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I. Définir, identifier, dénombrer les populations autochtones : qui est autochtone ?

Thinking about Indigeneity with Respect to Time and Space: Reflections from Southeast Asia

Penser l’autochtonie au regard du temps et de l’espace : réflexions depuis l’Asie du Sud-Est
Ian G. Baird


La plupart des gens considèrent comme allant de soi qu’il est relativement facile de déterminer qui est autochtone et qui ne l’est pas. En effet, dans les Amériques et en Océanie, où se sont implantées d’importantes colonies de peuplement, les peuples autochtones sont généralement considérés comme les descendants de ceux qui habitaient ces espaces avant l’arrivée des colons blancs. L’Asie du Sud-Est, qui a moins été concernée par cette forme d’implantation, n’a toutefois pas moins été marquée par le colonialisme européen, rendant la question « qui est autochtone ? » beaucoup plus difficile à répondre. Cette question est par ailleurs contestée sur le plan politique, dans la mesure où tant les minorités ethniques que les populations majoritaires peuvent vraisemblablement revendiquer qu’ils sont autochtones là où ils vivent. Il est à cet égard symptomatique que, suivant ce que l’on connaît désormais comme la « théorie des eaux salées », la plupart des États en Asie du Sud-Est considèrent soit que leurs populations sont toutes autochtones, soit qu’il n’y a pas de peuples autochtones en leur sein. Aussi, de nouvelles conceptions globalisées de l’autochtonie circulent, s’hybrident et se mettent en place, bien qu’inégalement. Il est remarquable que les peuples autochtones tendent désormais à être conceptualisés en tant que « peuples colonisés », davantage que comme simples « peuples premiers », dissociant ainsi partiellement l’autochtonie de l’espace et du temps. Dans cet article, je soutiens que les idées associées à l’autochtonie sont en perpétuel changement et se trouvent mieux prises en compte sous l’angle du temps et de l’espace, concepts servant de fondement aux affirmations relatives à qui est autochtone et qui ne l’est pas.

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1Most people take it for granted that it is relatively easy to determine who is Indigenous and who is not. Indeed, in the Americas as well as in Australia and New Zealand, Indigenous peoples are generally considered to be autochthonous; the descendants of the original inhabitants; those who inhabited these spaces prior to white settler colonization. In Southeast Asia, however, for a number of reasons, it is particularly difficult to classify people based simply on ethnic grounds [Keyes, 2002], although this is not to say that this is not also the case in particular circumstances in other parts of the world. But the question of “who is Indigenous” seems particularly difficult to answer in Southeast Asia, and is also highly contested in most national governments in the region, as both ethnic minority and majority populations are frequently able to credibly stipulate that they are “Indigenous” to the country where they live. Indeed, everyone is Asian, and most people can claim their origin to be from within the boundaries of present-day nation states, including those belonging to the majority populations who typically live in the lowlands, and the ethnic minorities who historically mainly inhabited the mountainous uplands.

  • 1 There are many similarities between the situation in Asia and the circumstances in much of Africa [ (...)

2Indicative of the contested nature of the concept of indigeneity, referred to by Ben Kingsbury [1998] as the “Asian controversy”, most of the governments in Asia stipulate that their populations are either virtually all “Indigenous”, or that there are no Indigenous peoples within their borders [Barnes et al., 1995; Baird et al., 2017]. For example, Malaysia recognizes the majority Malays in the country as indigenous or Bumiputra, not just the minority groups [Nah, 2006], while in Thailand the government does not consider anyone to be Indigenous [Morton and Baird, 2019]. However, a small number countries in Asia have come to generally adopt international norms that recognize the existence of Indigenous peoples within their own boundaries. These include the Philippines, the Republic and China (Taiwan), Cambodia, Japan, and Nepal [Mikkelsen, 2014].1 Some might find it contradictory that many of the governments that do not recognize the existence of Indigenous peoples in their own countries signed the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 [United Nations, 2007], a declaration widely seen as promoting the expansion of the notion of Indigenous rights [Bellier and Préaud, 2012]. In fact, Asian governments have mainly positioned themselves against the international concept of indigeneity [Bertland, 2011], and in support of what has become known as the “salt-water theory”. That is, these governments claim to recognize Indigenous peoples globally, and see the importance of empowering them, but the catch is that they see the concept as only being relevant for spaces that experienced large amounts of European settler colonization [Baird, 2011; Erni, 2008; Karlsson, 2003; Kingsbury, 1998]. Martinez [1999] supported this view, leading to major controversy, as those with this view contend that the idea of Indigenous peoples is relevant for the Americas and Australia and New Zealand, but not for most of Asia, where there was plenty of European colonialism but much less European colonization. For those who follow the salt-water theory, only European colonization that crosses salt-water oceans is seen to be relevant when it comes to the concept of indigeneity. In other words, geography is understood to be fundamental for the concept of Indigenous peoples and defining who is indigenous.

