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Indigeneity, ethnopolitics, and taingyinthar: Myanmar and the global Indigenous Peoples’ movement

  • Michael R. Dunford

In Myanmar, the idea of ‘indigeneity’ has been mobilised in two radically different ways. Ethnonationalist groups such as the Chin National Front and the Karen National Union have utilised the concept to lobby for increased autonomy in international forums such as the United Nations, while the Burmese state has used the idea of indigeneity (or native-ness, typically translated as taingyinthar in Burmese) to exclude certain minorities — most prominently the Rohingya — by explicitly striking them from the official list of Myanmar's ‘national races’. To clarify how this definitional tension has developed, this article will situate the competing Burmese appeals to indigeneity within the history of international indigeneity politics, and compare the Burmese ‘Indigenous situation’ to other Asian countries that have addressed the question of who counts and does not count as Indigenous.

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1 Hathaway, Michael, ‘The emergence of indigeneity: Public intellectuals and an Indigenous space in southwest China’, Cultural Anthropology 25, 2 (2010): 301–33.

2 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, 2007; (accessed 3 May 2015). For a discussion of this issue in relation to Bangladesh, see Nasir Uddin, ‘The local translation of global indigeneity: A case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts’, this vol.

3 Micah F. Morton and Ian G. Baird, ‘From Hill tribes to Indigenous Peoples: The localisation of a global movement in Thailand’, this vol.; see also Baird, Ian G., ‘The construction of “Indigenous Peoples” in Cambodia’, in Alterities in Asia: Reflections on identity and regionalism, ed. Yew, Leong (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 156.

4 Erni, Christian, ed., The concept of Indigenous Peoples in Asia: A resource book, IWGIA document No. 123 (Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs; Chiang Mai: Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, 2008). See also Baird, Ian G., ‘Introduction. Indigeneity in Asia: An emerging but contested concept’, in ‘Indigeneity in Southeast Asia’, ed. Baird, I.G., special issue, Asian Ethnicity 17, 4 (2016): 501–5.

5 In 1989, the Burmese government — then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) — changed the name of their country from the Union of Burma to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. There has since been considerable controversy over whether to call the country ‘Myanmar’ or ‘Burma’, although the current civilian government continues to use the term ‘Myanmar’. I will use the term Myanmar to refer to the country, except where Burma is historically necessary (e.g., when referring to British Burma); but ‘Burmese’ as an adjective. The ethnic majority of Myanmar will be referred to as the Bamar, and their language as Burmese.

6 Smith, Martin, Burma: Insurgency and the politics of ethnicity (Dhaka: University Press, 1999), p. 28.

7 Morton and Baird, ‘From Hill tribes to Indigenous Peoples’, this vol.

8 Cheesman, Nick, Myanmar, ‘How innational races” came to surpass citizenship and exclude Rohingya’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 47, 3 (2017): 461.

9 Baird, Ian G., ‘“Indigenous Peoples” and land: Comparing communal land titling and its implications in Cambodia and Laos’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint 54, 3 (2013): 272.

10 Bertrand, Jacques, ‘“Indigenous Peoples' rights” as a strategy of ethnic accommodation: Contrasting experiences of Cordillerans and Papuans in the Philippines and Indonesia’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 34, 5 (2011): 854; see also Li, Tania, ‘Ethnic cleansing, recursive knowledge, and the dilemmas of sedentarism’, International Social Science Journal 54, 173 (2002): 361–71; and Thawnghmung, Ardeth, ‘The politics of indigeneity in Myanmar: Competing narratives in Rakhine State’, Asian Ethnicity 17, 4 (May 2016): 527–47.

11 Morton and Baird, ‘From Hill tribes to Indigenous Peoples’, this vol. See also Andrew Gray, ‘The Indigenous movement in Asia’, in Indigenous Peoples in Asia, ed. R.H. Barnes, Andrew Gray and Benedict Kingsbury (Ann Arbor, MI: Association of Asian Studies, 1995), pp. 35–8. Gray was the first scholar to articulate this particular idea — that Indigenous Peoples are oppressed or colonised peoples — with regard to Asia.

12 Pelican, Michaela, ‘Complexities of indigeneity and autochthony: An African example’, American Ethnologist 36, 1 (2009): 52.

13 Benedict Kingsbury, ‘“Indigenous Peoples” in international law: A constructivist approach to the Asian controversy’, American Journal of International Law 92, 3 (1998): 415.

14 Ardeth Thawnghmung, The ‘Other’ Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic minorities and the struggle without arms (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), p. 19. For example, the two largest groups usually categorised as ‘Karen’ — who speak mutually unintelligible languages — tend to self-identify with the terms ‘Sgaw’ or ‘Pwa Kan Yaw’ and ‘Pwo’ or ‘Ploan’. The complexities of ethnic classification and contestation of terms such as ‘Karen’ to refer to Myanmar's vast array of ethnic groups will be discussed in further detail below.

