The Indigenous World 2021: Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established on 8 August 1967 with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) by its founding member states: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Brunei, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam and Myanmar later joined, making ASEAN a 10-member state institution.

The ASEAN Charter was adopted in November 2007 and came into force in December 2008. It is the legally binding agreement among the member states that provides ASEAN with a legal status and institutional framework.

ASEAN’s fundamental principles, more commonly known as the “ASEAN Way”, are founded on non-interference, respect for sovereignty and decision-making by consensus. Although lauded by the ASEAN member states, this principle has been considered a major challenge in moving things forward in ASEAN, particularly within the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC).

Despite having around 100 million people identifying as Indigenous in Southeast Asia,[1] Indigenous Peoples and human rights are “sensitive” topics in ASEAN, especially within the AICHR. As such, the issues involving Indigenous Peoples’ human rights defenders (IPHRDs) rarely make it to the discussion table.

ASEAN member states and COVID-19 pandemic

Our struggle for self-determination and recognition has continued for centuries. The world must take note, as these struggles are the struggles of us all. Affluence, spurred through the accumulation of natural resources and wealth, propels environmental destruction that enable zoonotic diseases – such as COVID-19 to proliferate and spread across the world. As the stewards of our territories, defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples is an act of defending all the natural world, both humans and non-humans. Gam A. Shimray, Secretary General of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP)

Since the identification of the first COVID-19 case in Wuhan, China in December 2019, in addition to the unprecedented health crisis imposed by it, it has also exposed the world to the inability of its existing system to respond to such emergencies. This unprecedented health crisis poses many challenges that have an impact on the social, political and economic landscape: a looming economic recession and worsening human rights situations fuelled by structural inequalities and discrimination. Bearing the brunt of these are the marginalized sectors across the world, including Indigenous Peoples, as COVID-19 poses new threats to their health and survival.

ASEAN members were affected by COVID-19 early in 2020. Thailand identified its first case on 13 January 2020. As of 10 January 2021, the cases recorded in the region had come to 1,653,685,[2] with Indonesia (828,026) having the highest number. The recent report[3] released on the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods confirmed that “exclusion of vulnerable groups from policy responses risks entrenching existing poverty and expanding the number of poor in ways that will be difficult to reverse”. The report also confirmed that the pandemic threatens to increase inequalities.

 There are pre-existing cooperative frameworks in place in ASEAN that include regional health security measures, and these could assist the cooperative effort for responses to containing global pandemics. With their overarching, “One vision, One Identity, One Community” motto, ASEAN cooperation has extended to include region-wide disaster responses, framed as “One ASEAN, One Response”.

Member states’ responses to the pandemic[4] are as diverse as they come, ranging from a strict lockdown in Singapore to “business as usual” in rural areas of developing countries with large informal economies such as Laos and Myanmar.

And yet member states have a long history of cross-border cooperation, forged through trade regionalization and economic integration. In the health sector, ASEAN cooperation has been infused into region-wide frameworks, including the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). Through these social-cultural pillars, ASEAN has since 1980 developed a basic platform for health security cooperation, as shown, for instance, through ASEAN-level responses to prior pandemics including SARS, H1N1 and MERS-CoV3.

 ASEAN member states whose economies rely heavily on tourism, manufacturing, international trade and labour migration have been hit hard by the pandemic, despite having put many protective mechanisms in place. The impact has disrupted the economy and health sectors, with severe impacts on the lives and livelihoods of peoples in the region as laid out in the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, adopted at the 37th ASEAN summit.[5] The framework emphasized the underlying effects on long-term development, including the possibility of reversing the gains in human capital development, poverty reduction, gender equality and empowerment, if the pandemic is prolonged.

Trapped in structural inequalities, Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately affected by the health crisis, making them very vulnerable. This is compounded by the fact that most of them have no recognition as Indigenous Peoples in their own countries. AIPP has been monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples across Asia, as well as community and government responses to the health crisis. According to AIPP, there are approximately 411 million[6] Indigenous Peoples living across Asia, facing an array of vulnerabilities due to COVID-19. Indigenous Peoples in most parts of Asia were already in a precarious situation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the shrinking of the democratic space in Asia over the last few years, which has made it increasingly difficult to ensure their rights to lands, territories and resources. Worse, it has also resulted in a backtracking on existing protections for Indigenous Peoples and their lands, as well as increasing violence against, killings and criminalization of land and environmental activists across the region.[7]

ASEAN’s policy response to COVID-19

ASEAN’s response to COVID-19 commenced officially on 15 February 2020 with the Chairman’s Statement entitled “ASEAN’s Collective Response to the Outbreak of the 2019 Coronavirus”.[8] The statement highlighted the need to strengthen coordination of national and regional efforts to ensure ASEAN’s readiness and responsive measures to mitigate and subsequently eliminate the threat of COVID-19. In addition, the statement provided that the people should be “rightly and thoroughly informed on the COVID-19 situation”.