3One of my main contentions here is that ideas of indigeneity are generally founded on two key factors: time (priorness) and space/place (homeland) [Mandelman, 2014]. That is, most people would agree that there are two essential conditions for being considered Indigenous. First, Indigenous peoples are those recognized as being the descendants of the first inhabitants of particular spaces. Second, these “first peoples” or “first nations” are tied to geography or particular places, as they are considered to be the original inhabitants of particular spaces, territories or aboriginal homelands.

4Nevertheless, new globalized concepts of indigeneity are emerging and have begun to circulate, take hold, and hybridize within parts of Southeast Asia, albeit unevenly. For one, the idea that Indigenous peoples are marginalized and vulnerable is an important element of the modern meaning of indigeneity [Erni, 2008; Baird, 2011]. While these new concepts are still founded on time and space, this understanding of indigeneity presents a particular challenge for peoples who have been oppressed and dominated over history, as these peoples have frequently been displaced from their original homelands. For this reason, Indigenous peoples are increasingly being conceptualized as “colonized peoples” rather than simply “first peoples”, thus partially uncoupling indigeneity from time and space.

5In the next two sections of the paper, I consider the role of time and space in relation to examining indigeneity, and the shifting geographies of indigeneity in Southeast Asia. I then explain how new ways of conceptualizing indigeneity represent an attempt to uncouple indigeneity from space, before presenting about the liberation of Indigenous knowledge from time and space. I then turn to considering the emergence of transnational Indigenous activism, before taking the example of ethnic Lao people in northeastern Cambodia to demonstrate that the category of Indigenous remains contested and somewhat blurry. I then turn to nature-society relations and indigeneity, since struggles related to land and other natural resources are often linked to the politics associated with “Indigenous peoples.” I then provide some concluding remarks about the importance of framing Indigenous struggles with ideas associated with time and space.

6This paper is based on decades of past research experiences in mainland Southeast Asia (particularly Laos, Cambodia and Thailand) studying ethnic identity and indigeneity, and also years investigating relevant secondary sources.

Indigeneity and Time

7Indigeneity is fundamentally intertwined with time. Indeed, it would be almost unimaginable to detach indigeneity from time, as indigeneity is linked to history and memory. In particular, indigeneity is tied to ideas about the past and who came to inhabit particular places first [Gagné and Salaün, 2012], as well as it is meant to link people through ethnic heritage and group memory. Yet as Hirtz [2003] has pointed out, even if indigeneity is closely linked to the past, people actually take on new kinds of modernity when they adopt new identities associated with indigeneity.

8Time is also crucial for backing up claims to land and other natural resources. Indeed, the first to use a particular resource is usually justified in having more rights to manage and use the resource, and the spaces it is found, especially as compared to others who came later. As Colin Nicholas [1996: 1] put it, when writing about Indigenous peoples in Asia, “[Indigenous peoples] trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of a territory which has been lost to others by conquest or deceit.” These territorialized claims over space based on time and indigeneity are becoming increasingly common in Southeast Asia [Hall et al., 2011; Hall, 2013].

