3 min read

Asia Undercovered Special Issue: Indigenous Peoples

Asia Undercovered Special Issue: Indigenous Peoples

Next week, on August 9th, is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples - a day to  to raise awareness of the needs of these population groups. Indigenous people globally have struggled for centuries over landrights, forced assimilation, issues with citizenship and more. While several countries now have laws to better protect indigenous people’s rights and heritage, many have not – allowing ongoing human rights abuses.

For this special issue of Asia Undercovered, we look at indigenous people’s issues from across Asia, from the oppression many still continue to face to the milestones that took place recently, along with the growing recognition of their role to preserve their natural lands and the world’s ecosystems. This issue was written by Daniela Muenzel, a freelance writer and communications specialist who focuses on human rights and environmental  issues.

New to Asia Undercovered? Subscribe here.

Land rights

India is home to more indigenous people than any other country, and has accordingly passed laws to protect the rights of its forest tribes. Yet now a Supreme Court decision this February – in response to petitions from wildlife conservation groups – means millions of indigenous Indians could face, as Raksha Kumar writes, one of the largest land evictions the world has ever known (SCMP).

Also from India – an update in the national register means that about four million Assam residents need to prove their citizenship – sparking fears of a witch hunt against the region’s ethnic minorities, and leading to scores of suicides (NewsIn).

The Bajau Laut people, who have genetically adapted to diving, have been getting a lot of attention from outlets like National Geographic, The Independent and BBC . These stories often ignore the range of issues they face. Huiyee Chiew spoke to a community member and reports on the lives, struggles and values of Bajau Laut families for MalaysiaKini.

This piece by Rina Chandaran for Thomson Reuters shows that in Thailand too, indigenous people have been stripped of rights and land. While well-meaning initiatives are attempting to reverse decades of oppression and poverty, the best solution is too often avoided: returning traditional land and right to self-determination.


In India, like in many countries where drive for assimilation is the norm, indigenous people are by default assumed to follow Hinduism. Parul Abrol visited a village in eastern India and found how the local community’s ties with land are being erased – putting not only the communities, but also the remaining ecosystems at risk.

Earlier this year, after more than a century of forced assimilation discrimination and poverty, International news outlets celebrated Japan’s new legislation recognizing its indigenous Ainu population. This piece in Nippon.com looks into why the Japanese government is really riding on the superficial idea of inclusiveness.

Stories of empowerment

While industrial businesses are still using underhand tactics like settlements or promise of jobs to steal land from indigenous people, communities with memories of previous exploitation are now fighting back to protect their communities and natural resources.  Ian Morse writes for Mongabay about indigenous people in Aru Islands, in eastern Indonesia, who are looking to improve conditions for their community through development from within.

Myanmar’s Karen people opened the Salween Peace Park last winter, a 5,485-square kilometer forest park to celebrate their right to independence, natural resource management and environmental protection. Clemente Bautista visited the site. Her piece in Bulatlat, on the challenges the Karen face, campaigns of grassroots groups, and efforts to strengthen international solidarity in Southeast Asia shows how collective action by indigenous people groups can assert and protect their heritage.

Asia Undercovered:  Journalist Nithin Coca's weekly roundup of the news, events, trends and  people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.