In ASEAN, since February 2020, member states have initiated various types of economic stimulus packages to mitigate outbreaks across the region. There are several common measures that have been taken, such as tax incentives for affected businesses; subsidies, such as cash assistance and discounts on electricity bills for workers plus additional incentives for frontline workers, particularly in the health sector; deferred tax or loan payments; and indemnity from or lower government fees and charges.[9]

 The ASEAN Economic Ministers issued a statement on collective action when they gathered at Da Nang, Vietnam, on 10 March 2020 to discuss strengthening ASEAN’s economic resilience to the pandemic.[10] Actions included keeping the markets open, sharing and coordinating regional information, working closely with stakeholders in Southeast Asia to promote tourism and investment, and using technologies to maintain long-term supply chain resilience and sustainability. Unfortunately, Indigenous Peoples were not taken into account or fully included in the planning, consultation or outcomes in any of these ASEAN response plans.

In April 2020, the ASEAN Health Minister (AHHM) convened a video conference among member states (chaired by Indonesia's Health Minister) aimed at scaling up regional cooperation with various stakeholders and stepping up measures to mitigate the spread of infection between countries. At the meeting, national delegates reached agreement on the need to: (1) strengthen regional cooperation on risk communication to avert misinformation and the dissemination of fake news; (2) continue sharing information, research and studies in an open, real-time and transparent manner; (3) coordinate cross-border health responses by scaling up the use of digital technology and artificial intelligence for efficient information exchanges; and (4) institutionalize preparedness, surveillance, prevention, detection and response mechanisms of ASEAN member states with global partners.

Ratified on 14 April 2020, the 2019 Declaration of the Special ASEAN Summit on Coronavirus Disease outlined seven key measures that were agreed upon by member states as a basis for strengthening future forms of cross-border cooperation. Only measure four mentions vulnerable groups so it is unlikely that Indigenous Peoples will benefit significantly from these agreed measures. The measures include: (1) further strengthening public health cooperation measures to contain the pandemic and protect people; (2) preserving supply chain connectivity; (3) cultivating multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral and comprehensive approaches to effectively respond to COVID-19 and future public health emergencies; (4) collectively mitigating the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic while safeguarding public well-being as a basis for (political) stability; (5) enhancing the transparent and public dissemination of important health and safety information via mixed media platforms; (6) providing appropriate assistance to support pandemic-affected nationals of ASEAN countries in third countries; and (7) reallocating existing available funds to support the establishment of the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund.

ASEAN launches rapid assessment of COVID-19’s impact on livelihoods

The ASEAN Secretariat’s Socio-Cultural Community Department partnered with The Asia Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Australian government to conduct a rapid assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods across its 10 member states. The report,[11] released in December 2020, assessed the impact of the pandemic on three key sectors: labour, social protection and education, with a view to what both the ASEAN regional institutions and national sectoral ministries can do to reduce the worst of those impacts and rebuild a region more resilient to future shocks. The analysis provided timely inputs to the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework. Indigenous Peoples were not mentioned in the analysis

The ASEAN People’s Forum 2020 was organized virtually from 5-7 November under the theme: “Southeast Asian People Solidarity for an Inclusive, Cohesive and Responsive Community”. A variety of issues were discussed, including peace and security, human rights and access to justice, ecological sustainability, digital rights, racial discrimination and religious extremism.

AIPP’s member organization Promotion of Indigenous and Nature Together (POINT) had the opportunity to host a workshop at the forum on ecological sustainability. The workshop addressed the deterioration in nature under the guise of “development” and under the banner of neoliberal capitalism, calling for recognition of Indigenous community actions and responses to protect, restore and manage our common natural resources. It also called out the imbalance and division of power sharing between grassroots / local communities and powerful actors responsible for decision-making based purely on vested interests. Other challenges highlighted included: 1) lack of recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights to land and territories and resources; 2) limited awareness and capacity among Indigenous Peoples to assert their rights in policies and programmes; and 3) government agencies using pandemic emergency and stay-at-home orders as an opportunity to continue and increase atrocities against Indigenous Peoples, including so-called climate action initiatives that fail to safeguard Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

On 18 March, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) initiated a USD 6.5 billion initial relief package for its member states.[12] The package was aimed at protecting the poor, vulnerable and wider populations across the region, and ensuring that economies will rebound as swiftly as possible. Based on the AIPP Response and Communication Network on COVID-19, AIPP members have yet to report that they have benefitted from the initiative.

