The Tribal Peoples Speak

(Ed. note: The story above was shared by tribal representatives at the inaugural General Assembly of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact [AIPP], April-May 1992, Bangkok, Thailand.)

Taiwan ; Burma ; Thailand ; Philippines


The Story of the Aborigines of Taiwan

by the Alliance of Taiwan Aborigines

The ancestors of our indigenous civilization were the original owners of Taiwan. Each tribe had its traditional territory, language, customs and sense of nationality as well as self- dependent economy, self-governed politics and self-sufficient social system. Since 1624, however, other peoples and governments have been gradually invading Taiwan, taking over indigenous peoples’ land and stealing their resources without indigenous peoples’ consent nor without concluding any treaties. Afterwards the indigenous peoples have been governed by colonial authorities.

The National Assemblymen elected on Dec. 12, 1991, were elected by the people of Taiwan. The meeting of the National Assembly that will take place in 1992 is the first time in history that the indigenous peoples can participate in writing the national Constitution. At this very moment, the question of whether the Constitution should be redrawn or amended is still being disputed. We consider the Constitution of the Republic of China established in China totally irrelevant to the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, for it does not provide any protection to the identity and rights of indigenous peoples. Therefore, we advocate the establishment of a new Constitution that will protect the indigenous peoples and other minority groups in Taiwan. tribes throughout the history of Taiwan, the trend of protection offered to indigenous people by the constitutions of advanced countries and the indigenous peoples’ human rights standards of the United Nations, we would demand the provisions listed below for indigenous peoples in the future Constitution of Taiwan.

  • The Ami, Taya, Paiwan, Rukai, Bunun, Piaoma, Taroko, Tsou, Saisiat, Yami, Thao and Pingpu are the indigenous tribes of Taiwan.

  • The group rights and sovereignty of indigenous peoples should be protected. The politics, land, economy, education, culture and all the related policies and affairs of indigenous peoples should be decided by indigenous peoples themselves.

  • The central government should establish an organization especially responsible for the administration of indigenous peoples with its chief being an indigenous person. According to their traditional territories, each indigenous tribe should establish an autonomic assembly and an autonomic government. Each tribe should also elect representatives and organize a National Indigenous Peoples Assembly to carry out the autonomic right of indigenous peoples. All the autonomic assemblies, autonomic government organizations and precincts and the organization of the National Indigenous Peoples Assembly shall be governed by law.

  • The National Assembly shall provide protected seats for representatives from each indigenous tribe. Assemblymen representing indigenous peoples shall establish the Indigenous Peoples Committee. All of the laws and resolutions related to indigenous peoples adopted by the National Assembly must first win the consent of the Indigenous Peoples Committee. The laws and resolutions applicable exclusively to indigenous peoples shall be entitled to a referendum of the indigenous peoples. The laws and resolutions applicable only to specific indigenous groups shall be entitled to a referendum of the specific indigenous groups.



The Story of the Tribal Peoples of Burma

A. The Arakans

There are eight major ethnic groups in Burma, namely: Arakan (Rakhine), Burman, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kareni, Mon and Shan. Nearly half of the entire population of 41 million are Burman.

All of the ethnic peoples, together with a portion of the Burmese people, have been fighting against successive governments for as long as 44 years. The indigenous peoples, without the Burmans, formed their united front in 1976.

Arakanese people live in a narrow strip on the western coast of Burma. Recorded Arakanese history begins in 2666 B.C. There have been nine dynasties - the last one known as the Dhannyawadi Third Era (A.D. 1404-1784) was destroyed by a Burmese king named Bodaw- Phaya. Thus, from 1784 to 1825, the Arakan were ruled by Burmese kings; from 1825 to 1942 by the British colonial government; from 1942 to 1945 by the Japanese; from 1945 to 1948 by the British again: and from 1948 to the present by various Burmese governments.

The Arakanese began their struggle in 1948. They were comprised of many different groups - some leftists and some rightists - who could not unite together. Based on the status of indigenous The present Arakanese population is estimated at four million, 70% of whom are Buddhists. A few are Christians, and the others are Muslims.

Although Buddhists and Christians are indigenous peoples, the N4uslims are not. Some Muslims have been living in Arakan for more than 1,000 years, but there are also many immigrants who came during the rule of the British (1825- 1948), during the rule of the democratically elected government (1948-1962) and those who came after the 1962 military coup.

Many Muslims were allowed into the area by the elected government (1948-1962) in order to counterbalance the Arakanese people who opposed the government of that era. Thus, the Muslim problem became a dangerous package which could be ignited by any dishonest group any time they wished.

