10 Minutes To Read

The Quest for Recognition: Redefining Indigenous Identity in Myanmar

10 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • Naing Min Khant argues that Myanmar’s failure to define and protect indigenous rights hinders social justice and fuels ethnic conflicts.

    The term “indigenous” is still problematic and complicated in Myanmar. Since independence, successive governments have localized indigenous people as Taingyinthar to refer to all races who have resided in Myanmar since prior to the first Anglo-Burma war. However, they have never used the word ‘indigenity’ or ‘indigenous.’ Therefore, the term Taingyinthar, an alternative usage to indigenous, has a different essence from the definition that originated in the 1980s and is widely used by global indigenous rights movements. When it comes to indigenous people in Myanmar, there is still a major debate about the inclusion and exclusion of certain races as indigenous people. As an example, Rohingya people are excluded from the category of Taingyinthar. The failure to define indigenous people, which resulted in the failure to protect the rights of minority ethnic groups and is one of the driving causes of the prolonged ethnic armed conflict right after independence. This paper will argue how the localization of indigenous people in Myanmar is different from the internationally recognized definition, and how the localization fails to recognize minority groups including Rohingya people as distinct cultural groups, resulting in unequal distribution of power and resources and negligence to protect collective rights of those groups.

    The original idea of the indigenous movement was derived from the country that experienced Western settler colonialism. In settler colonialism, settler communities from colonial countries tried to eliminate or assimilate the original native population of the country. Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism that seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers. This process often involves the displacement, dispossession, and suppression of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous movements have emerged in various parts of the world as responses to the challenges posed by settler colonialism. In the 1980s, many social movements started to advocate for the rights of indigenous people to counter the impact of settler colonialism and to revitalize the distinctiveness of local communities.  Native American resistance to European settlers in the United States and Aboriginal Australians resistance to the British settler colonialism are prominent cases of how indigenous people resist the imposition of European colonial practices and to revitalize their cultures, lands, and rights.  Later, these movements broadened their scope to minority people who were being oppressed by the majority in a country. In turn, the term ‘indigenous people’ gained political significance, with the United Nations even adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. With the adoption of this declaration, all signatory state parties have a mandatory responsibility to protect the rights of indigenous people.

    As indigeneity has political significance, the definition of this terminology varies from context to context. Whyte (2016) defines indigenous peoples as “societies whose self-governance precedes a period of invasion, colonization, or settlement by other groups and who now live in territories—now controlled by nation-states—in which they are the nondominant societies.” In the settler colonial context, the dominant group is colonial settlers. The United States and South Africa are textbook examples of how dominant colonial settlers eliminated or assimilated native populations on indigenous lands.  Therefore, indigenous people are those who have been oppressed by colonizers in the settler colonial context, culturally and politically. In the context of non-settler colonialism, the definition of indigenous people is different. The group of settlers or dominants can be a majority group who have different social identities and live near those minority groups. Therefore, Eubanks and Sherpa (2018) define indigenous people as “oppressed peoples; not only those colonized by Europeans but also others subjected to various forms of domination by Asians living in close proximity.”  Moreover, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations argues that indigenous people have social, cultural, economic, and political characteristics distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Therefore, the definition of indigenous people differs across varying country contexts. However, the general understanding of indigenous people is that they are oppressed people whose cultural, linguistic, and social practices are being threatened by dominant groups in their respective countries, not limited to colonizers.

    There has been no comprehensive definition of indigenous people in Myanmar, although the country did ratify the UNDRIP (2017). Due to the lack of comprehension, there have been debates about whether certain groups of people are indigenous people. Myanmar localized the term ‘indigenous people’ as ‘Taingyinthar.’ Tai means country, Yin represents origin, and Tha refers to sons. Therefore, Taingyinthar means the original sons of the country. The term was similar to the definition of indigenous people in the settler colonial context, i.e., the differentiation of native people and people from another country whom colonizers brought. The usage of Taingyinthar came to the surface of the nationalist movement in the early 1920s. At that time, the Taingyingthar terminology referred to people who were not European, Chinese, or Indian. In contrast, the nationalist movement referred to Europeans, Chinese, and Indians as non-Taingyinthar with the goal of prohibiting these groups’ access to land ownership. However, the term has not yet gained political significance even after independence.

