The voices of indigenous people must be heard

Myanmar cartoonist Salai Suan Pi served as a trainer of the Basic Cartoon workshop during the Regional Media Showcasing Fair in Chiangmai, Thailand.

We are in Chiangmai, Thailand, to talk about the many challenges that the indigenous peoples of Asia face.

The Regional Media Showcasing Fair, organised last month by the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) and Swedish International Developmental Cooperation, aims to bring together people with knowledge and people with the means to share that knowledge with the world. So attending the fair are indigenous people, human rights activists, academics and researchers, and media representatives.

Over 50 participants from countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Thailand are at the four-day conference.

According to AIPP secretary-general Joan Carling, “The showcasing fair provides activists with an avenue to voice out pressing stories involving their communities. It also allows them to enhance their social media skills while strengthening their network among fellow activists throughout Asia.”

Carling is an indigenous person from the Philippines who has been involved with indigenous issues for over two decades.

Bridging the gap

According to the AIPP, indigenous people are largely – 70% – concentrated in Asia and are significantly underrepresented in economic and social sectors such as infrastructure, education, and economic development. Their identities and collective rights continue to be denied, particularly in claims to land, resources, and safeguarding cultural heritage.

Despite contributions to conservation, food security, and cultural diversity, indigenous people have limited representation and participation in democratic processes.

To advance their rights in the wider society, the AIPP established the Indigenous Voice-Asia Network (Ivan) with the call “Our Voices, Our Rights”. Since its inception in 2013, Ivan has served as a way of highlighting indigenous people’s issues at global and regional levels.

“The Regional Media Showcasing Fair showcasing fair provides IP activists with an avenue to voice out pressing stories involving their communities, says Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact secretary general Joan Carling.
“The Regional Media Showcasing Fair showcasing fair provides IP activists with an avenue to voice out pressing stories involving their communities, says Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact secretary general Joan Carling.

At the showcasing fair, sessions on access to sustainable development, climate change, empowering indigenous women, and strengthening Ivan are held.

During the session on “Indigenous Women And Gender Equality”, Bangladeshi journalist Banani Mallick talks about the plight of indigenous women in her country who face rape, sexual assault, and violence.

Mallick, who writes on women’s and indigenous issues for Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Observer, explains that she faces many obstacles when covering stories on these areas because of a lack of support from local administrators.

“It is a challenge when journalists receive threats when we try to unearth information on indigenous women. To improve the lives of indigenous people, it is essential to have better support from law enforcement agencies and government officials,” says Mallick, adding that Bangladesh’s indigenous population makes up 1.8% of the country’s total population.

There is a fair bit of interest among media practitioners and human rights activists during the interactive talk on “Access To Information/Freedom Of Expression & Information In Asia”.

Nepalese speaker Hit Bahadur Thapa, of the Federation of Nepalese Indigenous Nationalities Journalists, explains that there is a misconception that indigenous people in Nepal are illiterate and ignorant of their rights to information. Making matters worse is the lackadaisical attitude of some government officials who are unwilling to help the community.

“Indigenous people face a big challenge in accessing information as government officials think they are hostile. To set the issue right, more capacity building training and the enactment of a new, inclusive media policy should be considered,” says Thapa, who is himself an indigenous person.

The session on “Strengthening Ivan” is another topic of interest as it discusses ways to improve the socio-economic situation of indigenous people using the radio network.

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak visiting professor Dr Roger Harris shares his thoughts on the importance of reaching out to indigenous communities through social media. The Hong-Kong based British professor observes that like most new users of the Internet, indigenous peoples immediately take to social media.

“As networks expand into all corners of the globe, previously underserved peoples can enjoy unprecedented opportunities for having their voices introduced into global debates around topics that affect them,” says Dr Harris, who works with indigenous people in Borneo.

Enlightening sessions

Besides presentations, we have the opportunity to take part in four capacity-building sessions: “Video Documentation”, “Basic Cartoon Training (Implications in Social Media Advocacy)”, “Crowd Advocacy (Social Media Strategies)”, and “Mainstream Media (Experiences, Challenges and Opportunities in Covering Indigenous Peoples issues)”.

Thai-based British human rights activist and filmmaking trainer Katy Bullen conducts the video documentation workshop. During the three-hour session, she shares tips on improving the quality of videos, identifying the elements of a good story, and basic camera shots.

“Video documentation is an effective and powerful tool for expressing visions, sharing voices, and reaching a wide global audience. These days, most people have access to various types of cameras and smart phones. Through social media channels, indigenous communities can rely on videos to share their stories.