15 Cheesman, ‘How in Myanmar “national races” came to surpass citizenship’, p. 461.

16 Thawnghmung, ‘The politics of indigeneity in Myanmar’, p. 528; see also Cheesman, ‘How in Myanmar “national races” came to surpass citizenship’, p. 462.

17 Cheesman, ‘How in Myanmar “national races” came to surpass citizenship’, p. 414.

18 Dove, Michael, ‘Indigenous People and environmental politics’, Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (2006): 196.

19 Corntassel, Jeff J. and Primeau, Tomas Hopkins, ‘The paradox of indigenous identity: A levels-of-analysis approach’, Global Governance 4, 2 (1998): 141.

20 Morton and Baird, ‘From Hill tribes to Indigenous Peoples’, this vol.

21 Dirlik, Arif, ‘Globalization, indigenism, and the politics of place’, ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 34, 1 (2003): 16.

22 Li, Tania Murray, ‘Indigeneity, capitalism, and the management of dispossession’, Current Anthropology 51, 3 (2010): 385.

23 Ibid.

24 Baird, ‘“Indigenous Peoples” and land’, p. 277.

25 Food Security Working Group, ‘Legal review of recently enacted Farmland Law and Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law: Improving the legal and policy frameworks relating to land management in Myanmar’ (Washington, DC: Forest Trends, 2012), p. 3.

26 Ibid., p. 16.

27 Ian Baird, pers. comm., 18 Sept. 2017.

28 Karen Human Rights Group, ‘Losing ground: Land conflicts and collective action in eastern Myanmar’, 13 Mar. 2013; (accessed 3 Sept. 2015).

29 Kuper, Adam, ‘The return of the native’, Current Anthropology 44, 3 (2003): 389402.

30 Ibid., p. 390.

31 Dove, ‘Indigenous People and environmental politics’, p. 193.

32 Pelican, ‘Complexities of indigeneity and autochthony’, p. 54.

33 Sidaway, James D., Woon, Chih Yuan and Jacobs, Jane M., ‘Planetary postcolonialism’, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 35, 1 (2014): 8.

34 Baird, Ian G., ‘Translocal assemblages and the circulation of the concept of “Indigenous Peoples” in Laos’, Political Geography 46 (2015): 55.

35 Morton and Baird, ‘From Hill tribes to Indigenous Peoples’, this vol.

36 Peter Swift, ‘Understanding Chin political participation in Myanmar’ (MSc. thesis, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2018), p. 37; see also Thawnghmung, The ‘Other’ Karen in Myanmar, p. 19.

37 Tohring, S.R., Violence and identity in north-east India: Naga–Kuki conflict (New Delhi: Mittal, 2010), p. 7.

38 Soe Zeya Tun, ‘The Naga tribes of Myanmar’, Boston Globe, 16 Jan. 2015.

39 Ferguson, Jane, ‘Ethnicity, belonging, and the national census in Burma/Myanmar’, Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 171, 1 (2015): 10.

40 Haksar, Nandita and Luithui, Luingam, Nagaland file: A question of human rights (New Delhi: Lancer International, 1984), p. 15.

41 See also Uddin, ‘The local translation of global indigeneity’, this vol.: like Uddin's study, this article can and should be understood as a challenge to the regional boundaries between South Asia and Southeast Asia. Although Myanmar is certainly included in most definitions of Southeast Asia, a thorough examination of the Indigenous Peoples situation in Myanmar requires widening the scope to include other geopolitical regions.

42 Thawnghmung, Ardeth, Beyond armed resistance: Ethnonational politics in Burma (Myanmar), EWC Policy Studies No. 62 (Honolulu: East-West Center, 2011), p. 3.

43 Walton, Matthew J., ‘Ethnicity, conflict, and history in Burma: The myths of Panglong’, Asian Survey 48, 6 (2008): 894.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid., p. 889.

46 Thawnghmung, The ‘Other’ Karen in Myanmar, p. 40.

47 The Republic of the Union of Myanmar President Office, ‘Accreditation for 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference’, (accessed 27 July 2017).

48 Walton, ‘Ethnicity, conflict, and history in Burma’, p. 902.

49 Ibid., pp. 899–900; saopha refers to members of the Shan hereditary nobility.

50 Ibid.

51 Thawnghmung, The ‘Other’ Karen in Myanmar, p. 40.

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Ashley South, Ethnic politics in Burma: States of conflict (New York: Routledge 2008), p. 30.

55 Karen National Union, ‘Objectives’, (accessed 12 Sept. 2015).

56 Karen National Union, ‘The Karens, a nation, their nature and history’, (accessed 1 Aug. 2017).

57 Ibid.

58 Saw Mae Plet Htoo, ‘Commentary on the Burmese delegate's reply’, Karen National Union (KNU) Bulletin No. 14, Dec. 1987, pp. 6–12.

59 Ibid., p. 10.

60 ‘Saw’ is an honorific title used by Karen men.

