The Indigenous World 2022: 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. The Member States of the Association are Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. The ASEAN Secretariat is based in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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, issues involving Indigenous Peoples’ human rights defenders (IPHRDs) rarely make it to the discussion table.

Indigenous women’s participation in the decision-making of ASEAN mechanisms

In ASEAN, there is a specific commission that addresses the rights of women - the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC). Its decision-making is based on consultation and consensus, in accordance with the ASEAN Charter. The commission is the intergovernmental body within ASEAN’s mechanisms designed specifically for women’s and children’s rights. It was established and created in 2010 in order to develop policies and programmes to benefit women and children in the countries that make up ASEAN. Under the ASEAN Political Security Community’s 1st Pillar,[2] the Joint Statement on Promoting Women, Peace, and Security in ASEAN was adopted by ASEAN Leaders at the 31st ASEAN Summit in 2017, drawing up three important milestones[3] through multisectoral efforts and partnership. These milestones include:

1) Establishment of the ASEAN Women for Peace Registry in 2018 as a creative initiative to mobilise resources and consolidate knowledge for capacity building and advocacy on a gendered approach to peace and conflict in the region.

2) Alignment of the efforts of the ASEAN Committee on Women, the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children and the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, which have been pivotal to ASEAN’s collective action in mainstreaming women’s rights and gender equality in peace and security.

3) ASEAN women military and law enforcement officers have also had a positive impact globally through their active participation in UN peacekeeping operations.

There are still limitations in terms of Indigenous women’s participation in ASEAN top-level decision-making, however, for example in the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC). This is because each ASEAN Member State can only send two representatives to the ACWC,[4] one on women’s rights and one on children’s rights. The representatives serve for three years and can serve two terms. The representatives meet twice a year.[5] The selection process for the commission thus goes through the internal processes of the ASEAN Member States and is supposed to be transparent, participatory and inclusive; however, there is no specific quota allocated to Indigenous women for this role. Indigenous women and civil society can nonetheless approach the representatives prior to meetings with issues they wish them to raise.

The ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) is committed to ensuring and safeguarding the well-being of women and children in “the new normal”,[6] which is a commitment made by the ACWC during its 23rd meeting, conducted virtually on 12 October 2021 with representation from all ten Member States to discuss harnessing the efforts of ASEAN amidst the coronavirus pandemic recovery process and promoting and protecting the rights of women and children. In order to achieve this commitment, it is vital that Indigenous women are included in the ACWC Work Plan 2021 – 2025.[7] Unfortunately, however, there is no mention of Indigenous women in the work plan. By the end of 2025, the ACWC should be more open to the participation of Indigenous women, even beyond organisations with consultative status or more than two participants attending their events.

On 14 September 2021, Indigenous women, women activists, community members, practitioners, and journalists from the Mekong[8] region and Asia region participated online in the Global South Women’s Forum 2021.[9] The Forum was convened by the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), Oxfam, the Network of Indigenous Women in Asia, GreenID Vietnam, Indigenous Women’s Network of Thailand (IWNT), Gender Development Association, Weaving Bonds Across Borders and Cambodia Indigenous Women’s Association. Important discussions took place on the global health crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic, where great opportunities for a joint agenda were present, and discussions on using a feminist approach to mitigate the destruction of ecosystems for a better planet and human life. Given local and Indigenous communities’ contribution to safeguarding their land, territories and resources, it was crucial to promote and protect recognition of their long struggles. The forum therefore urged achievement of the participation and representation of Indigenous women in decision-making by allocating quotas and giving them free choice to identify their representatives.

Important updates on Indigenous Women with a view to 2022

In 2022, Cambodia will be chairing ASEAN for the third time since it joined the organisation on 30 April 1999.[10] There will therefore be opportunities for civil society organisations, Indigenous Peoples’ organisations and peoples’ movements to gather through the ASEAN Civil Society Conference / ASEAN Peoples’ Forum 2022 and include the participation of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights defenders, Indigenous women, Indigenous youth, and so on.

In around September 2022, Oxfam US may organise cross-learning sessions globally on the rights of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights defenders - specifically for the Indigenous Women Defenders, to strengthen their connections or networks globally. This is to create more experts on Indigenous women’s issues from different regions.

In the meantime, opportunities still remain to engage with the five-year work plan[11] of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) 2021 – 2025 in their commitment to show responsiveness to the rights of the ASEAN people and promote regional cooperation around human rights promotion, contributing to the realisation of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025. This initiative will be linked to the ACWC initiative.

ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC) / ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF) 2021

From 15 to 17 October 2021, civil society groups, Indigenous Peoples and individuals convened the annual ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC) / ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF) online. More than 400 participants attended via Zoom and it was watched by more than 50,000 participants via Facebook live. The annual ACSC / APF initiative is aimed at sustaining an intersectional and cross-boundary community building among civil society organisations in South-East Asian countries, including Timor-Leste and at formulating and submitting recommendations to respective ASEAN Member States, ASEAN as a regional body, and the government of Timor- Leste in order to better address human rights issues during the COVID-19 pandemic and to support peoples, particularly vulnerable and marginalised groups, in the context of the pandemic.

Interventions from the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), and particularly from their partner Indigenous Peoples’ organisations in Myanmar, in collaboration with other CSOs from Timor-Leste and Lao PDR focused on the theme of “Environmental Justice, Land Rights and Climate Change”. A woman Indigenous human rights defender from Myanmar noted at the October 2021 ASEAN Civil Society Conference that:

Indigenous peoples (IPs) are agents of change in the face of climate change. They have rich ancestral knowledge in conservation and how to adapt to a changing environment. Moreover, IPs are also monitoring illegal logging and deforestation. Indigenous communities are nurturing a close relationship with their natural environment, which is intimately tied to their livelihoods.

The close relationship Indigenous Peoples nurture with the natural environment makes them particularly vulnerable to climate change. And yet they also represent key agents of change in the struggle against that global phenomenon. This has to be acknowledged and better documentation of Indigenous knowledge be produced. Women, youth, as well as persons with disabilities must particularly be included in the response to climate change.

Many countries within ASEAN are heavily economically reliant on small farmers, who have been particularly badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. This latter has highlighted the dysfunctional nature of our global capitalist economic system. Solidarity economies that benefit the common good and revolve around small peasants should be strengthened or revived. All issues (food security, climate change, land rights, etc) are connected. The conversation about food security cannot take place without examining agricultural systems. Priority response mechanisms to COVID-19 include social security mechanisms for the unemployed as well as controls on the prices of agricultural products and essential goods to make sure that they do not depend solely on the market.

In the longer run, ASEAN and its Member States must strive to put in place resilient farming systems. They should develop sustainable food systems that place small farmers at their very heart and are inspired, inter alia, by agroecology. More attention should be drawn to how IPs are acting against climate change and greater acknowledgement should be given to their good practices in dealing with this phenomenon. Emphasis should be placed on diversifying food sources. IPs believe that technologies should be developed and used to increase and protect biodiversity rather than destroy it. In addition, COVID-19 and the associated restrictions on movement have made it difficult for IPs to travel.

Lastly, food security systems and mechanisms should be put in place to monitor and evaluate the commitments of ASEAN and its member countries to tackling climate change.

Frederic Wilson is an Indigenous Dusun Putih from Sabah, Malaysia. He has worked for over 10 years with Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia, especially with his own community and at the Sabah State level. He spent 12 months working with the Assistant Minister for Law and Native Affairs of Sabah State. Frederic is currently serving Indigenous Peoples in Asia in the capacity of Human Rights Campaign and Policy Advocacy Programme Officer for Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) based in Thailand, since joining the organisation in 2019. Frederic’s main focus is Indigenous Peoples’ human rights defenders and being the focal person in AIPP’s engagement with ASEAN mechanisms. 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 36th 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 2022 in full here


Notes and References

[1] Two-thirds of the approximately 370 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 populations, which are not therefore taken into account in national censuses.

[2] ASEAN. “ASEAN Political Security Community.”

[3] ASEAN. “Women, Peace and Security.”

[4] Soeparna, Intan. “The protection of women refugees based on the perspective of ASEAN Law: The case of Rohingya women refugees.” Padjadjaran Jurnal Ilmu Hukum (Journal of Law) (PJIH) Vol 5, No 2 (2018): 241.  DOI:

[5] ASEAN Secretariat.  “Terms of Reference ASEAN Commission on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Women and Children.” ASEAN Secretariat, 2010. See p. 9-12.

[6] ASEAN. “ACWC champions the well–being of all women and children towards an inclusive COVID-19 recovery in ASEAN.” ASEAN,  October 12, 2021.

[7] ASEAN. “ACWC acts today to build a better future for women and children in post-pandemic world.” ASEAN, March 22, 2021.

[8] Mekong region referring to Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

[9] “Joint Statement on women leaders and their journey to environmental justice, September 14th, 2021.”

[10] Singh, Gurjit. “Cambodia chairs ASEAN for the third time.” Observer Research Foundation (ORF), January 17, 2022.

[11] AICHR. “Five – Year Work Plan of the AICHR 2021 – 2025.”

Tags: Global governance



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