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Indigenous Peoples in Asia

by Gerald Faschingeder

The number of the members of indigenous peoples in Asia is estimated to be

190 million (cf. Bijoy 1993:25). The high speed of the economic
development in this region is accompanied by far-reaching socio-cultural
changes that influence also the indigenous peoples. Their circum-stances
change rapidly, and ambitious neo-liberal economic programmes endanger
indigenous peoples increasingly. Following are the basic structures of the
Asian socio-economic develop-ment, especially of the East Asian region, in
order to show the position of indigenous peoples in social contexts, their
ominous situation as well as options for action.

1. Asia – a continent with little unity

There is always something deliberate about marking and hedging off a continent, as
the varieties in culture, geography, policy and economy are always greater than the
assumed unity (cf. Klein 1998:109). This is also valid for the Asian indigenous
peoples, whose traditional structure gives little reason to see them as a whole or to
describe them in a way that qualitatively differentiates them from other indigenous
peoples living in America, Africa and Oceania. Actually, we should even say that,
contrary to the two Americas that were shaped either by the Iberian or the Anglo-
Saxon influence, the Asian non-indigenous circumstances are heterogeneous.

European coloni-sation forced the American sub-continents into a homogeneity never

known by Asia. Also the duration of colonisation in Asia, that covers about two and a
half centuries, is much shorter than in America, and colonisation formally and/or
realistically affected large parts of Asia, like China or several big islands in the
Southeast of Asia only hardly or not at all (cf. Albertini 1976). So, the socio-cultural
and economic circumstances in Asia are highly diverse. Although Western forms of
rule were taken over in postcolonial times, like e.g. the capitalistic democracy or the
Marxist–leninistic system, these forms of rule were always shaped in a typically
Asiatic way and inter-changed, partly in a tense and partly in a fertile atmosphere,
with the native Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist or Muslim traditions.

2. The integration of south-east Asia into the global market

The regional connection through international exchange of goods existed already
before the arrival of the first Europeans, who – after taking over lucrative trade
monopolies from Asian tradesmen – were motivated to found fixed trade centres
from the 15th century onwards. The extensive colonisation by European powers took
place rather late. In order to govern the colo-nies, the old social structures were kept
and changed. Military control over large areas proved to be expensive, and so, a
"mise en valeur" was striven for. Traditional trade was joined by the ex-ploitation of
mineral resources and the foundation of large plantations.

This early economic de-velopment aligned with the colonial mother countries that
knew – if necessary – how to prevent unwelcome competition by Asiatic trade. Great
Britain, for example, persued a customs policy that intentionally destroyed the Indian
cotton trade and prevented the rise of the Indian steel-industry until World War One
(cf. Rothermund 1995). However, the decolonialisation of the 1940s and 1950s
initiated an economic upturn that started stuttering only some years ago. On the one
hand, this economic success was caused by already existing industries that had been
built by the Japanese colonial power in the south-east Asian area (cf. Osterhammel
1995:88). On the other hand, decolonialisation was followed immediately by the
confrontation of the east-west-conflict, so that several Asian states were
economically supported by the United States.

This support consisted of credits and direct investments, but also the extensive
military presence contributed to the economic take-off. Thai economy for example,
was stimulated by the foun-dation and the consumption of those US-bases where
US-soldiers recovered from the war in Vietnam (cf. Husa/Wohlschlägel 1998).
Finally, the Japanese need of raw materials boosted the regional economy, too. Early
industrial locations like Hongkong or Singapore gradually gained financial
importance. The decisive point may have been the specific economic strategy
followed by countries like South-Korea, Singapore or Taiwan: an almost anti-liberal
protectionism – con-nected with massive interventions by the state, that preferred
kind of a partial, export-orientated industrialisation without entirely neglecting the
substitution of import – led to a continuous in-crease of significant economic indices.

