25 March 2021, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Over the decades, Asia has experienced rapid economic growth and the overall living standard of its population, lifting millions out of poverty. Yet, across Asia Indigenous peoples still belong to the most marginalized and impoverished sector of society.
Further, over the decades, Asia also experienced a transition towards democracy and protection of civil rights in some countries. These developments also impacted Indigenous Peoples positively. However, measuring successes and achievements can be challenging! Here, I share the key experiences of AIPP and our successes, and losses in the gains that we achieved in the implementation of programs in the last four years.
- The Philippines was the country championing the rights of Indigenous Peoples with its 1997 Act on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, when the new team of Executive Council took offices in 2017, as of June 2017, there were 229 approved mining applications in Indigenous territories covering more than 540,000 hectares of ancestral lands. The earlier government’s order for closures and suspensions, including cancellation of mining contracts remained unimplemented. Further, in 2018 Indigenous Peoples experienced intensified violation of their rights and continued attacks from the State. The National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples Organizations in the Philippines (KATRIBU) documented 183 cases of illegal arrest of Indigenous persons since July 2016. The trumped-up charges against those persons include murder and illegal possession of firearms and explosives and alleged association with terrorist organizations. Among those charged Indigenous leaders included the then UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, and former Secretary General of AIPP, Joan Carling, among others. The charges against the two were cleared later following an intensive international campaign but the situation has worsened during the pandemic.
- Indonesia was successfully transitioning to a parliamentary democracy, and after a long struggle, the law on Indigenous Peoples was recognised in 2018 and President Jokowi announced that the government has relinquished control over nine tracts of forest to the Indigenous communities. Earlier to this, in 2013, the highest court removed Indigenous Peoples’ customary forests from state control. The customary forests being returned to Indigenous Peoples remains slow and bureaucratic. But these are by no means trivial achievements made by Indigenous movements in Indonesia.
What is distressing though, is that during this pandemic, President Joko Widodo’s government passed the Omnibus law on 5th October 2020 to ease business licensing and extending a ban on traditional subsistence practices that use fire to clear agricultural lands. One of the most serious implication of the amendments within the Omnibus law is that it collides with Indonesia’s decentralization laws threatening to reverse the democratization process.
- In Malaysia, the opposition coalition, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) won the May 9, 2018 general elections. This was the first victory by an opposition coalition after 61 years of rule by the Barisan Nasional. Many hopes were ignited for reform by the PH coalition, but the government did not last. In less than two years, the new government is out, and the old ruling party is back in power. One of the reforms to be initiated included passing of an anti-discrimination law, a move by Indigenous Peoples which received support from a strong segment of CSOs. Towards this, the government made the move to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), but it was blocked. Nevertheless, Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia made small but significant gains. Community mobilizations continue to spread and even managed to stop large dams planned in Indigenous areas of Sabah.
- In Taiwan, after a national apology to Indigenous Peoples, Taiwan moved forward in setting up the “Transitional Justice Committee” comprising Indigenous representatives in 2017. Taiwan’s parliament also passed the “Indigenous Language Development Act” that grants official status to Indigenous languages and promote teaching and speaking of mother tongue, including use of mother tongue in court cases and judicial procedures. However, the recognition fell short of encompassing all the Indigenous Peoples, especially the low land Indigenous Peoples, and their political right to self-determination.
- In Japan, a new law was put into effect on May 24, 2019 recognizing the Ainu as the Indigenous People of Japan. In 2018, fierce debate took place before the law was passed because it was far short of the Ainu people’s aspiration. The law falls short of recognizing the political rights of the Ainu people and does not include other Indigenous Peoples of Japan.
- Nepal is the only State in the region to ratify the International Labour Organization Convention 169 as well as to adopt the UNDRIP. But the government is yet to adopt a National Action Plan to implement the Convention 169 even after a decade of its ratification. In Nepal, the nature and culture of politics is by and large highly centralized and racist. Community-level resistance against repression by the state is making a difference in many ways and giving hope to many Indigenous Peoples. For example, Yakthung, Tamu, Agar, Majhi and Tharu peoples have started their community-level resistance against repression.
Further, the Newa people started their movement against road expansion project from a small community. The government tried to legislate a Guthi Bill to regulate not only the endowment of Hindu temples, but also their customary self-government system-Guthi. Through a glorious display of collective Newa resistance, the government was forced to not only withdraw the Guthi Bill but also other repressive legislations, including a Bill to control the media and the National Human Rights Commission.
