Defining indigenousness in Burma context: The case of Kokangnese

Just recently, on 26 May, a piece of interview,  conducted by The Irrawady with the spokesperson of Ethnic Affairs Ministry and Deputy Secretary U Aye Min, concerning the view of being an indigenous people said: “Kachin, Kayah (Karenni), Karen, Chin, Mon, Bamar, Arakan, Shan, including other sub-ethnic groups(races) are explicitly indigenous peoples. Some even think Bamar is not indigenous. No, Bamar is also indigenous.”
A map showing the location of Burma's Kokang region. Graphic: RFA
A map showing the location of Burma's Kokang region. Graphic: RFA
He added: “Indigenous (peoples) are those that have resided in Myanmar, as their country of origin, for hundreds of years. To be frank, the Chinese moved over to Myanmar and no matter how long they stay, they are not indigenous. They have their original country, that is China. They cannot consider our country to be their own. They might become citizens but not indigenous. This has been clearly mentioned in the law.”
Question arises if U Aye Min's stand point of the Chinese living within Burma is also meant to include the people of Kokang or Kokangnese, who are descendants of Han Chinese, but have been living in Shan State since the middle of 16th century, ruled by their own princely ruler or Sao Hpas. And so do many pockets of Chinese dwellings within Shan State that either have migrated since pre-colonial times and don't have the privilege of being included formally like those of Kokangnese.
Let us ponder on U Aye Min's point of view, even we are not quite sure, if this is the official government policy on all Chinese population residing within the country, and look a bit deeper from the indigenous perspective of the Kokangnese in particular.
The Kokang region and Kokangnese
Kokang is located in the northern part of Shan State, with the Salween River to its west, and sharing a border with China's Yunnan Province to the east. Its total land area is around 10,000 square kilometres and its capital is Laukkai.
“It is said that the Kokang Chinese are descendants of late Ming dynasty immigrants and that they are ‘Han Chinese’. They have been recognized as one of the major ethnic groups in Myanmar since the beginning of the 1960s. Most of them are Yunnanese immigrants. Some families’ records show that they have been living in the region for more than fifteen generations,” according to an in-depth study written by Myint Myint Kyu, an academic who is originally a Kokangnese herself.
Historical timeline of Kokang 
  • During the period of late Ming Period (1623–1662), the followers of the late Ming Prince, Yong Li, were driven out of China. In search of a safer place to restart their lives, some arrived in the mountainous areas of northern Shan State and settled down.
  • Yang Family Rule and the British Colonial Period (1670–1948), the Kokang area, being far from both the Chinese and Burma central governments, was ruled in part by various highland chiefs, while the Kokang Chinese came under the rule of Yang, who was one of the late Ming Prince’s advisors.
  • In 1739, when bandits along the Salween River raided the villages, Yang Zheng Cai, Yang’s son, took a lead and attempted to protect the villagers from the bandits. Following this incident, villagers came to respect Yang Zhen Cai and acknowledged him as their leader.
  • Yang Zhen Cai also introduced an organized administration and set government standards, which were to be followed by successive ‘House of Yang’ The House of Yang maintained an unbroken line of hereditary rule over the region, which lasted for nearly 250 years.
  • Several years after the British annexed Upper Burma in 1885, the area was incorporated into British Burma (then a part of British India) under the Anglo-Chinese Treaty on 4 February 1897, although almost all its inhabitants were Chinese of Yunnanese origin.
  • Before the British arrived, the Burma–China border was not clearly defined and no official border line existed until 1962.
  • China Nationalist Party Era (1935–1950s), the population of Chinese migrants in Myanmar increased after the World War II, especially from Yunnan Province, with many Kuomintang (KMT) remnants settling in Kokang after Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT was defeated by Mao Zedong in 1949.
  • Recent Migration (1978–2009), the Kokang region had an estimated population of 200,000 in 2010, compared to an estimated 50,000 in 1953 (Upper Burma Gazetteer). The migration of Chinese people into Kokang since the 1980s has had the most visible effect in terms of the development of the region. The population grew significantly between the 1870s and 2010, and it has been estimated that 90 % of the current population in Kokang are Chinese, with the Chinese population growing both in absolute and in relative terms up to 2010. (Source: Kokang: The Rise of the Chinese Minority—the New Neo-Liberal State? By Myint Myint Kyu)
According to the study, “Shan statistics on Kokang State show that there were 600 villages in the Kokang region when the British colonized the area, of which five were Shan, ten were Palaung, 30 were La or Wa, 50 were Miaozi, 50 were Shan Chinese and the remaining 450 were Chinese. However, an inspection of the district by British officials in 1892 gave a figure of 138 Chinese villages, with 1993 households, across the whole region.”
Legal Status
In 1958, the central government sent many officials to the remoter areas of Shan State and set up immigration departments for people to register and be issued with national identity cards. The Kokang people were classified into different categories as follows:
  1. Chinese living in Kokang since the Myanmar Kingdom period; those who are descendants of refugees from the late Ming dynasty;
  2. Chinese from China who migrated to Kokang before the World War II;
  3. Chinese from China who migrated to Kokang after the political changes occurred in China;
  4. Descendants of the above-mentioned Chinese.
UN criteria of being indigenous
According to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues & Department of Public Information Factsheet, the question of being indigenous is defined as follows:
Understanding the term “indigenous”
Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by any UN-system body. Instead the system has developed a modern understanding of this term based on the following:
  • Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
  • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
  • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
  • Distinct social, economic or political systems
  • Distinct language, culture and beliefs
  • Form non-dominant groups of society
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.
A question of identity
  • According to the UN the most fruitful approach is to identify, rather than define indigenous peoples. This is based on the fundamental criterion of self-identification as underlined in a number of human rights documents.
  • The term “indigenous” has prevailed as a generic term for many years. In some countries, there may be preference for other terms including tribes, first peoples/nations, aboriginals, ethnic groups, adivasi, janajati. Occupational and geographical terms like hunter-gatherers, nomads, peasants, hill people, etc., also exist and for all practical purposes can be used interchangeably with “indigenous peoples”.
  • In many cases, the notion of being termed “indigenous” has negative connotations and some people may choose not to reveal or define their origin. Others must respect such choices, while at the same time working against the discrimination of indigenous peoples.
Is Kokang indigenous?
 Seen from the point of UN Factsheet, the Kokangnese might be considered as being an indigenous group.
In the Myanmar government categorized 135 races, Kokang people is included and even has been given a Self-Adminstartion Zone. Apart from this, Kokang had been part of the Federated Shan States formed in 1922, under the British rule, completed with its own ruler Saohpa or Sawbwa. Thus the place of the Kokangnese couldn't be in doubt.
Coming back to the Kokangese being indigenous, the fact that the acceptance of the community of their self-identification; historical continuity and settlement since pre-colonial times as settlers; strong link to said territories; distinct social, language, culture, beliefs, economic or political systems; form a non-dominant group within the society; and resolving to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities; all indicated that it has been and is a bona fied indigenous group in every sense of the words.
If this is so, the spokesperson of Ethnic Affairs Ministry and Deputy Secretary U Aye Min's statement that Chinese are not indigenous should clearly differentiate that the Kokangese, although of Chinese descendent, are indigenous, including those that have been there since colonial and pre-colonial times.
This kind of clarification would go a long way not to discriminate the ethnic Chinese, either Kokangnese or other Chinese population who are citizens and have a long line of ancestral linkage since pre-colonial times, even before the modern Burma came into existence in 1948.


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