9Indigeneity also fits well with time and tree tenure in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The ethnic Brao people of northeastern Cambodia, for example, own Dipterocarpus wood resin trees located in public forests, but this customary ownership is largely predicated on who put the work into creating the wedge-shaped cavities in the tree that allow for resin collection. It takes some work to fashion suitable cavities, and it is generally recognized that it is the labour expended to create them that provides the legitimacy necessary to ensure that tenure can be established over the resin trees [Baird, 2009a; 2010a]. Similarly, it is the “work” or “labour” that Indigenous peoples put into using, altering and developing their lands—in whatever ways they choose to—that provide them with implicit legitimacy. However, this labour is fundamentally linked to time, as tree tenure is recognized for only the first person to input labour, the one who tapped the tree before others.

10While it should be clear by now that time is fundamental to the concept of indigeneity, in recent years some have advocated for de-emphasizing time when conceptualizing indigeneity. This includes in parts of Africa where in the 1990s Indigenous advocates sought to shift away from priorness, as it was deemed difficult to prove and did little to separate different ethnic groups. Instead, activists pushed for a definition of indigeneity that focused more on self-identification, marginalization, and the non-dominance of particular groups [Balaton-Chrimes, 2013]. Similar positions have also been proposed in relation to indigeneity in Asia [Gray, 1995; Nicholas, 1996; Erni, 2008; Tebtebba, 2010]. For many, self-identification or self-determination has become especially crucial, as it has become increasingly evident that it would be impossible to come up with any objective criteria that could be used to definitely separate Indigenous from non-Indigenous peoples [Bertand, 2011], and self-identification requires that people not only be linked to a seemingly static past.

11Although the role of time in thinking about indigeneity is being challenged by some, it should at least be evident that time is essential to modern understandings of the concept of Indigenous. Now we move on to considering the role of space.

Indigeneity and Space

12As with time, space is fundamental for the concept of indigeneity. It would appear that Indigenous peoples are virtually always discursively connected to particular spaces. For example, Nicholas [1996: 1] writes, albeit in a rather romantic way, that,

“Most importantly, all indigenous peoples have a special relationship with their land, which they see as being imbued with a spirituality and sacredness not generally comprehensible by others. The land for them is more than just a habitat or a political boundary; it is the basis for their social organization, economic system and cultural identification. And it is threats to their lands and their lifestyles that have come to signify the fate of indigenous peoples the world over.”

13Nicholas [1996: 4] goes on to write, “[N]ation states have learnt that they can ensure the annihilation of the identity and status of Indigenous peoples by removing their attachment to the land.” This link between indigeneity and land or place continues to be extremely important for many, although as I explain in the next section, redefining Indigenous peoples as being historically “colonized peoples” has served to partially uncouple indigeneity from space, at the same time as space or place has remained crucial in other ways.

14Indigeneity is also included in spatialities, however. Merlan [2009] and Sidaway et al. [2014] have usefully pointed out how internationalized Indigenous peoples movements have become in recent years, and Kuper [2003] has famously critiqued the globalized and internationalized Indigenous movement as essentializing groups of people. Nicholas [1996], however, emphasized the “common aspirations” rather than different positions and interests of those defined as being Indigenous, and geographer Noel Castree [2004] has pointed out that many Indigenous movements have adopted “strategic essentialisms” to support their causes, many with geography at their core. For example, sacred spaces are frequently associated with indigeneity, and Indigenous peoples often evoke ideas linked to “homelands” and territory (see, for example, Nicholas, 1996). Tania Li [2000] has, however, cautioned that one of the risks of these new ideas about indigeneity are that some spaces have become privileged while others have been overlooked. She also believes that the new concept of indigeneity has unnecessarily limited the types of coalitions that are possible. For example, it could make linkages between Indigenous peoples and poor non-Indigenous peoples more difficult, despite class similarities. She has also pointed out that Indigenous activism can sometimes lead to initially unintended severe violence and segregation in the name of indigeneity, such as in 1997 and 2001 when Madurese transmigrants in Kalimantan, Indonesia, were attacked and killed by mobs of Indigenous Dayak peoples, who intended to drive them from Dayak Indigenous homelands [Li, 2000; 2002].

