The governments of the countries in South-east Asia have not been particularly attentive when it comes to recognising the rights of, and their obligations to, their indigenous populations. If pressed for an answer on a question such as, “Why does your government’s policy towards your indigenous populations smack of such overt discrimination?”, then a senior minister or administrator will answer breezily that there are adequate protections for such populations that confer upon them political and legal status equal to any other non-indigenous citizen, and then distract the annoying inquisitor by asking their opinion on the latest trade balance or the newest cybercity.
This scenario is unlikely to take place, for such dogged questioners are difficult to find, and senior ministers and administrators in South-east Asia are not, as a rule, as mild in their responses to awkward questions as has been sketched here. The countries that make up Asean (the Association of South-east Asian Nations) have had governments which for the better part of two generations been distracted by the ideas of economic growth, of building modern cities (especially capital cities with their absurdly expensive showpieces of architecture and infrastructure, all of which tend to be hideously ugly, unnecessary and a distasteful waste of public funds, and of herding their citizens into consumer utopias.
That is why indigenous peoples get left out (some of them prefer it that way). In some countries, such as the Philippines and Japan, the development of an ‘international’ concept of indigenous peoples (as odd as that sounds, for there ought to be no such consensus simply out of respect for the diversity of ethnic groups) has had both political and legal impacts for the last two decades. In other countries, distinct groups (having fought for such recognition or secured it through political bargaining) may enjoy entitlements in legal or administrative practice as the non-indigenous members of society.
In the Marcos era of the Philippines, resistance by indigenous groups in northern Luzon to large ‘development’ projects such as the Chico dams (whose building was halted) pulping mills increased political mobilisation among the Bontoc, Kalinga and Tinggians populations (and others too). In Mindanao, in-migration and dispossession have long fuelled militancy among Lumad and especially Moro groups. Since then, the political and legal dynamics of issues concerning indigenous peoples have changed, with numerous highly effective civil society organisations dedicated to indigenous peoples’ causes now flourishing, such as the internationally prominent Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance.
Governments (and the vapid politicians in them) tend to dislike ‘indigenous’. Until the late 1980s, the government of Japan remained unwilling to accept that the Ainu constituted even an ethnic minority under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Only under sustained domestic and international pressures did the Diet members abandon their empty insistence on the homogeneity of the Japanese folk (there is no such thing anywhere in Asia). These changes take time in Japan — the 1899 statute concerning the Ainu was finally replaced only in 1997, and even then did not satisfy all the concerns expressed by the Ainu groups.
In peninsular Malaysia the well-known policy of ‘bumiputra’ (son of the soil, yes but what about the ‘putris’?) is designed to maintain and advance the position of Malays, with ‘Malay’ being defined in the country’s Constitution. The ‘orang asli’ (which in Malay means original inhabitants) of Malaysia occupy a separate constitutional category, their legal status regulated by a series of Aboriginal Peoples’ Acts. It’s to no one’s surprise then that especially in East Malaysia, and particularly in Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysia’s policy which gives privileges to a politically dominant and economically influential Malay group makes the ‘orang asli’ of those regions see red whenever “Kuala Lumpur” is mentioned.
A category of ‘hill tribe’ people in north and north-west Thailand has been recognised and actively addressed as a subject of government policy since the 1950s, initially in response to concerns about opium cultivation and insurgency related to the Cold War, and more recently as part of forest policy and community development schemes. The complex demography of the Thai hill regions includes many groups who moved into forest areas (“they have lived there as long as we remember”, the others say, quite graciously) and who are said to have arrived from the contemporary regions of Burma, Laos, and even China.
These countries are not peopled by a single ethnic typology, roughly bashed into becoming constant consumers by cookie-cutter economics, rudely pressed into middle-class servitude by the numbfulness of a services and finance economy. Their ethnic diversities are well-springs of profound ecological practice and sensibility, which must be protected, encouraged and hailed as inspirational.
The author is an expert on intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO and studies agricultural transformation in South Asia
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