Chiang Mai, Thailand – “Consolidating the Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders Network for the defense of the rights of Indigenous Peoples”, was the theme of a recently concluded regional training of indigenous peoples human rights defenders, held from August 24-27, 2014 in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The four-day training was organized by the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, under its project supported by the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, which aims to strengthen the Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders Network (IPHRD Net) in Asia to be able to respond to urgent human rights issues of indigenous peoples in the region.
The twenty-one participants comprised of indigenous men and women human rights defenders from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, and Thailand representing 17 indigenous organizations.
IPHRDS as victims of human rights violations
While the political situation of the countries where the participants came from varies, the exchange among the participants highlighted common issues of indigenous peoples and their defenders who become victims themselves of human rights violations.
Two days before the training, Manobo leader Genasque Enriquez of southern Philippines was arrested for allegedly a case of frustrated murder, the latest in a series of trumped up charges filed against him since 2012. He was arrested after attending a press conference to send off a delegation from his region who were to attend the church-backed People’s Initiative congress against the pork barrel system in the Philippines. Enriquez was freed on bail a day after his arrest.
The forced disappearance last April 17, 2014 of Porlagee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a Karen human rights defender in Thailand, is very fresh in the minds of indigenous peoples as he has not yet been surfaced. Billy was last seen when he was detained by the Chief of the Kaeng Krachan National Park, purportedly for being in possession of 6 bottles of wild honey. In a recent court ruling, the court dismissed the charges against the National park chief upholding his claim that he released Billy before he disappeared. Billy is at the center of the struggle of the Karen indigenous peoples whose homelands are within the Kaeng Krachan National Park. The Karen indigenous peoples have been continually being forced out of the park and have been fighting a legal battle in court for their rights to their territories that are declared part of the national park. At the time of his detention, Billy is believed to have been in possession of some documents showing some illegal activities in the park.
Ukhrul District in Manipur, North East India, has been heavily militarized since July 13, 2014, following the killing of an Autonomous District Council member by unidentified gunmen on July 12th. Despite civil society assessment that the situation was under control, the government has suspended freedom of movement and association in and around Ukhrul town and deployed hundreds of Manipur Police Commando (MPC) and Indian Reserved Battalion (IRB). In the letter to the Home Minister of India read by Chingri Vashum of the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights, “the suspension of freedom of movement and association based on the apprehension of public nuisance and disturbance of public tranquility” is utterly baseless and is a matter of serious concern. It is causing harm to the social, economic and mental health of the people in and around Ukhrul District Headquarters.” The tense situation in Ukhrul is akin to militarization and human rights violations happening in other parts of Assam, Manipur and other parts of Northeast India by virtue of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law that intends to quell the Naga insurgency. It empowers state authorities to declare any area covered by the law to be declared as “disturbed areas” thereby requiring the aid of armed forces who are granted unfettered powers to shoot, arrest and search even based on mere suspicions.
These violations against IPHRDs and their communities is an increasing phenomenon in all Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines and Thailand. Armasyah Dore, a participant of the Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara in Indonesia, said, “ It is my first to meet indigenous peoples from other countries, and one thing which impressed him the most is that now I can see that we all face the common problems. It would therefore be important for us to continue this sharing so that we can learn from our experiences especially in taking action so that our issues will be addressed.”
Defending Indigenous Peoples Rights
With this backdrop, the participants resolved to step up their campaigns and advocacies to address human rights violations and advance their assertion of their rights as indigenous peoples through building and revitalizing country networks of indigenous peoples human rights defenders. Further, they restructured the Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders Network as their common platform for solidarity, collaboration, coordination and support among indigenous human rights defenders and their organizations.