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Asia Indigenous Hearing: McGovern Renews Call for More Active U.S. Embassies

Confronted with testimony of yet another vast continent’s atrocities against Indigenous Peoples, Rep. James McGovern again resorted to the potential role of U.S. Embassies in forging relationships with persecuted peoples.

The occasion was a July 26 hearing, held in Washington D.C, of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Indigenous Peoples of Asia—the third and final in a series on Indigenous Peoples. At previous hearings on Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and Africa, McGovern, D-Mass., the commission co-chair, had seized on the lack of U.S. Embassy relationships with marginalized Indigenous Peoples, and he found a similar pattern in Asian nations.

“I don't think there is a strong relationship yet" with the U.S. Embassy in India, said Rashmi Ekka, executive director of Adivasi Development Network.

"At least it would take away the excuse that 'no one has talked to us,'" McGovern said. But with U.S. Embassies in place the world over, and the plight of Indigenous Peoples overwhelming in their complexity and extent for any one agency of Congress, McGovern had identified a viable pathway for progress. He returned to the theme in closing. U.S. Embassy personnel should be "in the field" more with Indigenous Peoples, he said, and members of Congress who travel should "signal to governments" that they care about Indigenous peoples by meeting with them.

"Advocacy of peoples' rights doesn't always have to be confrontational," he added, in a nod to the evidence of government violence against Indigenous Peoples.

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There was plenty of that. "We are considered inhuman, barbarian" for living in the forest and consuming meat, Ekka said of the Adivasi. But nowadays as well, India's economic development priorities also threaten them. "Because Indigenous Peoples see that they aren't getting a good deal for their land that is being acquired," Adivasi advocates building small fortresses to occupy taken land and refuse to let the police or military enter, "and then there's an altercation."

Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said U.S. citizens simply haven't been exposed to the kind of nationalist military thinking in Asia that defines Indigenous Peoples as "almost inhuman," and so knowingly denies them any protection.

Senge H. Sering, president of the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan, said that in Pakistan the Baltistan language itself, let alone the people who are subject to dispossession for energy pipelines and expressways and indeed the full gamut of development purposes – in Pakistan the very Baltistan language "is considered profane."

In Burma, where energy pipelines, mega-dams and hydropower plants have led to the habitual confiscation of indigenous lands and the conscription of forced indigenous labor, the persecution of Rohingya, Karen and other Indigenous Peoples differs in degree. The Burmese military junta has been extreme in its persecutions, going back at least to 1978 and a military offensive against "foreigners." Since then arrest, confiscation, torture, rape, murder, and the denial of basic services have been deployed against indigenous "foreigners," according to Jennifer Quigley of U.S. Campaign for Burma. Of many "multi-ethnic" peoples in Burma (where indigenous is not a recognized concept), the Rohingya and Karen suffer most, she said in response to questioning.

Like McGovern, Quigley concluded that small steps matter against brutality. The Burmese government simply doesn't care what grassroots communities think, but international opinion carries some weight. International partnerships with the Rohingya, Karen and others remain critical, therefore, in "inching" toward progress in Burma, Quigley said.