International Day of the World’s Indigenous People and Rohingya
By Aman Ullah
“Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to one of the indigenous races of Burma, which you represent. In fact, there are no pure indigenous races in Burma and that if you do not belong to indigenous races Burma; we also cannot be taken as indigenous races of Burma.” President Saw Shwe Thaik,
There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries. They make up less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.
Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.
Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, their way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.
In order to raise awareness of the needs of these population groups, every 9 August commemorates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, chosen in recognition of the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations held in Geneva in 1982.
This year’s observance is dedicated to Indigenous Peoples’ Languages in view of 2019 being marked as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
The large majority of the languages in danger are spoken by indigenous peoples. It is estimated that, every 2 weeks, an indigenous language disappears, placing at risk the respective indigenous cultures and knowledge systems. That is why, on this International Day, the goal is to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote them at both national and international levels.
Who are Indigenous?
The adjective indigenous is derived from the two Ancient Greek words indo= endo/ “ενδό(ς)”, meaning inside/within, and genous= (γέννoυς), meaning birth/born and also race, etymology meaning “native” or “born within”.
James Anaya, former Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has defined indigenous peoples as “living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others. They are culturally distinct groups that find themselves engulfed by other settler societies born of forces of empire and conquest”.
They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.
In 1972 the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) accepted as a preliminary definition a formulation put forward by Mr. José R. Martínez-Cobo, Special apporteur on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations. This definition has some limitations, because the definition applies mainly to pre-colonial populations, and would likely exclude other isolated or marginal societies.
“Indigenous communities, peoples, and nations are those that, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop, and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.”
Thus, Indigenous peoples were the descendants of those peoples that inhabited a territory prior to colonization or formation of the present state.
Rohingyas are one of the Indigenous peoples of Burma
The Rohingyas are a nation with a population of more than 3 million (both home and abroad), having a supporting history, separate culture, civilization, language and literature, historically settled territory and reasonable size of population and area. They share a public culture different from the public culture of those around them. They are determined not only to preserve and develop their public culture, but also to transmit to future generations as the basis of their continued existence as people, in accordance with their own cultural pattern, social institution and legal system.
The Rohingyas are a group of people who believes that they are similar; because of this similarity, they believe that their fates are intertwined. That is they have a common identity and a belief in a shared future through collective action. They have acted together in the past, they are acting together in the present, and they will act together in the future. As a collective agent, they are participants in a common venture. Through common action, they want to create a common future, where their people can live out their distinctive life ways in freedom, safety and dignity. As a nation they are jointly committed to create a space for people like them.
Being indigenous peoples, they have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, economic, social and cultural characteristics, as well as their legal systems, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of State. Not only have they had the right to a nationality but also the rights to their lands, territories and resources, which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spirituals traditions, histories and philosophies.
They are equal in every way with other communities of the country. Their arrival in Arakan has pre-dated the arrival of many other peoples and races now residing in Arakan and other parts of Burma. They developed from different stocks of peoples and concentrated in a common geographical location forming their own society with a consolidated population in Arakan well before the Burman invasion in 1784.
Mr. M.A. Gaffer, from Buthidaung, was a member of 1947 Constitutional Assembly, an Upper House MP from 1951 to 1960 and also a Parliamentary Secretary in Health Ministry.
He wrote, in his Memorandum, which was presented to the Regional Autonomy Enquiry Commission dated the 24th May, 1949, that “We the Rohingyas of Arakan are a nation. We maintain and hold that Rohingyas and Arakanse are two major nations in Arakan. We are a nation of nearly nine lakhs more than enough population for a nation; and what is more we are a nation according to any definition of a nation with our own distinctive culture and civilization, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of value and proportion, legal laws and moral codes, customs and calendar, history and traditions aptitude and ambitions, in short, we have our distinctive outlook on life and of life. By all canons of international law the Rohingyas are a nation in Arakan.”
Mr. Sultan Ahmed, from Maung Daw, was a member of 1947 Constitutional Assembly, a Member of Parliament from 1951 to 1960 and was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Minorities, Ministry of Relief and Resettlement, and the Ministry of Social and Religious Affairs, with the status of Deputy Minister. He was one of the longest serving parliamentary secretaries.