- In India, the historic Forest Rights Act of 2006 meant to address the historical injustices against Indigenous Peoples in the country is facing strong push backs. AIPP members and networks did secure some community land and forest rights and one of their leaders, even won an award for the organization’s remarkable work on the issue of trafficking of women under the outstanding leadership of Mamta Kajur. But such success stories are becoming rarer and political spaces for such possibilities has been reduced to small pockets of the vast country. India, which is supposedly the world’s largest democracy is in a deep crisis with the recent democratic backsliding in the wake of the rise of religious nationalism under a populist leader.
Further, the much speculated 23-year-old peace negotiation between the Government of India and the Naga people seems to be on the verge of crumpling with the issue of state sovereignty vs Indigenous sovereignty remaining unresolved, coupled with backtracking of commitments and trust deficit.
- Bangladesh is nominally a parliamentary democracy, but social and political relations are largely governed by traditional customs and mores. Bangladesh is in transition from a feudal governance system. Silencing of critics and journalists, and attacks on students and activists are not uncommon. The landslide victory in the 2018 elections seemed only to have embolden authorities in their crackdown against any opposers and activists.Access to justice has become more difficult and the government continued to deny enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and other violations by security forces.After 23 years since the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord (1997), the major provisions of the accord remain unimplemented. The stagnation in implementation of the Accord remains a source of despair, resentment and conflict with much bloodshed in the region. Physical attacks on Indigenous Peoples and sexual abuses against Indigenous women have become common with no exemplary case of justice against the alleged and identified perpetrators.
In a positive development, the government of Bangladesh produced teaching-learning materials for Chakma, Marma, Kokborok, Sadri and Garo students for Preprimary to grade III during 2017 to 2020 through the Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education (MTB MLE).
- In Thailand, democracy was restored with the elections held in 2019 but democratic institutions remain fragile. In 2019, several reforms on forest and national park policies were initiated with token participation from Indigenous Peoples and CSOs. However, in a new development, the drafting of two important laws under separate committees set up by the government have been initiated i.e., on the Promotion and Protection of Ethnic Groups (PPEG Bill), and on the Promotion and Prevention of Ethnic groups’ Livelihood (PPEL Bill) with the active involvement of Indigenous Peoples. In addition, AIPP members and network has proposed a new bill (CIPT Bill) specific to addressing their rights in the Parliament.
In a positive development, the Supreme Administrative Court in Thailand overturned the lower court’s decision in relation to the forced evictions and destruction of properties of Indigenous Karen villagers from the Kaeng Krachan National Park in June 2018. The decision recognized Karen people as original people living in the area which has for the first time provided an opportunity to overturn the government’s argument that Indigenous Peoples in the country are all immigrants from other countries.
- Cambodia has rapidly shifted towards autocracy and corresponding repression against Indigenous Peoples and citizens alike. The community land titling process had also come to a halt because of complications and conflicts contributing to the failure of the project. In 2020, the government indicated that it would resume the process with a 93 million USD funded by the World Bank. This current phase of the community land titling process will include Indigenous Peoples; however, they contest the project’s emphasis on individual titles as it is one of the main causes of conflict in the earlier phases. We rely our hope on the country-level alliance of Indigenous Peoples, the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance, and its members, which has been operationalized and actively leading the process in the Provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri with participation from other provinces as well. There has never been a mass drive for CLT led by Cambodian Indigenous organizations to date, therefore, the current initiative is promisingly being led by a united alliance in the country.
- Much has also happened in Laos and Timor Leste. In Loas, the government has closed down any CSOs (international and local) that they consider as a threat and has become major problem for AIPP to be present in any visible manner. In Timor Leste, the government has failed to address the rights of Indigenous Peoples and there is a need to re-build back the grassroots movement.
- Myanmar staged two national policy dialogues on the rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2017. The diverse stakeholders discussed formulating a participatory by-law for the Ethnic Rights Protection Law as well as a possible National Action Plan to support the UNDRIP implementation. The second draft of the by-law was under review by the Ethnic Affairs Ministry and Daw Aung San Su Kyi herself had expressed support for the initiative. In 2018, Myanmar saw the initiation of the much-anticipated National Land Use Council mandated to coordinate the drafting of the National Land Law based on the National Land Use Policy, which seeks to harmonize overlapping land policy. However, the subsequent panel meetings of the Council were overshadowed by the amendments to Vacant Fallow and Virgin Land Law and Land Acquisition Act which had serious negative consequences for Indigenous Peoples.
But what is nightmarish is the military coup on 1st February 2021 followed by nationwide mass protest with at least 149 people having been already killed according to OHCHR. All that we have gained, has been put at jeopardy and is at the risk of being razed to the ground.