61 Hathaway, ‘The emergence of indigeneity’, p. 310.

62 See Morton and Baird, ‘From Hill tribes to Indigenous Peoples’, this vol.

63 It is worth noting that the National Socialist Council of Nagaland actually refers to two groups, who use the same title but frequently come into conflict with one another as well as with the Indian state. For a more detailed analysis of NSCN factionalism and their relationship to Naga civil society organisations, see Das, Samir Kumar, Conflict and peace in India's northeast: The role of civil society, EWC Policy Studies No. 42 (Washington, DC: East-West Center, 2007).

64 Morton and Baird, ‘From Hill tribes to Indigenous Peoples’, this vol.

65 Soe Zeya Tun, ‘The Naga tribes of Myanmar’.

66 Than Tun Win, ‘Composition of the different ethnic groups under the 8 major national ethnic races in Myanmar’, (accessed 22 May 2015).

67 Haksar and Luithui, Nagaland file, p. 15.

68 Walton, ‘Ethnicity, conflict, and history in Burma’, p. 903.

69 Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), ‘Advancing Indigenous Peoples’ solidarity and movement: A brief history of the AIPP’ (video), filmed in 2012, posted 27 Apr. 2015, (accessed 1 May 2015).

70 Morton and Baird, ‘From Hill tribes to Indigenous Peoples’, this vol.

71 Swift, Peter, ‘The Burma Democratic Front: How Eighty-Eight Generation Chin were mobilized into the Chin National Front’, Journal of Burma Studies 21, 1 (2017): 134.

72 Ibid.

73 Riahbuk, ‘Interview with the Chin Affairs Minister Pu No Than Kap’, 19 Feb. 2014; (accessed 16 May 2015).

74 Cheery Zahau, interview, 11 June 2017, Yangon.

75 Ibid.

76 Morton, Micah, ‘Indigenous Peoples work to raise their status in a reforming Myanmar’, Perspective 33, 22 May 2017 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), p. 3.

77 Ibid.

78 Ibid., p. 7.

79 Ferguson, ‘Ethnicity, belonging, and the national census in Burma/Myanmar’, p. 9.

80 Ibid., p. 10.

81 Morton, ‘Indigenous Peoples work to raise their status’, p. 7.

82 Cheery Zahau, interview, 11 June 2017, Yangon.

83 Cheesman, ‘How in Myanmar “national races” came to surpass citizenship’, p. 462; this article provides an excellent extended investigation of the genesis of the term taingyinthar and its role in Myanmar's ethnopolitics up to the present.

84 Thawnghmung, ‘The politics of indigeneity in Myanmar’, p. 527.

85 Office of the President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, ‘We have never had ethnic nationals called “Rohingya” according to official list of indigenous ethnic groups of Myanmar as well as our historical records’, 31 Aug. 2014, (accessed 17 Sept. 2015).

86 Ibid.

87 Ibid.

88 This view appears to be changing in the wake of the catastrophic violence that broke out between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, on 25 Aug. 2017. Bangladesh state media reported hundreds of thousands of Rohingya pouring into their country; in an address to the UN General Assemply on 21 Sept. 2017, Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh's prime minister, acknowledged that over 800,000 Rohingya were living in camps in southeastern Bangladesh, possibly signalling a change in both Bangladesh's chosen terminology and perhaps also in their position vis-à-vis the political status of the Rohingya. It should be noted that this is an evolving situation.

89 Yegar, Moshe, The Muslims of Burma: A study of a minority group (Heidelberg: Schriftenreihe Des Südasien-Instituts Der Universität Heidelberg, 1972), p. 2.

90 Thawnghmung, ‘The politics of indigeneity in Myanmar’, p. 539.

91 Pyitthu Hluttaw, Burma Citizenship Law of 1982 (unofficial trans.). (accessed 20 Sept. 2015).

92 Thawnghmung, ‘The politics of indigeneity in Myanmar’, p. 535.

93 Kyaw, Nyi, ‘Alienation, discrimination, and securitization: Legal personhood and cultural personhood of Muslims in Myanmar’, Review of Faith and International Affairs 13, 4 (2015): 51.

94 Ma Ba Tha (မဘသ) is an acronym which refers to the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, also frequently translated as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. Although Ma Ba Tha's activities are wide-ranging and not limited to anti-Muslim activism, they are understood within Myanmar as the successors to the explicitly anti-Muslim 969 movement.

95 Mu-Lung Hsu, ‘Whose permanent home? Indigeneity and the Muslim “foreigners” in Burma’, paper presented at Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference, Chicago, 28 Mar. 2015, p. 1.

96 Baird, ‘“Indigenous peoples” and land’, p. 269.

97 Human Rights Watch, ‘Burma: Reject discriminatory Marriage Bill’., 9 July 2015 (accessed 29 Sept. 2015).

98 Ibid.

99 Thawnghmung, ‘The politics of indigeneity in Myanmar’, p. 535.

100 Nyan Hlaing Lynn and Oliver Slow, ‘Mixed results at latest Panglong Conference’, Frontier Myanmar, 30 May 2017.

101 Ibid.

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