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Indigenous Voices Are Missing From ASEAN

Future Forum's Sochea Pheap was published in The Diplomat on November 11th. Check out the original article here, and read it below!


The region is home to between 90 and 125 million Indigenous people. Their concerns need to be reflected in the bloc’s policies.

Southeast Asia is home to a significant number of Indigenous populations. Although it’s difficult to determine with precision the exact number – either because their identity is not recognized as Indigenous, or they are not counted in their national censuses – it is estimated that the region is home to between 90 and 125 million Indigenous people.

These are communities that have, throughout their history, maintained modes of production and lifestyles different from those of mainstream society, and who face increasing challenges due to rapid development, displacement, climate change, and a lack of recognition of their traditions and practices.

In light of the upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and related meetings, this moment is a useful one to consider how the bloc has contributed to these challenges throughout its history, and what it could do differently to mitigate the threats facing these communities.

Failures to Recognize and Protect Indigenous Rights

ASEAN, as an international organization that promotes economic and political integration through cooperation between its 10 member states, has been effective in creating a highly competitive trade bloc in the global market. But Indigenous communities too often have been negatively impacted by the forces of this market.

Indigenous populations have raised their voices numerous times to call attention to the fact that this process of regional economic integration has been tainted by grave violations of their rights.

At present, the main reasons behind most of the breaches of Indigenous rights are economic. Indigenous communities have raised concerns about how the elimination of tariff barriers and liberalization of investment and trade have facilitated large-scale projects that encroach on their land and threaten their traditional ways of life.

Many ASEAN member states’ strategies for economic growth center on the development of giant infrastructure projects that are very intensive in their use of natural resources. These projects have had a disproportionate impact on Indigenous lands, which are frequently rich in minerals and other sources of energy.

As of 2012, for example, roughly 60 percent of mining operations in the Philippines were taking place on Indigenous lands. These operations have mostly been carried out without the consent of the communities concerned. Operations like these have led to the gradual loss of Indigenous lands and pose a serious threat to the biodiversity of the land that remains in their hands, posing a threat to their livelihoods.

In Malaysia, after the forced relocation of 15,000 Indigenous villagers following the controversial Bakun dam project, the government of Sarawak state announced plans for 12 more mega-dams in its Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE). The SCORE project will generate cheap electricity for the expanding manufacturing industry, but an immense number of communities are expected to be displaced.

Exploitation and extraction of resources have long been a central concern of Indigenous Papuan activists fighting for independence from Indonesia. The ancestral lands of these communities have been subjected to harmful mining practices of the area’s metal and mineral deposits, but also more recently have experienced widespread forest clear-cutting and the subsequent planting of oil palms.

In Cambodia, large-scale extractive industries have long benefited from economic concessions, most of which threaten to deprive Indigenous peoples of their land and resources without the “free, prior, and informed consent” of the affected communities. The idea of “free, prior, and informed consent” gives Indigenous Peoples the right to accept or reject a project or any other form of intervention in their territories, and is a legal requirement widely provided for in international law but poorly respected in practice.

Apart from the material losses, many of these large infrastructure projects have had grave effects on the strong cultural ties of Indigenous communities to their land and have led to the loss of ancestral cultures and identities.

In 2012, for instance, Cambodia’s government approved the construction of the Lower Sesan 2 hydroelectric dam. Built on the Se San River in Stung Treng Province in northeastern Cambodia, the dam’s reservoir has inundated numerous villages and forced the relocation of thousands of people, many of whom have lived in the affected area for generations. The Bunong people, one of the 24 recognized Indigenous ethnic groups in Cambodia, are a group that has been particularly affected by the construction and operation of the dam.

Following a long process of relocation by the government, some villages had to agree to resettle in exchange for compensation. But in Kbal Romeas village, despite the land being entirely flooded, 52 Bunong households refused to move because they felt they could not abandon their ancestral domain. As a result, the community was subjected to a variety of pressure, including threats from the government, judicial harassment, and, most crucially, a lack of access to basic public services like clean water.

The Bunong are just one of Cambodia’s Indigenous communities, and their struggle represents just one part of the story of Indigeneity in the country. Indigenous peoples have lived primarily in the resource-rich northeastern provinces of the country, and where they have until recently represented the majority of the population. Many communities face the effects of projects that, like the Lower Sesan 2 dam, force them to witness the disappearance of their homelands.

While ASEAN member states see forests and other natural resources as resources to be exploited for economic gain, the region’s Indigenous communities live in forests and have traditionally relied on them for food, farming and medicine, as well as for their cultural practices and religious beliefs. Naturally, they don’t want to see their sources of life destroyed.

A Different Way Forward

Given the growing trend towards regional integration, Indigenous communities demand that ASEAN explicitly recognize our communities and protect our rights, but as it stands, ASEAN’s efforts towards the region’s Indigenous communities are inadequate. An explicit – and not misleading – recognition of Indigenous rights is the first step for the organization to begin a credible commitment to safeguarding human rights in the region.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) refers to Indigenous Peoples as “distinct peoples with inherent collective rights over their lands, territories and resources.” Even though all ASEAN member states voted in favor of the adoption of the UNDRIP in 2007, the bloc’s Charter does not make any reference to the recognition of the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Despite having made some advances in integrating Human Rights as part of its framework, ASEAN has strictly adhered to the principle of non-interference in the “internal affairs” of its member states. This fear of contradicting the actions of governments, especially on sensitive questions such as the conflict in Papua, prevents ASEAN’s mechanisms from being effective when human rights violations occur. In practice, all bodies created to safeguard human rights in ASEAN countries cannot act beyond simple “information centers.” The failure of ASEAN’s actions to combat serious human rights abuses has been the subject of worry for groups that, like Indigenous peoples, are more likely to suffer them.

Contrary to some assumptions, Indigenous Peoples are not opposed to economic development; they only demand that it be carried out in a way that is compatible with their land tenure and respectful of their collective rights. Economic growth and human rights are not antagonistic. Development can be both sustainable and inclusive, and to achieve this, Indigenous voices must be heeded.

People of the Bidayuh tribe, a people Indigenous to Malaysia's Sarawak state, take part in a street parade in their village to celebrate Gawai Dayak, a thanksgiving festival celebrating a good harvest year.

Credit: Depositphotos



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