15There are other important links between indigeneity and space that move beyond linkages and attachments to particular localized spaces. One is the increasingly regionalized and transnational nature of indigenous movements. For example, a number of scholars have conceptualized newly emerging Indigenous movements as being variously “translocal” [Morton and Baird, 2019; Leepreecha, 2019; Morton et al., 2016; Baird, 2015; Castree, 2004; Dirlik, 2004; Gerharz, 2012]. Baird [2015], for example, following McFarlane [2009; 2011], who draws upon Deleuze and Guattari [1986], conceptualizes ideas about indigeneity circulating in Laos as “translocal assemblages”, constructs that are both fundamentally “local” in their claims and connections, but are also variously hybridized and internationalized though influences and support from various sources linked to different individual and groups from different parts of the world. Ferreira and Devine [2012] have also usefully compared indigeneity with Deleuze and Guattari’s “metaphor of the rhizome”, and Sidaway et al. [2014] have also emphasized the increasingly globalized nature of the concept of indigeneity, referring to it as “planetary indigeneity”. Furthermore, Keating [2016] has pointed out how ethnic Bunong people who originally came from Vietnam but now live in the United States engage with the concept of indigeneity from a “diasporic distance”.

16Thus, ideas about Indigenous peoples are connected to localized spaces as well as much broader spatial fields. It is not that indigeneity is only associated with space in one particular way. Rather, space is always intertwined with how different people variously conceptualize and accept different ideas associated with indigeneity, but not in the same ways.

17Having demonstrated the importance of time and space for thinking about how ideas related to indigeneity emerge, I now turn to considering how some in Southeast Asia have tried to reduce the roles of time and space.

Indigenous Peoples as Colonized Peoples – Partially Uncoupling Indigeneity from Space

18In the early 1990s, Andrew Gray, the former director of the Copenhagen-based Indigenous advocacy organization, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) theorized that conceptualizing indigeneity in ways that are fundamentally tied to time and space might support advocacy protecting the rights of many vulnerable minority populations in Southeast Asia and around the world. However, he pointed out that it could also result in some populations “falling between the cracks” because of the relatively short periods of time they have lived on particular lands. Prasit Leepreecha has proposed, in relation to Thailand, that the cut off point for being considered indigenous there should be the establishment of the modern Thai nation state, which occurred at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century (Prasit Leepreecha, pers. comm., March 20, 2015, presentation). Others, however, have gone even farther, directing the concept of indigeneity away from being an essentialized notion to being seen as more relational in terms of thinking about the interactions between certain marginalized groups and the state [Balaton-Chrimes, 2013].

19The Hmong people in Laos and Thailand present a particular challenge to a conceptualization of indigeneity tied fundamentally to time and space, as most Hmong living in Laos and Thailand migrated there from southern China via Vietnam in the nineteenth century. While some of those came in search of new fertile forests and land to conduct shifting cultivation, or for various other reasons, others were directly or indirectly forced to flee China because of war and violent conflict between them and the dominating Han Chinese [Tapp, 1989; Lee, 2015]. The Hmong have a short history—at least relative to other ethnic groups—in Laos and Thailand, thus making it difficult to claim to be the first inhabitants of any places in those countries. However, on the other hand, the Hmong are a historically oppressed and dominated upland ethnic minority. Therefore, Andrew Gray of IWGIA proposed defining Indigenous peoples not as simply the “first peoples” of a particular place, but as “colonized peoples”, those who have been historically oppressed by others regardless of whether they are the original peoples, or aboriginals, of the spaces where they presently live. Through reconceptualizing Indigenous peoples as “colonized peoples”, Gray [1995] was attempting to partially uncouple the concept of indigeneity from time and space, since Indigenous peoples, following his understanding, would not need to prove that they are first peoples to live in the spaces where they presently reside. They would just need to make the argument that they are a historically colonized peoples, something that the Hmong can do relatively easily [Leepreecha, 2019]. This, indeed, has had a major impact on the relationship between the concept of Indigenous peoples and geography or space. As Andrew Gray [1995: 37] put it, the concept of indigeneity:

“refers to the quality of a people relating their identity to a particular area and distinguishing them culturally from other, ‘alien’ peoples who came to the territory subsequently. These indigenous peoples are ‘colonized’ in the sense of being disadvantaged. Their right to self-determination is their way of overcoming their obstacles.”

