By Robyn Marshall
Leoncio Sanic Simon is president of the Guatemalan peasant organisation People of Corn, or Achim Ixim. Achim Ixim was founded by Sanic and others in 1990 to help indigenous peasants who have been displaced from their homes by violence and the persecution of the army. The majority of its membership are widows whose husbands have "disappeared" or been killed.
Sanic came to Australia to attend the World Indigenous People's Conference on education, which was held in Wollongong in December.
"Our committee has been formed by men and women from different communities of Chimaltenango [north of Guatemala city and part of the so-called areas of conflict]. Violence and repression have taken away many of our loved ones. We have hundreds of orphaned children we need to take care of but we have very little resources", explained Sanic. "We have been forced to leave and stay in distant places in order to save the lives of our families."
Sanic told a meeting in Brisbane on February 1, organised by the Democratic Socialist Party, that education was the crying need of his people. The illiteracy rate in Guatemala is 75%. Sanic himself has never been to school. He had to teach himself Spanish language as well as learn to write his own language, of the Cakchiquel Mayan group, one of 23 indigenous languages in Guatemala.
"We have already lost several of our languages. We are especially looking for help for education. There has been little attention paid to the Mayan culture in our country. We want to recover that culture.
"An enormous amount of history has been lost in the last 500 years since the Spanish conquistadors arrived. Our Mayan culture was quite advanced in mathematics and astronomy. The Europeans have stolen a lot of our books, as well as sacred books of the Mayans.
"A number of archaeological riches and artefacts are locked away in foreign museums. We should have them here in Guatemala, but our government does not care about that. They continue to sell off ancient artefacts which are found buried."
At the World Congress of Indigenous Peoples, there were four representatives from Latin America, Sanic plus others from Peru, Chile and Ecuador. They got together and issued a four-page document on their demands; they all face similar problems in their respective countries.
"The main demands", stressed Sanic, "are land, health, education and employment. We really have to improve the living conditions of our peoples. We have to rescue our identity."
Sanic told the audience that the army is still herding people into so-called "centres of development". These are really concentration camps, under the total control of the army. The army does not respect human life, nor the rights of women or children.
There are fights between Congress and the president, and there are divisions within the government so that many indigenous people find the political situation very confusing. The constitution is violated every day, resulting almost in a state of anarchy. The country is still under the rule of the army and until the army is changed, nothing else will change.
"If there is no solution to the problems of indigenous people, there is no solution to the problems of the country", said Sanic. But due to international pressure and the spotlight after Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize, there is a small democratic opening, Sanic added.
There have also been attempts by the Guatemalan government at peace negotiations with the URNG, the National Guatemalan Resistance Movement. Talks began in 1992 over 11 agenda items or demands of the URNG. Very quickly, the talks stalled over the first point, which concentrated on human rights.
The URNG wanted the people responsible for the thousands of assassinations to be tried in a court of law and imprisoned if found guilty. The Guatemalan government refused to accept this, so the talks broke down. However, this year the peace negotiations are set to resume.
Sanic expressed the hope that solidarity, Christian and aid groups in Australia could help people here to understand the plight of indigenous people in Guatemala. For further information, contact the Committee for Human Rights in Guatemala, Box 337, Fortitude Valley 4006, or phone (07) 205 5527.