The AIPP draft evaluation report states, “given the rapidly changing contexts, particularly around the ‘world’ of Indigenous People where they live in Asia, be it political, economic, employment, involuntary migration or climate change, the need for organisational and programmes ‘responsiveness and agility’ appear to be increasingly challenging situations”. The context of our work is like playing a juggler’s game where things are rapidly going up and down and our ability to balance and the capacity to act are tested and stretched beyond our ingenuity at times. As the evaluators are constantly looking for documented evidence of the impact of our work, it makes us realize that we are often lost in facing the shadowy situation and the stormy challenges. But we do find our way back and strive to improve.
I am often asked, what can AIPP achieve in this repressive political situation to make the investment worthwhile? The continuity of resistance is what we can achieve is my response! Indigenous Peoples have become well versed in countering repression because the yearning for freedom and peace is profound. The evident difference in the nationwide mass protest both in terms of scale and depth against the military regime in Myanmar from earlier military rules is only because of greater awareness of the value of freedom among the people.
It is another four years of collective history in the making for AIPP and people of different ages, men and women, youth and elders have contributed selflessly with a noble sense of sacrifice. With a sense of collective celebration, I would like to acknowledge the achievement of our following member and network organizations for their outstanding work:
- Mr. Mathura Bikash, Jabrang Welfare Association, Bangladesh, for receiving the International Mother Language Medal in 2021 for his work on preservation, revival and development of mother tongue and formulating educational curriculum.
- Ms. NK Keny, Indigenous Women’s Forum of North-East India, India, for receiving the 2020 India Inspiration Women Award, Social Services for Child and Women Empowerment; and for receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award Naga Woman Hoho; and the 1st Nagaland Red Carpet Social award in 2017.
- Ms. Mamta Kajur, Adivasi Mahila Maha Sangh, India, for receiving the state award in 2017 for her organization’s work on trafficking of women.
- Ms. Naw Ei Ei Min, POINT, Myanmar, for receiving the Women of Change Award in 2017 for making significant impacts and lasting contributions to the development of their communities by the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar.
Their achievements have strengthened our work at the local, regional and global levels. AIPP also received a Certificate of Recognition for its outstanding work on human rights in the Philippines in 2019. This award is not from any globally renowned institution, but we value it because it has come from the people in the last mile whom we hardly know. Because we want to make the voiceless see and feel that AIPP’s door is open and that AIPP stand for them. Evidence of impacts speaks for itself but many of the great work that people have contributed may also go unnoticed. However, in the end, it is about what is your takeaway and my takeaway that counts most because what we truly feel it in our hearts will determine the sustainability of an organization.
In the implementation of our work in the last four years, we have emphasized mainly four components i.e., movement building and unity building, co-responsibility, foundational leadership building, and distributive leadership. Why so? The reason is evidenced from the finding of the AIPP’s recent evaluation report and I quote them below.
Movement building, unity building, and co-responsibility:
“the reality on the ground presents massive difficulties and challenges for the AIPP secretariat team. Very deeply-rooted internal factionalism in some member countries have defied efforts at reconciling the local situation”
“many member organisations do not understand the meaning of co-responsibility or how they are to share in that responsibility. And how crucial it is to movement-building”.
Foundational leadership building, and distributive leadership:
“The Foundational Leadership construct implies the appreciation or an understanding of Indigenous leadership and an Indigenous leadership system. There are many questions to be answered by the movement and members if true Indigenous leadership is to be internalised and practised”.
“AIPP as such needs to transform more. It is good to see that there are more young people involved in issues relating to Indigenous peoples (largely because of their own networking or through AIPP). Still, we are told, we still see the same old people, the same names in the emails, who are going to the UN…Or applying to attend regional workshops”.
The report acknowledges that we are addressing them, but much is still to be accomplished.
In the last four years, AIPP has emphasized the leadership capacity development and strengthening of networks and coalitions of women and youth, and as acknowledged in the recent evaluation report, “AIPP has complied with this recommendation fully”. The report also points out that only recently has Indigenous People with Disability (IPwD) been in the focus of discussions and debate, and they have been visible in regional events. In this regard, the Nepal Indigenous Disabled Association (NIDA) was instrumental in making the voices of IPwDs heard not only in Nepal but at the regional and global level as well. NIDA’s leadership also contributed significantly to the advocacy of Indigenous Peoples in Asia.
The approach to distributive leadership has contributed to shared leadership across the region and is strengthening inclusiveness. The effort towards building an integrated Indigenous movement in Asia is beginning to yield results.