Last year the Arakanese people, in cooperation with the Karens of eastern Burma, prepared to step up their struggle. Faced with this potential threat and also with demoralization and factional conflict within its ranks, the military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC, sent tens of thousands of troops to Arakan and pushed the Muslims out of their homes, thereby, hoping to neutralize the ethnic Arakans. Most of the Arakanese people, however, could see the true intentions of the SLORC. Thus, the Arakanese people are still carrying on their struggle for democracy. At the same time, they are now trying to get a compromise solution with the Muslims, convincing them that the most urgent task of all peoples is to form a new government. The aspiration of the Arakanese and other ethnic groups is to establish a federal union in which the ethnic peoples can enjoy their right to self-determination.

B. The Karens

In 1988, tens of thousands of Burmese citizens took to the streets in protest against the country’s 26 years of military rule. The military ruthlessly suppressed the people’s aspiration for democracy by shooting the demonstrators with automatic combat weapons. Students, children and Buddhist monks were among those killed. The number of people killed may be as high as 10,000. The killings were followed by arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without trials, torture and extrajudicial executions. The level of violence of these incidents by democratic and civilized world standards was almost unprecedented in the world.

Worse yet has been the situation of the indigenous peoples of Burma, totally unknown and unheard of by the world’s community. These people have been oppressed and persecuted by the successive governments of Burma. They are being systematically annihilated by authorities who hold fast to Burman chauvinism. They are being Burmanized and assimilated into Burman culture. Physically, more than a million of the indigenous peoples of Burma were executed by those in power during the 44 years of post-independence history of the country.

Most historians and anthropologists on Burma have agreed that the Karen nation was the first community of settlers in the country that is today known as Burma or Myanmar. (Burma is the name of the country in English, and the Burman call it Myanmar. By renaming the country "Myanmar" and the name of some cities, such as the capital from Rangoon in English to "Yangon," and "Karen" to "Kayin" in the Burman language, the authorities are trying to further Burmanize the indigenous peoples of the country.)

Burma did not exist until the early 19th century. Historically, the different ethnic nationals had their own administrative systems or kingdoms. Wars of domination existed among the Burman Kingdom, Shan Kingdom, Mon Kingdom, Arakan Kingdom and other nationals throughout history. One of the indigenous people that suffered the most from these struggles for power were the Karens. The peace-loving indigenous Karens were driven from their fertile lands in the basins of the Irrawaddy, Sittang and Salween rivers to the highland hills and deep forests.

When Britain colonized the region in the early 19th century, these separate nations were grouped together, and the country was named Burma. The country was granted independence in 1948. The first Constitution of the country promised the indigenous peoples the right to self-determination. However, the promise was broken, and the Constitution was abolished in 1962 following a military coup.

Today the more than seven million Karens are deprived of their land. The Burmese soldiers occupy their land. The Burman and some puppet Karens govern the Karen population according to rules and regulations promulgated in Rangoon. Their national resources, the teak forests and precious below-ground treasures are being sold to foreign countries without their consent. With the profit from the raping of the Karen’s treasures, the country’s authorities buy war weapons and annihilate the Karens with them. Since January 1992, the Burmese army has deployed more than 30,000 troops to quench the Karen’s aspiration for their national rights. The Burmese soldiers have deployed a scorched-earth policy in which Karen villages have been unearthed, villagers arrested, tortured and executed, women raped and properti~s looted.

The Karens as a nation have their own history, culture, language and literature. During the British administration of Burma from 1825 to the 1940s, teachers were encouraged to teach the Karen language in the public schools, and newspapers, journals and books in the Karen language were freely circulated. When Burma gained independence in 1948, the Burman language was made the official language of the country. The Karen language as well as the languages of other indigenous peoples of the country were not allowed to be taught in public schools, and literature in indigenous languages were curtailed. Indigenous children were forced to learn the Burman language, and they were made to feel ashamed to speak their native languages in public. The result was that most of the indigenous children that grew up in cities could hardly speak their own native tongue, let alone read and write it. When in 1988 students fled to the country’s liberated areas controlled by the Karens, many of them were Karen youth. Less than 10% of them were able to speak the Karen language. One of the most effective means of killing a nation is to deny their children the right to read, write and speak their mother tongue. That is what the authorities are doing to the Karens and other indigenous people of Burma.



The Story of the Hill Tribes of Thailand

by Tuenjai Deetes Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF)

The Thai hill tribe people face several major problems. The lack of land rights and citizenship are serious obstacles to sustainable development. The rapidly degrading environment (erosion, soil fertility, deforestation) means that the people are no longer self-sufficient in food. Among some of the hill tribe people, opium addiction leads to apathy and an inability to work for the future.

Unless the environment is ensured and managed sustainably, in five years it will no longer be possible to live and farm in the hills. Viable methods of soil conservation and soil improvement are being adopted by an increasing number of hill tribe people. If the government could assist with community forest efforts, such as providing fruit trees, this would be more beneficial than current programs which focus on the large-scale planting of trees which are not useful to the villagers.

The granting of land rights is essential in order to ensure sustainable development in the hills. These rights could perhaps be given to the village to manage communally rather than to individuals. Citizenship is also essential in order for them to be able to travel, learn and seek basic services, such as health care.