“Hopefully, this can strengthen bridges between marginalised groups and society,” says Bullen.

She adds that video documentaries aren’t challenging to make provided one has a good story to tell and sufficient footage.

“Essentially, it’s all about being to explore a subject, learn from local peoples about their needs, and put a vision together to inspire support and a connection with a larger audience.”

Myanmar cartoonist Salai Suan Pi served as a trainer of the Basic Cartoon workshop during the Regional Media Showcasing Fair in Chiangmai, Thailand.
Myanmar cartoonist Salai Suan Pi served as a trainer of the Basic Cartoon workshop during the Regional Media Showcasing Fair in Chiangmai, Thailand.

Myanmar cartoonist Salai Suan Pi, who is an indigenous person, is the trainer at the “Basic Cartoon” workshop. He showcases various ways to reach out to indigenous communities through cartoon strips. According to him, anyone can be a cartoonist, you just have to put your mind to it.

“Through simple strokes, anyone can draw a cartoon strip. Never be afraid to explore your talents,” says Salai.

He adds that a pencil can become a powerful tool to empower indigenous communities. What makes cartoon strips a cut above other means of communication is that images are a universal language that’s understood by anyone, even the illiterate and people of different cultures.

Carling hopes participants are leaving with more knowledge about the situation of indigenous peoples in Asia and will team up to improve the lives of marginalised communities in their countries.

“If members work together, we can strengthen Ivan’s network and move forward the rights of indigenous peoples in solidarity with medial professionals and rights activities,” says Carling, who is an indigenous expert-member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Sound bytes from the sessions

Participants of the Indigenous Voices in Asia Media Showcasing Fair 2015 in Chiangmai, Thailand, share their thoughts on the fruitful conference.

Anita Gurung
Hit Bahadur Thapa
Sommith Manylert

Hit Bahadur Thapa, 51, indigenous person and Federation of Nepalese Indigenous Nationalities Journalists spokesperson, Nepal: “Nepal’s indigenous peoples are deprived of their rights due to colonisation and globalisation. This fair has provided us with an avenue to share our struggle for equal rights. But with the growing number of indigenous person journalists in Nepal’s media industry, there is better coverage of indigenous issues, with an average of four to six articles a week in the newspapers. This has helped to push our stories into the limelight.”

Sommith Manylert, 26, Laos Gender Development Association communications and campaign officer, Laos: “It’s enlightening to learn different approaches practised by various Asian countries to assist indigenous communities. The advent of social media applications such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp has worked wonders.”

Anita Gurung, 45, indigenous person and Digital Broadcast Initiative Equal Access chairperson, Nepal: “The conference has enabled activists, members of the media, academicians and indigenous communities to share their knowledge and experiences on ways to work together. Through the exchange of ideas, we learn about problems faced by other indigenous communities in Asia and ways to overcome issues. Some ideas can be replicated to help indigenous communities in Nepal.”

Naw Moo Kho Paw
Elie Chansa
Sumaiya Nour

Sumaiya Nour, 30, programme manager, Bangladesh Institute of ICT in Development, Bangladesh: “The conference has covered issues ranging from gender equality and environment to development and natural resources management. One of the highlights was the talk on sustainable development, and concerns about indigenous people and conservation.”

Naw Moo Kho Paw, 26, indigenous person and assistant to director, Tenasserim River & Indigenous People Networks, Myanmar: “The conference serves as good ground to interact with other indigenous people from different countries. The trip to the Lahu tribal village in Chiangmai was an eye-opener as I discovered problems facing the community such as land development, loss of cultural heritage, and gender equality.”

Sol Pholla, 25 (Indigenous person from Jari ethnic tribe, Cambodia)
Sol Pholla

Elie Chansa, 26, Pastoralists Indigenous Non-Govermental Organisations information and communications officer, Tanzania: “I got to experience what’s being done by various Asian countries to help indigenous communities. A similar network should be set up with other African countries to improve the lives of indigenous people. The use of social media is at a high rate in Asia and African communities should rely on it to improve the situation for indigenous people.”

Sol Pholla, 25, member of Jari ethnic tribe, Cambodia: “I experienced many firsts thanks to the conference. It was my first trip out of my village in Ratanakiri when I travelled 700km to Phnom Penh. I sat on a plane for the first time and stayed in a hotel, also for the first time! It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve realised that so much needs to be done to further develop my community.”

For more details, go to the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact at and Swedish International Developmental Cooperation at

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