Southeast Asia’s indigenous groups call for support in their fight against COVID-19

In Thailand, forest fires threaten indigenous communities. Photo: Takeaway / CC BY-SA

Indigenous communities in Southeast Asia face intense risks from COVID-19 as they struggle to access aid and call for governments to respect their rights to resources and equality. But many of these groups are also showing how traditional practices can play a role in combating the crisis.


For indigenous peoples in Southeast Asia, COVID-19 presents unique challenges that highlight both the strength of their communities and the added risks they face. 

Indigenous people across Myanmar are struggling to address the pandemic amid an increasingly violent civil war as the country’s military steps up offensives against ethnic armed groups. In the Philippines, indigenous groups are unable to access food and supplies as the government has largely left them out of its response to the crisis. In the mountains of northern Thailand, ethnic communities face threats from both forest fires and COVID-19.

Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) and its member organizations have called on governments in the region to respect the rights of indigenous communities to equality during the pandemic and to work with them to address their needs. AIPP Secretary-General Gam A. Shimray has said the response to COVID-19 must acknowledge that this is a human-caused crisis.

“The problem largely lies with the choices we make. This is what indigenous peoples have been saying for centuries: that keeping the balance of Mother Earth and respecting the mutual wellbeing of nature is a long-term solution for life on the planet,” he said.

But indigenous communities, from Thailand to Malaysia and Indonesia, are also reacting in solidarity by restricting access to their villages and rallying support from allies.

Many indigenous groups in Southeast Asia struggle with social marginalization, racism and contentious relationships with their governments. In the current crisis, these groups aren’t receiving the same support as urban populations to access health care, food and supplies.

Rural indigenous communities in the region have neither the same medical systems nor the social safety nets accessible to urban residents. But this doesn’t mean that these populations are “lacking”: many villages maintain their own traditional medicine practices and rely on their natural environments in times of crisis.

“If only indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands and resources were respected, they would be better able to fend for themselves in times of crisis and would not have to look to outside for help,” wrote Minnie Degawan, director of Conservation International’s Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program. “The communities know best what they will need and how such support should be delivered.”

Indigenous groups face added challenges

In the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere, indigenous villages are struggling to access food and are voicing concerns about a lack of government support to deal with the pandemic. Those who lost their jobs are returning home to find there is no income and no means to access health care.

Aeta people in the Philippines. Image credit: Fiona Graham / WorldRemit via Flickr

In the Philippines, the government has placed three ethnic Aeta villages in Pampanga, on the island of Luzon, under community quarantine after two local residents tested positive for COVID-19. These villages and indigenous peoples in other areas of Luzon have been blocked by authorities from collecting food and pursuing their livelihoods.

Indigenous organizations Bai and Katribu have called for aid from the government, saying their communities aren’t receiving the support they need. 

In northern Thailand, indigenous villages struggle with the combined threats of COVID-19 and forest fires. Though the region sees fires every year during the dry season, the problem has gotten worse in recent years, with air pollution posing a major threat to residents’ health. At least five people have died trying to stop the fires.

The government and public often mistakenly blame ethnic minority communities and their “slash and burn” swidden agriculture practices for the fires. As a result, indigenous villages working to fight the fires have received little government support. The air pollution from the fires also worsens the potential health impact of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has certainly complicated the fight against the outbreak of forest fires as people have to cooperate and work together,” said Sakda Saenmi, convenor at the Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand. “No family or village in isolation can put out a forest fire on their own.”

Some villages have been able to rally support for their efforts to fight the fires, reaching out on Facebook and connecting directly with allies in urban centers. As the fires have died down somewhat over the past week, the indigenous villages who received support are now donating rice and supplies to people who’ve lost their jobs and access to food because of the crisis.

Indigenous villages adopt traditional methods to combat the virus

Despite the challenges they face, indigenous groups are also embracing traditional practices of resilience.

In northern Thailand, before the government announced travel restrictions, a number of indigenous villages instituted lockdowns, restricting access to their land. Several ethnic Karen villages performed traditional rituals known as Kroh Yee to lock down their communities. The last time these villages performed the rituals was reportedly in response to a cholera outbreak 70 years ago.

“Such rituals performed by indigenous communities are important because it is a declaration of collective commitment by the community to restore the balance of nature and to support one another in most crucial times,” said Shimray. “This is how the community draws on their spiritual strength when they are confronted by the unknown.”

Indigenous Papuans implemented similar lockdowns and now have the backing of the provincial government.

“As we lock down our villages, we are going to realize that self sufficiency and efficient management of our natural resources are going to make us more resilient in the future,” said Shimray.

Suku Anak Dalam children. Photo: Fitri Penyalai / CC BY-SA

The ethnic Suku Anak Dalam in southern Sumatra, Indonesia, have implemented an indigenous social distancing system called besasandingon that has long been part of their culture as a method to stop the spread of disease.

Indigenous peoples of the Cordillera in the Philippines have a practice known as binnadang/ub-ubbo, a system of labor exchange to support those in need and share food.

Many groups are also increasing outreach in native languages to make sure villages have accurate information on the coronavirus, including the Hmong in Thailand and the Dawei in Myanmar.

But these measures do little to address the entrenched economic and social inequalities facing indigenous communities. If governments aren’t able to listen to these groups and address their needs, it increases the risks for the whole region.

“When and if this crisis is over, there will be a rush to “help” indigenous communities,” wrote Minnie Degawan. “It would be prudent to learn from this and to ensure that any intervention must have indigenous peoples at the center in terms of their agency and rights.”

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