This discussion paper traces the evolution of the concept of indigenous peoples in the UN system and aims at giving a better understanding of why the concept of indigenous peoples is relevant in an Asian context.
Due to the lack of a definition of ‘indigenous peoples’ and the fact that the concept is often interpreted into a context of Western settler colonialism the concept remains contested in most Asian countries.
Taking the controversy over the definition of the concept of indigenous peoples as point of departure the paper shows that at a point in time the concept was considered coterminous with ‘tribal peoples’ and in many cases this still holds to be true.
The paper also shows that the experience of colonization is core to what constitutes indigeneity, but that in Asia colonialism it is not just confined to the Western colonial era, but that it predates it and, above all, that it is continuing in the form of internal colonialism to this day.
It concludes by arguing that while resistance to and withdrawal from the state have been strategies chosen by tribal peoples to retain autonomy for centuries, this has become increasingly difficult today and that identifying as indigenous peoples and invoking international human rights instruments such as the UNDRIP are part of the new strategy of these peoples to preserve their identity and self-determination.
The discussion paper helps to understand why the concept of indigenous peoples is indeed relevant for Asia since many Asian governments still deny the applicability of the concept of indigenous peoples to their countries. By denying the applicability of the concept countries also deny the applicability of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), even though the UNDRIP was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007 by a vast majority of votes.