South East Asia has a rich tapestry of numerous tribes, clans, ethnic groupings living together in some of the most densely populated countries that make up the region. South East Asia’s history has been one of migration from distant lands of ‘outsiders’ who over a period of time came to rule over the lands and became majority populations. In this narrative, the original habitants of the lands became marginalized and most retreated to secure sanctuaries deep into the jungles of South East Asia or managed to hold on to some small pieces of territory.

When South East Asia came under Western colonial rule the indigenous people were further marginalized and on regaining independence these indigenous people continued to suffer marginalization, living off the fringes of society. Rapid globalization and wasteful government practices saw their habitats shrinking alarmingly prompting the United Nations to issue a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. This essay examines with examples, the actions taken by various South East Asian governments in affirming the rights of their indigenous people and whether any progress was made since the declaration.

The North Westernmost country in the South East Asian arc, Myanmar has numerous indigenous people who have been marginalized by the government. The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist Myanmar which is ruled by a brutal military regime. “Depriving the Rohingyas of food supplies, opportunities to farm and gaining education (Macan-Markar, 2009, 16)” is a standard tactic of the Myanmarese military who has not recognized the group as an ethnic minority since 1962. In recent months, the Rohingyas out of sheer desperation have tried to escape in boats to Bangladesh and Thailand.

The Thai military has instead committed further atrocities by towing out the refugees to sea in open boats with no engines, leaving them to die at sea. The UN declaration opens with the statement that “Affirming that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such…” (United Nations, 2007). However, no action till to date has been taken by the Myanmarese government to protect the rights of the Rohingyas.

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In fact, the Myanmarese government has paid no attention to the UN resolution and has instead stepped up their bloody repression and ethnic cleansing. For their part, the Thai authorities too have shown scant respect for Human Rights. The Akha, Karen, Lisu, Shan, Mien, Lua,Pa-long, Hhmong, U-raklawoy and Tai, represent some of the rich diversity of the 40 ethnic minority groups in Thailand (UNDEF, 2008). Since the UN declaration, the Thai authorities have taken concrete steps to honour the rights of their indigenous people.

The Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association (IMPECT) a local group along with UNDP and UNDEF have been spearheading the effort. The government authorities too have shown positive response by acknowledging the existence of their indigenous people. On 9 August 2007, the International Indigenous Day was observed for the first time in Thailand. Local Thai officials attended the function and during a festival of indigenous people, Thai officials presided over the function and its organization.

Thus the effect of the UN declaration has been positive in Thailand. Cambodia has 14 indigenous groups that make up just 0. 9 percent of the population. Belonging to two distinct linguistic families, the main groups are the Austronesian speaking Jarai and the Mon-Khmer speaking Brao, Kreung, Tampuan, Punong, Stieng, Kui and Poar. The majority Khmer people’s government had by law in 2001 agreed to grant collective land ownership to the indigenous people of Cambodia. However, in practice little has been done.

Amnesty International (2008) reports “Despite the legal protection for Indigenous Peoples, including in terms of land ownership, land grabbing, land disputes and development projects are escalating in the northeast of the country, from where an increasing number of forced evictions from land is reported” ( 1). This is having a deleterious effect on the ecology of the area. The mighty Mekong River that is the main ecological nerve of the region is getting increasingly clogged with logs felled illegally and habitats are being destroyed with loss of traditional livelihoods and knowledge.

Despite the UN declaration, little is being done on ground in Cambodia to safeguard the rights of the indigenous people. In Vietnam, the Khmer-Krom is an indigenous group whose lands have been forcibly seized by the Vietnamese government that continues to exploit them and marginalize them. The Khmer-Krom Federation (2007) states that “ since Vietnam signed the recent adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on September 13, 2007, it should show respect and implement the Article 26 of the Declaration” ( 7). Very little has been done till to date.

Indonesia perhaps offers the greatest problem for its government to really deliver on the rights of its indigenous people. This nation comprising of over 17, 000 islands with a geographic spread greater than continental United States has over 700 tribes in varying concentrations stretched across the country. The province of Papua has been at the receiving end of the Indonesian military for over 30 years. Papua is rich in minerals, fauna and flora. Its vegetation is of great importance to bio diversity of Indonesia. Papua together with the jungles of Kalimantan are the largest tree cover after Brazil.

