Why Have Indigenous Beliefs Survived Despite the Penetration of World Religions in Southeast Asia?
At the height of its power between the eighth and fifteenth centuries, a united Muslim Empire included all North Africa, Sicily, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, western Arabia, and southern Spain. From the tenth century CE Islam was subsequently brought to India by a similar moment of conquest and conversion, and its dominant political position was confirmed when the Mughal dynasty was established in the sixteenth century. The chronology of Islam’s arrival in Southeast Asia is not known exactly. From at least the tenth century, Muslims were among the many foreigners trading in Southeast Asia, and a few individuals from Southeast Asia traveled to the Middle East for study. In the early stages of conversion, trade passing from Yemen and the Swahili coast across to the Malabar Coast and then the Bay of Bengal was also influential, as well as the growing connections with Muslims in China and India. Muslim traders from western China also settled in coastal towns on the Chinese coast, and Chinese Muslims developed important links with communities in central Vietnam, Borneo, the southern Philippines, and the Javanese coast. Muslim traders from various parts of India (e.g. Bengal, Gujarat, Malabar) came to Southeast Asia in large numbers and they, too, provided a vehicle for the spread of Islamic ideas. As a result of its multiple origins, the Islam that reached Southeast Asia was very varied. The normal pattern was for a ruler or chief to adopt Islam—sometimes because of a desire to attract traders, or to be associated with powerful Muslim kingdoms like Mamluk Egypt, and then Ottoman Turkey and Mughal India, or because of the attraction of Muslim teaching. Mystical Islam (Sufism), which aimed at direct contact with Allah with the help of a teacher using techniques such as meditation and trance, was very appealing.
When pushed on the point, however, India will acknowledge the `existence of scheduled tribes, defining them as people yet to be assimilated into the national society. In Thailand, many Indigenous Peoples are issued tribal identity cards that severely restrict their movements, and are denied citizenship rights. In Indonesia, the only concessions to `indigenousness' relate to customary law or Adat, but the concession extends only to areas under cultivation or occupancy. East Timorese are often referred to by their supporters overseas as `indigenous', but the categorization does not extend to their brethren in West Timor. The whale hunters of Lembata or the Toraja of Sulawesi do not claim to be original peoples, but, as distinct cultural groups, they are struggling to uphold traditions in the face of an unsympathetic government that views them as backward and irrational; as seekers of self-determination, they fall easily into the category `indigenous'. Can Christian South Moluccans in exile in Holland, or members of the Islamic breakaway movement in Aceh also benefit from such self-description? This issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly focuses on Myanmar (Burma), a country that presents a fairly typical case for `Indigenous' Peoples in Asia. `Indigenous' status is ascribed to Burma's 135 ethnic minorities by those sympathetic to their cause, but the terms `indigenous', `tribal' or even `ethnic minority' are considered offensive to many representatives of such groups as the Kachin or Buddhist Mon. The idea of being associated internationally with such marginalized isolates as Amazonian Indians or Andaman Islanders is also deemed inappropriate by the four million Karen who view themselves as a nation and aspire to a strong system of federalism within the Burmese state. However, for the ruling Burmans, talk of federalism is linked with tribalism and is rejected as "evil separatism," and advocates are lambasted for "possessing a colonial mind." (Smith 1995)
Religious traditions are transformed by this increasingly small world, influenced by economic and political change, new media, and altering social expectations. Core religious beliefs and practices will continue to change, as living cultures do, in the future.
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Colchester, M. (1995). "Indigenous Peoples' Rights and Sustainable Resource Use in South and Southeast Asia" in R.H. Barnes, A. Gray, and B. Kingsbury, eds/. Indigenous Peoples of Asia. Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies.
Kambel E.R. and Mackay F. (1999). The Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Maroons in Suriname. Copenhagen: IWGIA Document No 96.
Smith, M. (1995). "A State of Strife: The Indigenous Peoples of Burma" in R.H. Barnes, A. Gray, and B. Kingsbury, eds. Indigenous Peoples of Asia. Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies.