2004.

Tauli Corpuz, Victoria and Erlyn Ruth Alcantara, Engaging the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, Tebtebba Foundation, Valley Printing Specialists, Baguio City, The Philippines, 2004.

Victoria Tauli Corpuz is an indigenous activist from the Philippines who is actively involved with the Indigenous peoples' movement in national and international levels. She is the present chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a subsidiary body of the United Nations Economic and Social Council dealing with issues of Indigenous peoples.
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Author:Corpuz, Victoria Tauli
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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