At the same time, these young economies knew how to make use of the comparative
advantage of expense, and they were expanded by wage- and social dumping (cf.
Menzel 1985). First, this made the European textile industry run into trouble, and
finally, this economic strategy made it even possible to be at the head in the field of
microelec-tronics from the very beginning. The financial markets, that have become
very important in the meantime, increasingly attracted speculative transactions, but
the recent financial crises have cooled the formerly over-heated stock exchanges.
The strong effects of this crisis on western financial markets shows which stage the
integration of east Asia in the international goods- and capital exchange has already

Opposite to this economically highly performative area, that can be described as a

network of economically active centres, there are those peripheral regions that have
not felt any effect of the economic growth yet: Firstly, the hinterland of states with
positive economic indices, like South Korea, India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia,
Indonesia or Malaysia. Secondly, some states of this area could not manage to
participate in the take-off of the region; as for example the Philippines. Nevertheless,
the economic efforts have left deep traces there, too. The peripheral regions often
hold rich mineral resources or much sought-after tropical wood. Moreover, they are
relevant sites of plantations. Lately, genetically manipulated agrarian products have
been extensively tested in these regions.

3. At the periphery of the periphery: indigenous peoples

The peripheral regions mentioned above are the areas where indigenous peoples are
living. They settled in rather remote areas already before the time of European or
Japanese colonisation and early, they were pushed into badly accessible regions by
non-European forces. These regions are mostly large forests and mountains, but also
islands that are away from trade routes. Like the so-called "advanced civilisations",
indigenous peoples do not have traditional locations of settle-ment, but in their past,
they migrated a lot. That was caused by natural circumstances that forced the tribes
to search for areas that were more favourable for living as soon as their previous
set-tlements became too humid, too dry or in any other way inhospitable. But most
often, forceful ousting stood at the beginning of migrations. The oldest famous
example of that is the ousting of the Adivasi in India by the Aryans, who immigrated
around 1500 BC (cf. Ludwig 1994:24). From then onwards, this process of ousting of
indigenous peoples recurred countless times. By being increasingly isolated from
those regions that developed super-regional socio-cultural dy-namics, some
indigenous peoples managed to protect large parts of their culture from change. That
does not mean at all that they did not know social change, but that, compared with
en-dogenous factors, exogenous factors lost importance.

4. The non-stratified organisation of society of indigenous

Although some of these peoples today consist of some million members, indigenous
peoples usually are smaller groups that count no more than some hundred thousand
members. Many peoples are acephalous societies, so to say "politically headless",
which does not mean that there is a lack of political concepts, but that they do not
know a highest leading person. Rather, they are segmentarily organised, i.e. they
consist of several similar parts or "segments" that are equal in rank, and these
segments may subdivide into subsegments of various sizes (e.g. peoples in
"brotherhoods", subdivided in clans, subdivided in families). So, these societies are
not disor-ganised or without structures, as the former term "primitives" implied.

Of course, they know social differentiation and hierarchies, but nevertheless, there is
less division of labour to be found than in non-indigenous societies. Although the
acephalous or segmentary organisation cannot be presented as universal principle of
all indigenous societies, this comment indicates why most of the indigenous societies
were not and are not easily compatible with non-indigenous ones. In-digenous
societies do have specific cultural characteristics, but their common features cannot
be reduced to a single criterion. René Kuppe, for example, mentions three central
points of this topic: "a close relationship between these societies and their
lebensraum, a lack of organisation as state and social stratification (from the point of
view of western sociology), and the dealing with conflicts within a society that is not
based on institutional force by the state." (Kuppe 1990:10).

Especially the Asian history is characterised by the control over large regions and
crowds of people by central state systems, be it Japan, China, India or some
Buddhist kingdoms (Nepal, Sri Lanka, ...). Already before the 19th century, these
states shared the features of an extensive claim to power and the claim to set up
obligatory norms, which made them contrast sharply – like the "modern western"
state type – with the social organisation of indigenous so-cieties (cf. Kuppe
1990:10). So, the co-existence could only end either with the assimilation of the
indigenous peoples or with their ousting to politically and economically insignificant
regions, which led to a nearly complete loss of contact.