To initiate a bottom-up approach and build unity and co-responsibility among members and networks, AIPP conducted several country-levels reviews, assessments and consolidation processes in seven countries and one region (North-east India). The process has resulted in identification of common agenda and setting up of communication and coordination mechanisms at the country level in those countries along with responsible focal organisations in five countries for streamlining of AIPP activities among members and networks at the country level.
The consolidation and unity process were also initiated to prepare members and networks in facing the emerging political repression in Asian countries as acknowledged in the evaluation report, “AIPP nevertheless initiated serious reflection and consolidation on the ground. For example, if not for the consolidation and greater unity of the Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh, they could have been easily defeated in the face of heavy repression from the state that came about in the last quarter of 2019. This is a lesson Indigenous Peoples in other countries can learn from”.
At international levels, the draft evaluation report states “AIPP’s global and regional advocacy continues to be admired and acclaimed both by member organisations, donors and the regional and international agencies and bodies”. AIPP was involved in two ground-breaking achievements made under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for Indigenous Peoples – first, a Facilitative Working Group was established to fully operationalize the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform and, second, the Green Climate Fund adopted an Indigenous Peoples’ Policy. AIPP joined the global advocacy in solidarity with Indigenous brothers and sisters, allies and friendly governments in achieving the above outcomes.
AIPP also strengthened its environment program by reviving its work on biodiversity and is taking a lead role in the negotiation for the biodiversity framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) focusing on inclusion of a rights-based conservation approach and culture as a pillar in the biodiversity framework. And most significantly, AIPP has also established the Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples of Asia (IKPA) to promote a community-based network for community-to-community empowerment using Indigenous knowledge as their source of power and to promote community champions.
AIPP also actively took leadership on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, human rights mechanisms, processes relating to enhanced participation of Indigenous Peoples in the UN, and UN BHR. Using SDG 16 as a leverage, AIPP, along with allies, has managed to set the agenda on self-determination at the United Nations, and among members and networks at country level, for the coming years.
Rating of the implementation of AIPP’s Strategic Plan 2017-2020
Performance rating of Strategic Plan (2017-2020)
|Strategic Plan||Performance Rating|
|Goal/Objective 1: Empowerment of IPs|
|SO 1.1 Capacity building||5||4|
|SO 1.2 Advocacy at national level||5||4|
|SO 1.3 Advocacy at global level||5||5|
|Goal/Objective 2: Strengthening IP movement & solidarity|
|SO 2.1 Strengthening global/regional/national IP network & platforms||5||5|
|Goal/Objective 3: Natural environment & indigenous knowledge|
|SO 3.1 Revitalization of IP culture, knowledge & values||5||4|
|SO 3.2 Enhancing sustainable NRM system||5||4|
|Goal/Objective 4: Effective participation of women, youth & PwDs|
|SO 4.1 Awareness on rights of women, youth & PwDs||6||4|
|SO 4.2 Coalition & network of IP women, youth & PwDs||5||4|
|SO 4.3 Participation of women, youth & PwDs in national/global events||5||4|
|Goal/Objective 5: Strengthening AIPP’s governance & member organisations|
|SO 5.1 Strengthening coordination & collaboration of in-country member organisations||5||5|
|SO 5.2 Strengthening capacity of new EC||5||5|
|SO 5.3 Strengthening Secretariat capacity and leadership||5||4|
Rating: 6: Excellent/Highly satisfactory/Very high quality; 5: Very good/Satisfactory/Good quality; 4: Good/Moderately satisfactory/Adequate quality; 3: Fair/Moderately unsatisfactory/Less than adequate quality; 2: Marginal/Unsatisfactory/Poor quality; 1: Inadequate/Highly unsatisfactory / Very poor quality.
AIPP also continues to demonstrate in continuing and in generating good practices at the local, regional and global levels in the implementation of its activities as the evaluation report states, “The Strategic Programmes had generated numerous good practices during its four years…It is not the scope of the present evaluation to illustrate all the good practices”.
Gam A. Shimray
On behalf of the Executive Council
 See e.g. World Bank data of 2016 for India, where the national povery rate in rural areas is 25%, but 43% among Scheduled Tribes (http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/infographic/2016/05/27/india-s-poverty-profile). In Vietnam, the national poverty rate stood at 4.5% in 2015, but was above 50% in the northern mountains and Central Highlands, inhabited mostly by indigenous peoples (IWGIA 2016. The Indigenous World 2016, p. 297
 The Asia Foundation (2012) Strengthening Democracy in Bangladesh. Available at: https://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/OccasionalPaperNo11FINAL.pdf