The Indigenous World 2024: 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 fathers, five of the now 10 Member States: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The other five Member States joined later: Brunei Darussalam on 7 January 1984, followed by Viet Nam on 28 July 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar on 23 July 1997, and Cambodia on 30 April 1999. The roadmap has been endorsed[1] by ASEAN for Timor-Leste to join[2] and become its 11th member. 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 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, 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,[3] 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.

Regional Dialogue: Sharing Good Practices on Business and Human Rights in ASEAN

On 1 June 2023, the AICHR held the 2023 AICHR Regional Dialogue: Sharing Good Practices on Business and Human Rights in ASEAN,[4] attended by the AICHR, ASEAN sectoral bodies (ASBs), and regional stakeholders, including national human rights institutions (NHRIs), civil society organizations (CSOs), the business community and international experts.

AICHR recognizes that businesses can create opportunities to enhance the livelihoods of the peoples, workers and communities around them while at the same time causing negative impacts or effects through their practices both inside and outside ASEAN Member States. The adverse impacts need to be discouraged, mitigated and prevented through the adoption of effective and comprehensive strategies on business and human rights.[5]

This dialogue is therefore crucial in raising awareness of the implementation of the UNGPs and Human Rights Due Diligence Procedure[6] and to provide an opportunity for consultation among the AICHR, ASBs, NHRIs, and other stakeholders in order to strengthen the promotion and implementation of these principles in ASEAN and beyond.

The ASEAN Civil Society Conference / ASEAN Peoples’ Forum

From 1-3 September 2023, the ASEAN Civil Society Conference / ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF) was convened in Jakarta, Indonesia. The theme of the event was: “Reclaiming Safe Spaces, Restoring Democracy and Equity in Southeast Asia”.

More than 800 participants attended the events, including representatives from civil society, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQIA+, women, Persons with Disabilities, the elderly, faith-based groups, migrant workers, informal workers, trade unions, farmers and fisherfolks, youth, human rights defenders, victims of land conflicts, victims of human rights violations and people’s organizations from Southeast Asia such as movements, networks, etc.

The event focused on six thematic areas: 1) Peace and Human Security; 2) Alternative Regionalism; 3) Human Rights and Safe Space for Marginalized Groups; 4) Climate and Environmental Justice; 5) Integrated Approaches to Socio-economic Justice; and 6) Democracy and Anti-authoritarianism. Twenty-five side-events highlighted acts of impunity and pressing concerns affecting ASEAN Member States, Timor-Leste, and the region, especially in relation to political violence, identified as one of the leading human rights issues in ASEAN. Such impunity, underscored by the lack of respect for human rights, can be eradicated when, as noted by one speaker during a plenary session, “Peoples [are the ones who] move the minds of their leaders.”[7]

Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) and its Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights Defenders (IPHRDs) members successfully engaged in three workshops during the conference. AIPP supported the participation of an Indigenous youth from the Asia Indigenous Youth Platform (AIYP) network as a speaker in a workshop entitled: “Role of youth in forging an alternative to the neoliberal cultural hegemony” under the Alternative Regionalism thematic area. AIPP and its partner organized a workshop entitled: “Advocating Human Rights in Southeast Asia: Experiences and Stories of Indigenous Peoples” under the Human Rights and Safe Space for Marginalized Groups thematic area. The workshop discussed and strengthened the capacity to understand Indigenous Peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), and good practices and challenges in advocating for Indigenous Peoples, including Indigenous women, in order to be able to participate in decision-making processes at all levels. AIPP joined the workshop in under the theme of Alternative Regionalism, entitled: “Solidarity Economy, Locally-led Initiatives as Counter-narratives to ASEAN Economic Integration and False Climate Solutions”. The discussion noted that the current situation requires understanding that upholding human rights and civil liberties also means addressing demands to end poverty and inequality, taxing the rich, ending countries’ illegitimate and onerous debt burdens, and addressing the climate crisis and its associated loss and damage. The spaces highlighted the importance of people’s solidarity within the region rather than solely the States’ projects for profit-making and capitalism as part of ASEAN’s agenda.

5th ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue

The 5th ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue[8] was convened on 6 November 2023 at ASEAN headquarters. It was a closed-meeting dialogue attended by AICHR representative delegates, AICHR representative assistants, ASEAN Member States (AMS), Committee of Permanent Representative (CPR) members, the ASEAN Secretariat, national human rights institutions (NHRIs), and CSOs with consultative status with AICHR. CSOs were invited to the ASEAN dialogue for the first time thanks to the leadership of Indonesia’s AICHR representatives.

The dialogue allowed AMS, AICHR and other stakeholders to exchange views on the effectiveness of international human rights mechanisms, particularly the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies. AMS reaffirmed their commitment to human rights dialogue and noted the proposal to continue the dialogue in the future.

