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Opinion

Evangelist's fatal exploits highlight threat to indigenous tribes

Asia's vulnerable peoples need protection for their own sake and as environmental guardians

A man with the Sentinelese tribe aims his bow and arrow at a helicopter on North Sentinel Island, a protected reserve.   © Kyodo

The world's indigenous communities are rapidly dwindling in numbers, with many classified as endangered, due to outsiders' encroachments and exploitation of their natural resources. Indigenous tribes often lose out in battles to defend their lands and cultures from mining companies, dam builders, oil palm planters, pushy evangelists and military forces.

Nowhere are these battles more apparent than in Asia, home to almost two-thirds of the world's indigenous populations. From the Philippines and Japan to Indonesia and Bangladesh, indigenous populations face mounting threats from discrimination and marginalization, forced assimilation or military repression.

Against this background, the unlawful, and fatal, expedition of a young American evangelist adventurer to a remote Indian island to convert an isolated tribe to Christianity has received wide international coverage, largely because his target was the world's last known pre-Neolithic ethnic group. The American's exploits have also highlighted India's lax internal-security controls and the threat to indigenous communities from interlopers.

John Allen Chau, the son of a refugee father who fled China during the Cultural Revolution and converted to Christianity in the U.S., is being lionized by some as a martyr in America's evangelical media. In truth, Chau -- sent by the U.S.-based All Nations missionary agency -- was a law-breaking intruder whose activities have imperiled the future of a tiny, highly endangered tribe known to the outside world as the Sentinelese.

The hunter-and-gatherer Sentinelese, with no direct contact with modern society, live in the primordial rain forest of North Sentinel, a rugged, Manhattan-sized island with spectacular white sand beaches. The island, like India's other tribal reservations, is legally off-limits to all, including Indians.

North Sentinel is part of India's Andaman and Nicobar island chain, which extends in an uneven line between Myanmar and Indonesia's Sumatra island. Located just northwest of the Strait of Malacca, this archipelago offers India control of a chokepoint that is China's greatest maritime vulnerability.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands are home to some of the world's most-endangered tribes. After the ravages of British colonial rule, when the archipelago's aboriginal communities were decimated, only some tribes still survive. Most of them, including the Sentinelese, are on the brink of extinction.

The Sentinelese, for example, now number fewer than 100, according to most estimates. On a nearby island, the vanishing Jarawa tribe -- one of the first to fall prey to British excesses -- serves as an example of how contact with outsiders can doom an indigenous community.

Secluded tribes have no resistance to outsiders' common diseases, and even a flu epidemic can wipe out an entire community. They have no prior exposure to pathogens that have become common in modern life, marked by use of antibiotics and a changing ecology of disease.

Chau, the young American, repeatedly trespassed on the forbidden North Sentinel Island to impose his religion on a tribe whose seclusion, like that of other such groups, is safeguarded under an Indian aborigines-protection law.

Media labels such as "primitive" and "Stone Age" for the Sentinelese are racist tags that conjure up a false image of murderous tribespeople. The Sentinelese, armed with bows and arrows, acted only in self-defense after the American interloper ignored their warnings to leave them alone and not return to their island, where, according to his admission, he was willing to risk his life to establish a "kingdom of Jesus."

Contrast the Sentinelese handling of the alien with punishments for unlawful activity or entry in the so-called civilized world: When Chau first intruded into their peaceful world, the Sentinelese did not subject him to U.S. President Donald Trump-type "catch and detain," a policy applicable to anyone entering the U.S. illegally. They let him go, as Chau acknowledged, with a warning not to come back.

Yet, over the next two days, an undeterred Chau, using a fishing boat and a kayak, repeatedly stepped ashore the island, disparaging it as "Satan's last stronghold," according to his own diary notes, released by his mother. The Sentinelese people's patience wore out and he was likely shot with a bow and arrow. His body was reportedly buried on the beach, in the way the tribe disposes of its own dead.

But even in death, Chau poses a potential threat to the Sentinelese because of the pathogens he may have brought.

More broadly, his exploits have spotlighted the ease with which he broke Indian laws and evaded onshore and offshore security. Although India's Coast Guard patrols the waters around North Sentinel, Chau -- in fisherman's disguise -- breached security without difficulty to make repeated forays into the island, as he described in a 13-page letter to his parents and friends.

Chau, instead of applying for a missionary visa, which India grants to those engaged in religious work, concealed his purpose and secured a tourist visa on arrival. Then, failing both to register with the local office for foreigners in the archipelago's capital and take out the mandatory permission under regulations meant to protect tribes and forests, he launched his mission just before the American Thanksgiving festival.

The gaps in India's internal security that Chau exposed have called into question the official system for safeguarding endangered tribes.

The archipelago's aboriginal communities are important to understand the genetic origins of Asia's populations. Studies, for example, have identified a genetic affinity between the Andaman islanders, Malaysia's tiny Orang Asli indigenous population and Melanesians. This jibes with a 2009 genome-wide study covering 73 Asian ethnic groups that reported that Asia's populations originated from one major migration flow from Africa via a southern route centered on the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

More fundamentally, at a time when climate change has emerged as a mortal threat to humankind, indigenous people's nature-friendly way of life, with its premium on maintaining balance between human needs and ecosystems, serves as an example to the world.

With their survival tied to ecosystem health, indigenous people respect nature as their teacher and protector. While the powerful 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami caused many deaths in coastal regions, Andaman's indigenous tribes escaped harm by relying on traditional warning systems and moving to higher ground in time.

Indigenous peoples now make up less than 5% of the global population but manage 80% of the Earth's biodiversity. Their role as guardians of biodiversity is critical to our search for more sustainable lifestyles.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author of nine books, is professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

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