5. Changed conditions: the penetration of the periphery

Whereas the old Asiatic centralist states had a limited demand for raw materials and
for addi-tional regional expansion, this changed entirely when industrialisation set in.
Regions that had been economically insignificant were discovered to be rich in
resources. This held for mineral resources and precious wood on the one hand, and
for the relevance to the supply of energy of the urban and industrial centres these
regions gained, on the other hand. It is surely no accident that the majority of
conflicts between national states and indigenous peoples is about PowerSta-tion

A legendary example is the indigenous peoples´ successful resistance against the

Chico-dam-project on Luzon (Philippines); today, there is a fight against geo-thermal
installa-tions at Mount Apo on Philippine Mindanao. In 1959, the erection of a dam at
the biggest stream in the Chittagong mountains (Bangladesh) was started with US-
American help. The gi-gantic project drove 100,000 people away from their
settlements and destroyed 40 percent of the agriculturally productive land of the
region (cf. Ludwig 1994: 63). Similarly, Adivasi in Mad-hya Pradesh (India) defend
themselves against the Sardar-Sarovar-project, a part of a gigantic water project
with 30 big dams, that should, in the West of India, along the Narmada-stream,
produce energy and irrigation for the industrialisation of the country. 60,000 Adivasi
are driven away (cf. Swami 1993).

Under the pressure of the global market economy, Asian states can no longer afford
leaving large regions seemingly "unused" and so, they invest gigantic sums, partly
supported by international or western institutions for development, in order to make
– from their point of view – "lying fallow" regions economically productive. The tribes
living there are hardly taken seriously, and therefore, they fall into bad ways. Their
way of living is seen as hope-lessly out-dated, and all those who fight for the
preservation of indigenous cultures are accused of believing in naive romanticism.
Ambitious economic projects do not leave any freedom for indigenous peoples. The
global market does not know regions that are not capitalisable, but strives to make
capital out of the last non-capitalised places. For indigenous peoples, the conse-
quences of market-economical expansionism mean final extermination – genocide.
The only alternative seems to be integration into the national society.

In fact, for the modern territorial states, it is hard to accept that on their land,
people are living who do not feel as citizens of the national community and who do
not strive for solidarity. The authoritarian structures of most Asian states make it
easy to act resolutely, not shrinking back from the use of brute force and massacres.
But the latter are also the result of the specific attitudes of the non-indigenous peo-
ple: In most countries, indigenous peoples are seen as "dirty", "backward",
"primitive" etc., and so, human dignity is denied to them. Often, indigenous peoples
are said to be of social value only when they can be economically made use of by

It is characteristic of the situation of indigenous peoples in the modern Asian states

that none of these states recognizes an indigenous tribe within its borders. They only
talk of "minorities". That is understandable inasmuch as that it may be possible to
derive naturalness and therefore legal rights from the recognition of indigenous
peoples. In former British colonies, indigenous peoples still have their own statute,
that was taken over from colonial times. Part of this is, for example, the prohibition
to alienate land. In India, this leads to lists of Scheduled Tribes and to complicated
social legislation that is applied to Scheduled Tribes. However, the concept of
Scheduled Tribes serves assimilationistic purposes. In Vietnam the mountain peoples
were made use of by the French colonial government. As they had been
christianised, they were quite suitable for the co-operation with the French colonial
power. Until today, there is still the feeling of resentment from the part of the rest of
the popu-lation, dating back from this collaboration. Today, Christianity is a feature
of identification among these groups. That is valid also for some tribes in north-east
India, e.g. the Nagas.

In former Soviet Union, no peoples were recognised as indigenous. Recently, a

conversion seems to have taken place: the Duma demanded the ratification of the
ILO-convention 169, but president Yeltsin was against it.

6. Indigenous peoples and globalisation

In order to understand today’s situation of the indigenous peoples in Asia, I think it
is essential to take notice of the far-reaching changes of the surrounding local
context. The fate of indige-nous peoples does not "just happen", dissociated from the
socio-economic processes of the region, but it is, in contrast, carrier of the
symptoms especially for the current economic and political circumstances, that
specifically characterise the whole region. When the weaker ones are driven away or
destroyed, it is a sign of the fact that the stronger ones are not able to control their
power in a way that allows the weaker ones to exist next to them. In order to get a
more general view, I would like to point out that the current political and economic
processes in these regions are part of what we call "globalisation".