    According to the definition of Taingyinthar at that time, the Bamar majority, who enjoyed a privileged position in the polity according to the Constitution (1947), were also considered to be Taingyinthar. During the drafting process of the Constitution (1947), cultural and linguistic rights for minority Taingyinthar, which are collective rights for indigenous people, were prioritized, but unfortunately, in the finalized version of the Constitution, there were no specific clauses protecting the collective rights of the indigenous people (1947). Moreover, the composition of the parliament did not reserve the seats for minority Taingyinthar. Thus, minority ethnic people did not have equal opportunity to raise their voices concerning their cultural and linguistic rights. In addition, minority ethnic groups who were not signatories of the historic Panglong agreement, Rakhine and Mon ethnic groups, were even treated more unequally than the minority signatory ethnic groups, such as Shan, Chin, and Kachin. Panglong agreement is the agreement between the leaders of Proper Burma, where the majority of Bamar people, Mon and Rakhine people live, and frontier areas where Chin, Kachin, and Shan people live. The agreement guarantees the rights of self-determination and autonomy of the frontier people. As per the agreement, the Constitution (1947) included separate chapters describing certain governmental arrangements for the frontier people, although those arrangements did not fulfill the leader of Burma Proper, Aung San’s promises: self-determination and autonomy. Apart from that, the Constitution (1947) did not include such chapters for Rakhine and Mon people; moreover, geographical areas where Rakhine and Mon people lived were incorporated under the Bamar majority. The absence of a comprehensive definition, the inclusion of majority groups as indigenous people (Taingyinthar), the exclusion of minority groups as Taingyinthar, and the lack of arrangements to protect and preserve their distinctiveness created an unequal distribution of power and resources in the nation-building process after the independence, thereby, resulting in prolonged armed conflicts.

    Under the administration of the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) led by General Ne Win, who was a coup leader after U Nu’s administration, the term, Taingyinthar, resurfaced again with more political significance. However, the categorization of Taingyinthar was still vague. Specifically, General Ne Win advocated for the unity of Taingyinthar to build a stable and united state. He explained, “Unity and amity among Taingyinthar mean that Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Chin, Bamar, Shan, and other Taingyinthar inhabiting the Union of Burma need to be resolved to stick together for life through weal and woe.” Notably, General Ne Win regarded the Bamar people as Taingyhinthar or indigenous people, although the international definition of indigenous people does not include a dominant group that threatens the social and cultural practices of minority groups. Moreover, he also does not explicitly recognize the collective rights of minority Taingyinthar.

    Under the BSPP Administration, the unofficial categorization of Taingyinthar expanded. The Office for Ancient Literature and Culture under the Ministry of Culture, the advisory board of the Burma Historical Commission, and the Central Committee of the BSPP unofficially recognized that there were 135 Taingyinthar in the 1960s. Later the list was ratified with official recognition in the 1983 census under the BSPP regime. Although the BSPP regime recognized the list, they did not officially publish detailed accounts of it. Notably, the list of Taingyinthar was categorized by referencing the 1931 and 1953-1954 censuses, with the categorization of races in the 1931 census being based on the language. However, language has a fluid nature and is not a fixed identity. As Green (1993) argues, “some of the races or tribes in Burma change their language almost as often as they change their clothes.”  Therefore, categorizing in terms of language is problematic because races did not use the same language time after time. In conjunction with the weaknesses of the 1931 census, the 1953-1954 censuses could not cover a large country area because of active internal armed conflicts. Therefore, referencing these incomplete and misconceived lists led to the failure to formulate a comprehensive definition of indigenous people.

    Moreover, the list included a dozen different “national races” in Kachin state, nine in Kayah state, eleven in Kayin state, fifty-three in Chin state, nine separated ethnic Bamar groups, one in Mon state, seven in Rakhine state, and thirty-three in Shan state but did not cover all ethnic groups, especially minorities within minority groups. Thus, the list itself is incorrect. There are overlapping identifications for the same group in the list. However, the official publication of the lists happened just prior to the 2014 census. Moreover, this categorization and definition of indigenous people did not exclude the Bamar majority, who have certain political and social privileges according to the Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008) because dominant groups of people are not considered indigenous people according to the above internationally accepted definition. However, the Bamar people enjoy political and social privileges. In the Constitution (2008), the composition of the upper house, which principally represents the voices of ethnic people, is based on the administrative districts in terms of territory. As the Bamar people are the majority population, they automatically are the majority in the Upper House of the parliament. Therefore, the recognition of dominant groups and the failure to recognize the status of minority ethnic groups in Myanmar as indigenous people has led to negligence in protecting the collective social, cultural, and political rights of minorities.