Given the lack of official disaggregated data concerning Indigenous Peoples,[13] Indigenous organizations such as AIPP have been reporting their on-the-ground situation.[14] Reports from the ground suggest there has been a large and disproportionate impact on Indigenous Peoples in the region. Those that have access to land and Indigenous food systems have adopted traditional lockdown practices and have coped better than other communities that rely directly on markets.

A report published by FORUM-ASIA and the Solidarity for ASEAN Peoples Advocacy (SAPA) found that ASEAN member states had neglected their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights when tackling COVID-19. Member states have repressed human rights, democracy, civic space and fundamental freedoms, using the pandemic as an excuse to implement more stringent and authoritative measures[15] and wide-scale and arbitrary use of surveillance.[16]

The policies are also further exacerbating the public health risks of marginalized populations, including women, the homeless, people living in poverty, Indigenous groups, and LGBTQI.[17]

What is missing in the current recovery framework[18] is a concrete approach to prohibit, prevent and eliminate all forms of discrimination and human rights violations in the region, which have persistently hindered vulnerable groups and human rights defenders from participating in policy-making and gaining benefits from any ASEAN intervention related to the pandemic.

COVID-19 has, to a certain extent, been treated as a collective problem, and the responses at the ASEAN level have been limited to communication exchanges and information sharing among member states on infection statistics and response updates. Coordinated efforts and collective action are needed to prevent and eliminate the spread of subsequent waves of the pandemic and to provide financial and technical assistance to member states that lack adequate health facilities, services and expertise.

The implementation of the ASEAN recovery framework must identify vulnerable groups, including Indigenous Peoples, and consult them on their needs and aspirations for being included in the plan.


Frederic Wilson is a member of the Dusun Putih Indigenous people in Sabah, Malaysia. He has previously worked with Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia, especially Sabah State. He is currently working as Human Rights Campaign and Policy Advocacy Programme Officer for Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact. Email address: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Guangchunliu Gangmei is a Naga Indigenous woman from Manipur, India. She is currently working as a Programme Coordinator for the Human Rights Campaign and Policy Advocacy Programme. She has primary interests on the subjects of Indigeneity, Indigenous Peoples’ Movements, Indigenous Data Sovereignty, Land Rights and Indigenous Human Rights Defenders. Her interest is also in understanding the multiple marginalities experienced by people from diverse social and gendered identities. Contact email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


 Notes and references

[1] Two-thirds of the approximately 411 million Indigenous Peoples in the world live in Asia but no accurate data is available on their population in the ASEAN region as few member states consider their Indigenous identities which are, therefore, not taken into account in national censuses.

[2] Chua, Yvonne T. “COVID-19 in Southeast Asia: The Numbers.” Reporting ASEAN, 2020.

[3] The ASEAN Secretariat. “ASEAN Rapid Assessment: The Impact of COVID-19 on Livelihoods across ASEAN.” 23 November 2020.

[4] Djalante, Riyanti, Laely Nurhidayah, Hoang Van Minh et al. “COVID-19 and ASEAN responses: Comparative policy analysis.” Progress in Disaster Science 8 (2020).

[5] The ASEAN Secretariat. “ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework.” 2020, p. 13. Accessed 11 March 2021.

[6] Luithui- Erni, Shimreichon. “Status of Indigenous Peoples' Lands, Territories And Resources In Asia.” Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, Chiang Mai: AIPP Printing Press Co., Ltd, 2019, p.6. [online]

[7] Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact. “Statements.” 2021.



[9] ASEAN. “ASEAN Policy Brief.” April 2020.


[11] The ASEAN Secretariat. “ASEAN Rapid Assessment: The Impact of COVID-19 on Livelihoods across ASEAN.” 23 November 2020.

[12] Asian Development Bank (ADB). “ADB Announces $6.5 Billion Initial Response to COVID-19 Pandemic.” 18 March 2020.

[13] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “COVID-19 and indigenous peoples.” 9 August 2020.

[14] Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact. “COVID-19 Response.” 1 April 2020.

[15] ASEAN and FORUM-ASIA. “COVID-19 in ASEAN: the Human Rights Crisis and How to End it.” June 2020.

[16] wide-scale and arbitrary use of surveillance.

[17] ASEAN and FORUM-ASIA. “COVID-19 in ASEAN: the Human Rights Crisis and How to End it.” June 2020.

[18] FORUM-ASIA. “Adopt Human Rights Based Approach to Comprehensive Recovery Framework on COVID-19.” 12 November 2020.

Tags: Global governance



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