They constitute the ‘green lung’ of the world, an organ that is slowly but surely dying. The rate at which logging, both legal and illegal is decimating the tropical canopy, not many years are left before the country suffers an ecological disaster. Indigenous people living in these forests are fighting a losing battle against vested interests that have the state’s backing. The World Council of Churches (2008) reports “Papuans still are subject to torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and unfair trials by the Indonesian authorities” ( 3).

The Asian Forum for Human Rights Development (2009) reported the use of excessive force “by Indonesian Police to evict the Sakal indigenous people from their tanah ulayat in Suluk Bongkal, Riau Province ( 2)” so that one of the world’s biggest paper producing company could take over their lands for use. This story is repeated with regularity all over Indonesia. So despite being a signatory to the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, Indonesia has a lot of ground to cover. Perhaps the most developed country with stable democratic principles in South East Asia has been Malaysia.

Of late however, Muslim conservatism is causing ethnic clashes between Muslims, Hindus and Christians of the country. Nevertheless, Malaysia has had a better record of protecting the rights of its indigenous peoples. The International Work group for Indigenous Affairs reports that peninsular Malaysia’s indigenous population is divided into “19 ethnic sub-groups officially classified for administrative purposes as Negrito, Senoi and Aboriginal Malay. They number 133,000, representing a mere 0. 7% of the national population” (2009, 1).

The Sabah area has over 30 sub groups and 28 indigenous groups are located in the island of Sarawak. According to World Resources Institute, Malaysia has 30. 6 % of total land under protection of biodiversity nomenclature, the highest in Asia which has an average of just 8. 3% (2006). Malaysia has tried to keep the forests and their indigenous peoples safe from the outside world. However, vested interests here too have encroached into the lives and livelihood of the Orang Asli or the original people. Illegal logging has been the bone of contention.

Though on paper, indigenous lands are protected by law, the states that comprise of Malaysia have not recognized the legal rights of the indigenous people to such lands. Since signing the UN declaration, Malaysia has been actively considering giving individual land rights to their indigenous people. Meanwhile the government continues to try and harmonize the needs of the indigenous peoples and the needs of the state as Kaur (2009) reports “Director Datuk Sam Mannan said RM27 million has been spent on establishing community forestry projects, allowing those who live in reserves to plant crops and trees” (1).

In Philippines indigenous people make up about 15 percent of the population. Despite colonialism, the indigenous peoples retained ways of life that reflect age-old environmental adaptations, emphasizing sustainability, coexistence, community consensus and collective effort (IWGIA, 2). The Cordillera peoples, the Negrito groups and the Mangyan live off the land practicing subsistence farming, hunting gathering and selling handicraft. The government has codified the Indigenous People’s Rights Act in 1997, which has remained an act on paper with very little implementation.

The steady march of globalization has seen the collusion of the state, multinationals and vested interests in Philippines encroaching upon indigenous lands. The uprising of the indigenous Muslim Moros of Philippines has been in response to this exploitation. A “Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)” (MoA) was to be signed on 5 August 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Koechler, 2008).

However, the Supreme Court of Philippines put an injunction on this important piece of legislation, peace therefore continues to elude the country. The narrative so far reveals that while many laws already existed in South East Asian countries prior to the Declaration of rights of Indigenous peoples, they were rarely put into practice. Interestingly, all South East Asian countries have signed the UN declaration. However, the mere signing of the declaration has not resulted in concrete action on ground.

This has been on account of conflicting priorities of the governments and those of the indigenous people. The indigenous people wish to maintain their way of life and have legal rights to their lands; the governments wish to use those very lands for the overall growth of their countries. At times, globalization and vested interests have ensured that the indigenous people have been denied their rights. The UN declaration of rights of indigenous peoples is a voluntary declaration and is not legally binding.

The efficacy of this resolution remains doubtful as four important countries have refused to sign it namely; the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand with 11 others abstaining. The lack of endorsement by the US is seen as cynical hypocrisy by many countries who therefore feel disinclined to take any concrete steps in the direction of affirmation of the rights of indigenous people. However, legal experts believe that over time this ‘voluntary’ declaration will gradually assume the character of universal acceptability and be included in the ‘customary’ law of the world polity and hence the declaration is a step in the right direction.


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