The dialogue was perceived as the platform in which to discuss responses to the new and emerging challenges in the region and serious human rights issues of common concern. However, CSOs with consultative status with AICHR and the ASEAN Secretariat were only given 2 minutes each for their interventions and were not allowed to raise any questions with AMS. At the end of the dialogue, the AMS discussed and concluded with a press release.[9]

Land rights situation in ASEAN

The major impediment to a lack of land and territorial rights for Indigenous Peoples in Asian countries is the non-recognition of Indigenous Peoples in national legislations. This makes them absent from the purview of any government development scheme, subsequently denying their inherent rights. In Asia, only a few countries have given full legal recognition to Indigenous Peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources (LTR). In some countries, there is partial recognition of LTR; in others, recognition is of individual property only. There is thus a range going from full legal recognition in the Philippines to the absence of any recognition of rights to LTR as in Thailand. Although, the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia recognize Indigenous Peoples in their national law, implementation and enforcement of laws is dismal and they are sometimes completely disregarded.

Land conflicts are increasing in ASEAN countries, more prominently now post-pandemic mainly due to governments pursuing rigorous economic recovery policies that disregard human rights and environmental issues, with many governments taking a turn to the authoritarian. In the process, more land defenders are being attacked and often killed[10] in the line of duty defending their LTR. The “Business and Human Rights Defenders in Southeast Asia” report says that 70% of such attacks are against land, environmental and climate defenders.[11] Among the victims are Indigenous leaders and farmers responsible for protecting the environment.

One significant development for tenure recognition could be the formal launch of ASEAN Guidelines for the recognition of customary tenure in the forested landscape[12] by the ASEAN Secretariat under the ASEAN Ministers of Agriculture and Forestry (AMAF). The ASEAN Working Group on Social Forestry (AWG-SF) took the lead in this process. The guidelines were developed by the Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme (NTFP-EP) with the support of AIPP and other regional alliances of the Mekong Region Land Governance Project. The ASEAN Guidelines were launched on 15 December 2023. Although the guidelines are not obligatory, they will form a basis for advocacy work on the recognition of land rights.



Frederic Wilson belongs to the Indigenous Dusun Putih Llivagu people of Sabah, Malaysia. He has worked with Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia for over 10 years, especially in his own community and Sabah states. He also worked with the Assistant Minister of Law and Native Affairs of Sabah states for a year. Frederic is currently serving the Indigenous Peoples in Asia in his capacity as Programme Officer on the Human Rights Campaign and Policy Advocacy Programme of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) based in Thailand, which he joined in 2019. Frederic’s main focus is on Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights Defenders and as focal person in the engagement of AIPP 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.


Dharmodip Basumatary is from the Boro Indigenous Peoples of Northeast India. He is a former Indigenous fellow with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva. He has been associated with the peacebuilding process and negotiations between the Separatist Bodoland Movement and the Government of India, as well as being a student activist and human rights defender in Northeast India. He is currently a Programme Officer with Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) focusing on land rights engagement. 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 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] See ASEAN leaders’ statement calling on members and external partners to “fully support Timor Leste to achieve the milestones through the provision of capacity building assistance and any other necessary and relevant support”, here:

[2] Arunmas, Phusadee. “Timor-Leste given roadmap for ASEAN.” Bangkok Post, 15 June 2023.

[3] Two-thirds of the approximately 476 million Indigenous Peoples in the world live in Asia but no accurate data is available on the population of Indigenous Peoples in the ASEAN region as few Member States consider their Indigenous identities, which are, therefore, not taken into account in national censuses.

[4] ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. “AICHR, stakeholders share good practices to advance promotion of human rights in ASEAN business.” AICHR, 6 June 2023.,national%20human%20rights%20institutions%2C%20the

[5] ASEAN. “ASEAN continues promotion of human rights in business conduct.” 29 July 2022.

[6] The Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) Procedures were presented by participants during the Regional Dialogue and in the context of the pandemic. This covered the implementation of social safety net measures by the states; NHRIs’ roles in ensuring effective remedy; institutional investors’ strategies to ensure rights-based investment practices; companies’ promises to build a responsible business community; and discussed the experiences and concerns faced by micro-small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). ASEAN started discussing this in December 2020 when a platform for the business sector was created to step up regional cooperation and engagement in enabling the implementation of the UNGPs.

[7] The speaker has not been identified for their own protection.

[8] ASEAN. “5th ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue.” 6 November 2023.

[9] ASEAN. “Press Release – 5th ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue, 6 November 2023, ASEAN Headquarters.” 6 November 2023.

[10] Protection International. “Thailand: The struggles of land and environmental rights defenders.” 9 March 2016.; Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “Business and human rights defenders in Southeast Asia.” 1 November 2023.; Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “Business and human rights defenders in Southeast Asia.” November 2022.

[11] Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “Business and human rights defenders in Southeast Asia.” November 2022.

[12] ASEAN. “ASEAN Guidelines on Recognition of Customary Tenure in Forested Landscapes.” 26 October 2022 (adopted).

Tags: Land rights, Business and Human Rights , Global governance, Human rights, Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders



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