This fashionable, though a bit blurred term indi-cates that today’s financial business,
supported by the new communication-technologies, does not know any borders than
the globe itself (cf. Wernhart 1998:94f.). The treatment of indige-nous peoples in
Asia also shows the global society’s condition, its ethic (im-)maturity and our ideas
about the necessary course of history. The global, neo-liberal ideology does not have
a sub-chapter treating the guarantee to the indigenous peoples’ right to life. The
wide-spread idea of development, that equates development with industrialisation
and capitalisation, will not be able to put more at the indigenous peoples’ disposal
than artificial, protected areas, i.e. reservations.

The ability to accept the existence of indigenous peoples as a natural fact would need
global ethics that abstain from their global – universalistic – character, recognise
different ways of living and refrain from integration – be it meant well or not – into
the global uniformity of neo-liberal living. There is a spark of hope, because up to
now, globalisation has not only led to an equation of the way of life of specific social
groups, but it also showed new kinds of local identities, whose members were
stimulated by the global society to emphasize their own, unique characteristics.

7. Three central problems of indigenous peoples today

Having in mind the description above of the indigenous peoples’ position within the
Asiatic and the global context, their situation seems to be entirely precarious.
Indeed, they are subjected to growing pressure. Following are the three main
problems, that are consequences of the conditions pointed out above:

a. endangered: physical survival

Through the over-exploitation of natural resources, many tribes lose their traditional
resources. If the woods are overfelled, hunting cannot guarantee survival any more.
If paddy-fields are flooded because of dams, the basis of existence is destroyed.
Concerning food, many tribes find themselves in very difficult situations, that are
moreover often aggravated by environmental ca-tastrophes like e.g. the climatic
turbulence caused by El Niño. Also the state of health is a prob-lem, expressed in
high infant mortality and decreasing life expectancy. These are also conse-quences
of the destroying influences on the areas where they are living and of the poisoning
of many streams and soils.

b. endangered: cultural survival

Human does not live by bread alone, and especially in the case of indigenous
peoples, the intact cultural convictions are essential. For cultural survival, it is not
only necessary to keep traditional ways of expressing oneself, like e.g. dances,
songs, myths etc., but also to have the opportunity to keep the traditional knowledge
of the world. To many tribes, the arrival of people of an un-known culture is
shocking, especially when these people do not respect any of the old, religious rules.
Living culturally means to members of indigenous peoples being able to continue to
per-form important rituals that facilitate harmony in the world and in the whole
cosmos. The Ban-waon on Philippine Mindanao for example, know a range of rituals
that serve to ask Magbabaya, creator and highest spirit, and other spirits for help,
for the licence to perform collective acts, to calm them down or to say thanks (cf.
Rijks 1998:30).

c. The question of the right to land

One of the main questions concerning the protection of physical and psychological
life of in-digenous peoples in the future is the question of the right to land. This is
where two extremes clash: Usually, indigenous peoples are of the opinion that land
cannot be owned by anybody – it is a gift. Sometimes, indigenous peoples believe in
collective possession. But western under-standing only allows private or public
possession and in order to legalise possession, specific formalities are to be fulfilled.
If indigenous communities lose their land, there is no more con-nection to their
ancestors and/or their spirits. Land is sacred, and the loss of land causes the loss of
orientation (cf. Rijks, 1998:6-12).

8. Options to act on four levels

Everyone who decides to fight for better conditions for indigenous peoples has to
think about the levels at which he/she can help. Each of the following levels is
important, none is insignifi-cant, but still, it will take all four levels to make the
survival of indigenous peoples possible. Now, I would like to point out these four

a. The local level

In many countries, there is a good legislation to protect the indigenous peoples. But
the local level is often far away from law courts, and indigenous peoples often know
only little about their rights. In case of doubt, judges often prove to be bribable. So,
assistance in law enforcement can be very effective. Also concerning questions of
health and food supply, local solutions can be helpful enough. But the local level
comes to its limits as soon as the national legislation is con-cerned.