    Until now, the term Taingyingthar has not met the internationally recognized definition of indigenous people because it still focuses on the context of settler colonialism notion, as mentioned above, and it includes all national races who lived before the first Anglo-Burma War. The current definition of Taingyingthar in Myanmar has not changed very much since its origin during the nationalist movement and continues to encompass all races rather than just oppressed ethnic minorities. The first responsibility to solve the problem is to recognize its existence. In Myanmar, successive governments have failed to recognize non-Bamar ethnic minorities as indigenous and deserving of collective rights to preserve their cultures and ways of life. Recognition is a crucial step in formulating social justice for non-Bamar ethnic groups. Fink (2019) argues that social justice means recognizing and addressing the unequal treatment and opportunities toward every race and every group of people in society. Using Fink’s definition, recognition should come first to solve the problem before addressing the issue.

    Although indigenous rights activists in Myanmar have advocated in support of a new term, Htanay Taingyinthar (ဌာနေတိုင်းရင်းသား), to differentiate non-Bamar majority group from the Bamar majority, politicians and governmental officials criticize the usage for its potential to destroy the unity of the state. Eventually after a long history of advocacy that then led to the ratification of the UNDRIP, the government led by President Thein Sein, a former military general, enacted the Ethnic Rights Protection Law (2015). The Law provided ethnic minority groups with some rights, including the protection of distinct ethnic cultures, which is also part of the UNDRIP. However, the Law still did not provide a clear definition of indigenous people, nor did it guarantee collective rights for minority ethnic people. The absence of a comprehensive definition still fails to protect the rights of the indigenous people.

    It is crucial to protect the rights of non-Bamar ethnic groups as indigenous people. Non-Bamar ethnic groups have been oppressed politically, economically, and socially since the country’s independence. Chin State, the poorest state in which indigenous hill people reside, is a clear example of where the ethnic minority population has faced unequal treatment. As an example, the state education system discriminates against non-Bamar ethnic people. The medium language of the education system in Myanmar is the Bamar language (Burmese). Therefore, a child from a non-Bamar ethnic group must learn Burmese to receive a state-sponsored education. If that child does not have an educational degree recognized by the state, he or she will not have job opportunities in the future. In that way, the non-Bamar majority of people are facing challenges to getting out of the poverty trap set by Burmese politicians.

    Apart from non-Bamar ethnic groups, the government of Myanmar has not recognized Rohingya people as Taingyinthar in Myanmar (Robinson, 2021). While the Bamar majority-led government and military commit incorporative violence in which the ultimate end is domination against the non-Bamar majority people, their violence against the Rohingya people differs in that it is a form of exclusive violence in which the ultimate goal is exclusion. The unequal treatment of non-Bamar ethnic people and the exclusion of Rohingya people from the polity highlight the importance of a comprehensive definition of indigenous people to preserve these populations’ collective rights.

    Moreover, the recognition of non-Bamar people who are residing in Myanmar as indigenous people is hugely important to build a federal union.  In a federal system, the essence is the division of power between the central government and federal units, which are local governments representing their respective groups of people. The respective federal units have a responsibility to protect the collective rights of their respective ethnic groups. If there is no comprehensive list of indigenous people in Myanmar, it is impossible to categorize the federal units, which is a basic step in building the federal union. The lack of a comprehensive definition of indigenous people makes it difficult to decide which minority groups have rights as a federal unit in the future union. If a comprehensive definition that includes all people in Myanmar is accepted, it will be easier to demarcate the federal units and formulate the division of power between the central government and federal units.

    Since independence, the lack of a comprehensive definition of indigenous people in Myanmar is the root cause of political, economic, and social inequalities. Specifically, the localization of indigenous people by successive governments in Myanmar has been far different from the internationally recognized definition of indigenous people. This failure to acknowledge the distinctiveness of minority ethnic groups and their subsequent exclusion from collective rights have resulted in prolonged armed conflicts and social injustice. Recognizing the distinctiveness of indigenous people who are non-Bamar minorities in the Myanmar context for their collective rights is the first and most crucial step to solving the prolonged ethnic armed conflict. To ensure social justice and inclusion in the formation of federal states in Myanmar, the country should use international principles, guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, as guiding principles for redefining and categorizing indigenous people.

    Naing Min Khant is a former political science student at the University of Yangon who joined the civil resistance movement. He is now a sophomore at PARAMI University, specializing in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). He is also working as a program associate at the research department of the Institute for Strategy and Policy – Myanmar (ISP-Myanmar). The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of ISP-Myanmar and PARAMI University.


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