According to him, ‘when section 11 of the constitution of the Union of Burma was being framed, a doubt as to whether the Muslims of North Arakan fell under the section of sub-clauses (I) (II) and (III), arose. In effect an objection was put in to have the doubt cleared in respect of the term “indigenous” as used in the constitution. But it was withdrawn on the understanding and assurance of the President of the Constitutional Assembly, at present His Excellency the President of the Union of Burma, who, when approached for clarification with this question, said, “Muslims of Arakan certainly belong to one of the indigenous races of Burma, which you represent. In fact, there are no pure indigenous races in Burma and that if you do not belong to indigenous races Burma; we also cannot be taken as indigenous races of Burma.” Being satisfied with his kind explanation, the objection put in was withdrawn.’
Being one of the indigenous communities of Burma, the Rohingyas were enfranchised in all the national and local elections of Burma. Their representatives were in the Legislative Assembly, in the Constituent Assembly and in the Parliament. As members of the new Parliament, their representatives took the oath of allegiance to the Union of Burma on the 4thJanuary 1948. Their representatives were appointed as cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries. They had their own political, cultural, social organizations and had their programme in their own language in the official Burma Broadcasting Services (BSS). As a Burma’s racial groups, they participated in the official “Union Day’ celebration in Burma’s capital, Rangoon, every year. To satisfy part of their demand, the government granted them limited local autonomy and declared establishment of Mayu Frontier Administration (MFA) in early 60s, a special frontier district to be ruled directly by the central government.
In spite of that the Rohingya are the worst victims of human rights violations in Burma. They were displaced. Their identity was polluted. Their population was diluted. Their right to nationality was arbitrarily deprived.
Campaigns of terror, crimes against humanity and extermination have been perpetrated against the Rohingya in a systematic and planned way. The restrictions on freedom of movement, marriage and education have dashed any future hope of development for the Rohingya, including forming families, all while they live in subhuman conditions amidst abject poverty. Humiliating restrictions on movement—even on travel from place to place within the same locality—have affected all normal activities in all fields, crippling the Rohingya socially, economically and educationally.
Series of armed operations, with frequent state patronized communal riots, have been engineered one after another, resulting in massive drive of Rohingyas from their homeland of Arakan. As a result, since 1948, about 2 million Rohingyas have been expelled or have to flee their ancestral homeland for their lives.
Hence, it is the result of forcible dispossession of their population and expulsion from their homeland by means of murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, executions, rape and sexual assault, military and paramilitary attacks on civilians, robbery and extortion, destruction of cultural and religious buildings and monuments, destruction of homes, confinement of civilians in camps, purposeful starvation, and some others in the most in human manner at the hands of successive Burmese Military Regimes in order to rid Arakan of the Rohingya population guilty.
Successive Regimes dehumanized the Rohingya in their official propaganda and depicted as amoral or dangerous to society. Officials falsify history and present justifications for why the entire group, to include the elderly, women, and children, must be viewed as guilty. They always try to deny and to reject the Rohingya not only as one of the country’s indigenous peoples but also their citizenship rights although the presence of Rohingya in Arakan was prior 1780s.
According to Ms. Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, “For decades, it has been cultivated in the minds of the Myanmar people that the Rohingya are not indigenous to the country and therefore have no rights whatsoever to which they can apparently claim.”
The Burmese successive military governments have singled out the Rohingya as a ‘threat to national security.’ The country’s military, the backbone of all governments since 1962, has pursued varied and evolving strategies to reduce, remove, replace, relocate and otherwise destroy the Rohingya. The state’s strategies range from framing the Rohingya as ‘British colonial era farm coolies’ from the present day Bangladesh who came to British Burma only after the 1820s to painting the impoverished and oppressed Rohingya as potential Islamists intent on importing terrorism from the Middle East. From formulating and spreading the view of the Rohingya as aliens to enacting a national citizenship law to strip the Rohingya of their right of belonging – citizenship – to Burma.