b. The national level

On this level, networks can be built that aid pushing through indigenous rights in the
national context. No Asiatic state has ratified the ILO-convention 169 so far, and it
will take pressure also from their own countries. This convention, that was passed by
the ILO (International La-bour Organisation) in 1989 as the revised version of the
ILO-convention 107, is the only inter-national legal agreement that protects
indigenous peoples. The basic principle is that indigenous peoples have the right to
keep their way of life and to develop according to their own ideas. The most
important aspect is that indigenous right to land should be standardised. The
ratification by as many states as possible could set the course in a decisive way.
Networks can help lobbying. Moreover, they can serve the exchange of know-how,
which makes local work easier. Finally, an efficient national legislation is necessary in
order to stop the over-exploitation of natural re-sources and to encourage
ecologically sensible use.

c. The regional-international level

Over the last years, the influence of regional economic alliances has increased
enormously: The Latin American equivalent of the European Union is the Mercosur.
In the South Asiatic region, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan
and the Maldives joined together to the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional
Co-operation), that consists of a fifth of the world population. In East Asia, the
ASEAN plays a role not to be underestimated. Apart from the members at the
foundation, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, also
Brunei, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar belong to the ASEAN, Cambodia is likely to
follow. As a counterweight to NAFTA and EU, the AFTA (ASEAN Free Trade Area) will
be founded out of the ASEAN until 2003.

This level is of importance to the protection of indigenous peo-ples because it is the

competition between the East Asian states that (nearly) forces them to ex-ploit
people and environment mercilessly. A common action for the protection of
indigenous peoples would at least relieve the states to some extent, because they
would all have to surmount the same obstacles. But it will not be easy to push that
through, because these hyper-regional, supranational structures tend to elude from
democratic control or influence. Already existing networks that support indigenous
peoples on this level have to be located and strengthened.

d. The international-global level

The consequences of globalisation for indigenous peoples mentioned under 6. show

why this level must not be left out of sight. The only obliging international standard
for the protection of indigenous peoples is the ILO-convention 169, but it is only
obliging to those states that have ratified it. Austria, as well as Germany, have not
done so, because there are no indigenous peo-ples living in these territories. What
was not taken into account is that Austria and Germany do have an effect on the
reality of indigenous peoples through trade, politics and work for devel-opment. Of
course, this is valid for all other western and eastern industrial nations, so that we
should strive to achieve the ratification by as many states as possible. Moreover,
United Nations prepare a declaration about the rights of indigenous peoples;
hopefully the passing of this decla-rations will not be at the expense of content.

It is obvious that no single organisation can cover all these four levels in an effective
way. Strate-gically, it will be reasonable to consciously decide for one or few levels
and to focus the re-stricted capacities to few main points. Nevertheless, the other
levels must not be forgotten be-cause neither will a successful infant programme
save the indigenous peoples, nor will the ratifi-cation of the ILO-convention by the
whole state community be a guarantee that the formulated imperatives will become

9. Prospects for ethics of recognition

The treatment of the weaker members of a society is always an indicator of the
ethical maturity of the society. The way in which a society looks at the other – the
foreign, because of cultural differences -, always reflects the self-image, the
putatively familiar of society, which is questioned by its mirror image. It is typical of
western helplessness when faced with the other, that the other is catalogued,
cartographied and labelled with very much energy, as if understanding was a
successful exorcism that could let a way of escape open to the western modernism
that is so uncertain because of the other. But recognition, the attempt to maybe
entire understanding, are "crooked tracks", as Paulo Suess, a Brazilian theologian of
liberation, puts it. His reflections open optimistic perspectives:

"As others do not form an extra world at the edge or outside of the modern world, it
may be possible that the Enlightenment and the Modernism can be enlightened and
curbed in its destructiveness by the other. A society that is enlightened about itself
holds basic resources for the defence of the life-project of the other." (Suess 1994:

After a close look at the problems of indigenous peoples, this option seems to be the
only sen-sible one. Enlightening and curbing modernism pragmatically seems to be
the only way to leave hostile, exterminating neighbourhood in order to achieve a
benevolent, mutual relationship, or even friendship between peoples and cultures.
This task afford to believe in its practicability, belief that is possible when we trust
that at last, cosmos means well with us. This is where we can learn from indigenous
peoples, in order to cast off our suspiciousness towards a life with general, but not
naive, trust.


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