20For Gray, self-determination is clearly key, as it is for many Indigenous activists today. Since Gray, many others have adopted the idea that Indigenous peoples are fundamentally “colonized peoples” [Nicholas, 1996; Niezen, 2003; Anaya, 2004; Erni, 2008], and the concept seems to be gaining traction in international circles, both in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, including Africa [Balaton-Chrimes, 2013]. For example, Nicholas [1996: 3] writes, when speaking about Indigenous peoples in Asia, that, “There is a history of invasion, colonization, and domination. Sadly, however, history for the Indigenous peoples extends into the present day.” Margaret Fee [1995: 242] has also compellingly argued against stripping Indigenous rights from people who have been forcibly moved from their original homelands. She writes, “For a member of a majority culture to try to deprive anyone of an indigenous identity just because of the success of this sort of cultural obliteration is ironic at best.”

21But has the reconceptualization of Indigenous peoples as colonized peoples really uncoupled indigeneity from time and space? The answer is, of course, “no”. That would be a virtual impossibility, but it has partially shifted the geographies of indigeneity through making it possible for people to be considered Indigenous even if they do not live on their ancestral lands, and are not “first peoples”. Of course, it is true that most of those who recognize the concept of indigeneity—whether in the Americas, Oceania, Africa, Europe or Asia—continue to see Indigenous peoples as closely linked to both time and place, even if the ways they conceptualized things is nonetheless changing for practical and political reasons.

Liberating Indigenous Knowledges from Time and Place

22There is no doubt that the knowledges that peoples living near to nature possess are not being sufficiently valued in times of high modernism [Scott, 1998]. However, debates around the concept of “traditional” or “Indigenous” knowledges has paralleled, in many ways, the problems associated with linking Indigenous peoples too closely with reified ideas about time and space. For example, debates regarding the concept of indigeneity, as with those associated with knowledge systems, have been frequently tied to time and place. That is, Indigenous knowledge is thought of as having emerged from many generations of interactions between the holders of Indigenous knowledge and the particular places where Indigenous peoples lived. In fact, however, the epistemic origins, both of Indigenous and “scientific” knowledges, are often hidden, thus making it extremely difficult to separate the two [Ellen and Harris, 2000]. This being this case, social scientists have effectively challenged the assumed divisions frequently drawn between scientific and Indigenous forms of knowledge [Agrawal, 1995; Dove, 2006].

23While evoking Indigenous knowledge is, on the one hand, potentially empowering for Indigenous peoples, as they can claim that they have the oldest knowledge about a particular place, this characterization is sometimes also fundamentally limiting, as it ties knowledge systems to both time and space. Barcham [1998] has also pointed out the problems of accommodating social change when applying a “static” culturalist framework to thinking about indigeneity. In other words, there are concerns that Indigenous knowledge is seen to be old and thus time-specific and anachronistic, resulting in some believing that such knowledge is unchanging, and therefore “stuck in the past”, and not very relevant for the present, especially compared with modern scientific knowledge. Furthermore, in relation to space, Indigenous or traditional knowledge is often imagined as being spatially bounded or particularly or even only relevant to narrowly defined spaces, thus making such knowledge inapplicable for use with broader regional, national or global circumstances.

24The anthropologist Hugh Raffles [2002] has usefully demonstrated that the term “local knowledge” is limiting as it is strongly tied to place, even if it is somewhat uncoupled from time. Thus, Raffles proposed referring to knowledges generally referred to as “indigenous”, “traditional” or “local” as “intimate knowledge”, so as to partially liberate the concept from both time and space, while still recognizing its utility and value. The concept of intimate knowledge, on the one hand, acknowledges that this knowledge comes from deep or intimate experiences with place and nature, but it is not nearly as limiting, as it does not imply that such experiences are necessarily tied to time or place. This makes the intimate knowledge more applicable at the present, rather than being seen as an unchanging relic of the past, and also makes it possible to consider the relevance of such knowledge to other spaces.