Many of the problems facing the hill tribe people are problems that are common to villages throughout the country. Decisions affecting the rural people and their local natural resources are usually made by outsiders. People do not have a say in how quickly modernization will come to their villages; road and electricity arrive based on the government’s timetable, whether or not the people want and are prepared for these changes. The introduction of a cash economy and the mass media often lead to increased environmental destruction, for example, the felling of the forest in order to plant cash crops.

The process of modernization also means that cultural diversity is being overwhelmed by a standardized urban culture. It is essential that the cultural diversity of ethnic groups be valued and supported and that any changes be determined and controlled by the local people themselves.


The Story of the Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines

by Pablo Santos
National Federation of Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines

It is important that indigenous peoples achieve unity not only in their home country but also in our home region of Asia. This becomes more urgent and significant as we consider the changes that have taken place and that are presently happening in other parts of the globe. Foremost are the changes that have befallen the U.S.S.R.. which leaves the United States as the sole global power in the world today. This gives the United States more than enough room to focus its attention on the plunder and exploitation of resources that are largely in the Third World - Asia -. our countries. And when we talk of our specific countries, these are largely in indigenous peoples’ areas, ancestral domains and territories.

It is not always easy to see the United States’ tentacles sucking the remaining resources of our countries, but we see it through its different instruments: the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (JMF) and through many less obvious means.

The Philippines, wallowing as it is in its external debt, is pushed even further to grant concessions to the IMF-WB’s demands. This means, among other things, opening indigenous peoples’ areas to foreign investors for mining, logging, plantations and ranches. To complement all of these activities and to attract even more investment, the Philippine government has to ensure energy generation, water supply, low paid workers and other incentives at the expense of its own people.

Thus, in the Philippines today, and specifically in indigenous peoples’ areas, we witness open pit mining in Benguet Province in the northern Philippines where mountains are bulldozed and flattened to extract the remaining gold ore in the area. We witness the mushrooming of so-called development projects - the Mt. Apo geothermal plant in Mindanao, the Agus hydroelectric dam in Lanao Province in the lands of our Muslim brothers and sisters and the plan to operate the Bataan nuclear plant.

As of 1991, we have counted 20 major so-called development projects, either by our government or jointly with other governments and world financing institutions, to cater to the needs and interests of foreign and local elite investors and profit rakers that are at various levels of implementation.

These range from geothermal plants, dam projects, industrial tree plantations. commercial reforestation programs and various business ventures, such as logging, ranching, fruit plantations and coal, gold or copper mining.

And if these projects alone are not enough to deprive the indigenous peoples of their land and resources, the government employs the military to back them up in the implementation of these projects. The military, it has been said many times, is used either to protect their business interests from peoples’ protests or even as a prelude to the entry of corporations and other business undertakings within the areas of the indigenous peoples.

In a span of nine months (January to September 1991), the following data shows that:

  • There were almost 15,000 families who became internal refugees of which 6,500 families belong to indigenous communities;

  • Twenty-five cases of the 36 recorded cases of displacement involved indigenous peoples; and

  • Sixteen out of the 21 provinces affected by the government’s total war policy are populated by indigenous peoples.

All these - the guns and bullets, bombs and mortars, the so- called development projects plundering and exploiting the remaining resources in our home countries - extract a heavy toll among the poor. We have always believed that these projects only.add to the burden of the already indebted citizenry because the financing of these projects leads to a never-ending cycle of making loans and granting concessions to financial institutions and foreign governments.

We also know that these projects have a greater effect on indigenous peoples because they are implemented in areas that for us is a source of our livelihood, our identity and, in fact, of our life itself. These projects have caused our dislocation and displacement; and as much as we try to protect the environment, these projects have caused massive environmental destruction.

In its latest bid, the Philippine government also co-opted our culture, appointing their own community leaders and heads, using our sacred rituals to legitimize their entry into our areas and in implementing their projects which are largely rejected by the supposed beneficiaries. This was done in the case of the Mt. Apo geothermal plant when even the head of the government-owned corporation setting up the geothermal plant was accorded the highest rank in the tribe and baptized as a "datu" or chieftain. This was supposed to counter the dayandi or blood pact instituted in 1989 by tribes opposing the project.

With all of these threats and the actual displacement and violation of our right to our land and resources, we have nothing but unity to shield us. We have to speak with one voice. We have to act in concert.

We have high hopes that the Philippine Indigenous Peoples Agenda on Ancestral Domain and Self-determination, which was just passed at our organization’s congress and which to us is a living statement of our aspirations, will more strongly bind us together as we face not only the threats but every opportunity that comes to us. We have resolved to enrich this agenda in the course of our struggles.

We have high hopes from this inaugural assembly of AIPP to learn from each other’s experiences and struggles. We believe that, though shapes and colors vary, the same forces are oppressing and exploiting us. We believe that AIPP can speak and act as one for the indigenous peoples of Asia. The time is now.