International Journal on Minority and Group Rights Volume 11, Issue 1-2, 2004 (Koninklijke Brill NV, The Netherlands)

Indigenous Groups and the Politics of Recognition in Asia: Cases from Japan, Taiwan, West Papua, Bali, the People’s Republic of China, and Gilgit

Benedict Kingsbury

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This special symposium issue on the International Journal of Minority and Group Rights addresses current questions concerning indigenous peoples in several parts of Asia. Each paper draws on original research, utilizing languages of the region, and makes available material that is difficult to obtain and rarely analyzed in English. The authors are mainly recent graduates of Professor Benedict Kingsbury’s course at New York University Law School. For the most part they are newly minted lawyers or doctoral students rather than established scholars, although some have considerable field experience with the groups involved. The papers address controversial subjects – we as editors do not share all of the views the contributors express, and readers will also hold varying opinions about these issues. The papers present carefully researched material and a range of fresh ideas on topics where the existing literature is often sparse. We are pleased to introduce the papers.

If the paradigmatic experiences of indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australasia has been seaborne invasion by settlers and abrupt annexation by the colonizing State, the paradigmatic experience in Asia has been more gradual usurpation of control over distinct groups and their lands, accomplished as much by infiltration and encroachment across unified land masses as by invasion. Contact between an incoming majority and relatively enclosed tribal groups may have proceeded for centuries before institutional dominance was achieved through the apparatus of the State, and the formality of acquisition may not have been so prominent as in organized settler colonialism. These paradigms have a bearing on official attitudes to use of the term ‘indigenous peoples’, which is generally accepted by government ministries in States shaped by European settlement, but is often resisted in Asian states. Yet these paradigms are by no means exhaustive of the spectrum of cases in each region. There are cases of gradual interaction and mixing in the Americas and in the Nordic region, and many cases of rapid colonization in Asia. Moreover, points of commonality between regions are readily identified by advocates focused on similarities in specific issues such as land title, exploitation of natural resources, relations with multinational corporations, demands for autonomy, or means of political representation in State structures. The global mobilization of the indigenous peoples movement and of NGOs, the transmission of ideas about these issues by institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, and the borrowing and adaptation of concepts between administrations of different States have increased the connections between the ideas used in different places by claimants and by national policymakers. Local variations in terminology and concepts continue to matter at the level of national politics, and in the working out of issues at very local levels there may be scant evidence of any global convergence. In this Introduction we use terms such as ‘indigenous peoples’ or ‘ethnic minorities’ or ‘national minorities’ without close regard to local context or to particular political controversies about the terms, our intention being simply to refer in each case to a locus of ideas. In local, national and global contexts such terms do not necessarily carry within them a robust justification that determines questions of meaning: “understanding a general term is nothing more than the practical activity of being able to use it in various circumstances”.