25Indeed, like indigeneity itself, debates related to knowledge systems are similarly closely linked to time and space. The next section illustrates how transnational Indigenous activism relates to time and space.

The Emergence of Transnational Indigenous Activism

26The concept of indigeneity has served to expand identification markers for humans, uniting people all over the world. This is an empowering concept, but the down side is that it also potentially flattens, reducing recognition of diversity, not only between ethnic groups, but even within them [Castenada, 2004]. In other words, it groups diverse peoples and ethnic groups under single labels. This is similarly the problem with the concept of “Asian Americans”, which is empowering in that it builds coalitions between groups of people, but it is also flattening in that it tends to downplay differences with groups of Asian Americans.

27One important indication that the concept of indigeneity has at least partially been detached from time and space has been the dramatic rise in the globalization of indigeneity, including an increase in transnational indigenous activism. Indeed, there are many people living in different parts of the world who live outside of their “Indigenous homelands” but continue to identify as Indigenous (see, for example, Baird, 2015 and Keating, 2016). In other words, it is now quite common for people to self-identify as being Indigenous even if they do not presently live on the homeland that their Indigenous status is founded on. This may seem like a small or insignificant matter, but it is not, as the ability for someone to not be stripped from one’s Indigenous identity regardless of where they move or live is already partially liberating the concept of indigeneity from geography, as mentioned above. It is also creating new transnational and thus spatially expansive opportunities, although the concept of indigeneity appears to be only understood by a smaller group of activists [Baird et al., 2017].

28As we know, it is never possible to fully detach oneself from geography, and indigeneity is no exception. That is, many Indigenous peoples living in exile or abroad self-identify as Indigenous, but those people generally still recognize their sense of indigeneity as being fundamentally linked with particular spaces or territories. In other words, they have not tried to claim land, or territory in another country based on the political claim to indigeneity being made by people from other nations.

29The Congress on World Hmong Peoples (CWHP), who are based in St. Paul, Minnesota in the United States, for example, has a membership of ethnic Hmong people that are largely American citizens. They support, however, the armed take-over of part of present-day Laos for establishing its own “Hmong State”. Part of their justification for this is based on their Indigenous status, and especially the right to self-determination, and territory to allow that to happen [CWHP, 2008; Baird, 2015]. Indeed, self-determination, even if it does not mean the same thing to everyone [Nicholas, 1996], is crucial. However, while the Hmong of CWHP consider themselves to be “indigenous”, they do not identify as having an Indigenous claim over lands, let’s say, in northern Minnesota, southern California, Central Wisconsin or anywhere else in the United States. This indicates that while the mobility of people identified as Indigenous does not strip them of their Indigenous status, ultimately that status remains theoretically and practically tied to a particular space or territory, and is in itself quite difficult to transfer across spaces.

30Having considered the transnational nature of the Indigenous movement at present, I now turn to a more localized story from northeastern Cambodia that helps to demonstrate the unfinished and contested nature of Indigenous identities in Southeast Asia at present.

The Ethnic Lao people of Cambodia: Aren’t we Indigenous too?

31There have been some categorization controversies resulting from the creation of the idea of indigeneity in Southeast Asia. To illustrate this, it is worth considering the little known ethnic Lao people in northeastern Cambodia, and how some have responded privately to the creation of a new category of people, “chun cheat doeum pheak dich” (Indigenous peoples in Khmer).

32To provide some crucial background, the concept of “Indigenous peoples” was first legally recognized in Cambodia in 2001 when a new Land Law was adopted [GoC, 2001; Baird, 2011; 2013; 2019]. This new legislation largely emerged due to advocacy efforts taken by a small number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Cambodia and international allies working with them. Some of the most important individuals involved were foreigners with particular ideas about who should be considered to be “Indigenous” and who should not (for more details, see Baird, 2011). This being the case, peoples from over 30 ethnic groups speaking Mon-Khmer and Austronesian languages have been defined as “Indigenous peoples” in Cambodia, but the ethnic Lao people living in various parts of the country, but especially Stung Treng and Ratanakiri Provinces in northeastern Cambodia, have not been defined as “Indigenous”, even though many of those ethnic Lao people have lived in Cambodia for many generations, since before the French colonial period [Baird 2009b; 2010b; 2016a].

33Although many ethnic Lao people in Cambodia remain largely oblivious to the changes in legal (re)categorization that emerged without them being consulted, some have begun to question what happened. For example, a senior ethnic Lao government official in the provincial government of Ratanakiri Province lamented, some years ago, how the relationship between the Lao and other minorities in the region has changed. “We used to be considered to be ethnic minorities (chun cheat pheak dich) just like other minorities, but now we have been separated. We are considered to be chun cheat pheak dich, but they are now called chun cheat doeum pheak dich.” Crucially, the ethnic Lao were never consulted regarding their matter, something that has disappointed those who feel this change has negatively affected ethnic relations between the ethnic Lao and those in other ethnic groups [Baird, 2016a]. An ethnic Lao community in Stung Treng also recently applied for a communal land title, but were denied this because they are not considered by the government to belong to a registered “Indigenous” group.

34The fact that the ethnic Lao of northeastern Cambodia have not been defined as Indigenous to Cambodia has caused some confusion and ackwardness. For example, Maureen Harris [2014] wrote an article about how “Indigenous peoples” are being negatively impacted by two large hydropower dams being developed in Cambodia, the Cheay Areng dam in southwestern Cambodia, and the Lower Sesan 2 dam in northeastern Cambodia. The problem is that while some officially designated “Indigenous peoples” would be forced to relocate as a result of the dam, most of those who would have to relocate are actually ethnic Lao, and thus they are not officially Indigenous. To get around this, Harris refers to these people together as “indigenous and minority ethnic groups”, but never is it stated which groups are Indigenous and which ones are just ethnic minorities. Thus, it is implied that the ethnic Lao villages opposing the dam are “Indigenous”, and while this would be legally incorrect, there is certainly an argument for classifying them as such [Baird, 2016a], one that more ethnic Lao people have demanded recently due to contestations associated with the Lower Sesan 2 dam.

35My main point here is that the concept of indigeneity, and who should be considered Indigenous and who should not, is a contentious issue to many ethnic Lao, and is a yet to be resolved issue in Cambodia. This is also the case in other parts of Asia and Africa, continents where relatively less European settler colonization occurred, as compared to the Americas, New Zealand, and Australia, where people of white European descent have often come to dominate. Thus, in countries dominated by European settler colonialization, it becomes somewhat easier to differentiate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous. However, when it involves different Asian-origin ethnic groups and the relatively recent construction of clear nation-states in the region, the concept of indigeneity can be interpreted in different ways, with time and space always being crucial to the arguments made by those with different positions.

36We now turn to considering the important of considering indigeneity in relation to nature-society relations.

Nature-Society Relations and Indigeneity

37There is considerable evidence to suggest that the development of new concepts of indigeneity is significantly affecting nature-society relations at various levels and in different ways, something already demonstrated in the last section in relation to ethnic Lao people and the impacts of the Lower Sesan 2 dam in northeastern Cambodia. In fact, the desire to gain rights over land and other natural resources is crucially important for the emergence of many Indigenous movements all over the world [Bellier and Préaud, 2012], including in Southeast Asia [Hall et al., 2011; Hall, 2013; Baird, 2018; Theriault, 2019]. Many protests and struggles related to land and other natural resources in Southeast Asia have evoked ideas of indigeneity [Morton and Baird, 2019; Theriault, 2011; Leepreecha et al., 2008; Howitt et al., 1996], and undoubtedly these sometimes intensive experiences have affected the ways Indigenous peoples position themselves in relation to the environment. For example, Chayan Vaddhanaphuti [1996] and others have written about Indigenous peoples’ struggles related to land and natural resources in northern Thailand, and the strong convictions that have been associated with these struggles in Thailand (see, also Morton and Baird, 2019). Colchester and Erni [1999] and Theriault [2013] have also shown how ideas related to indigeneity are becoming intertwined with advocacy related to providing Indigenous peoples with more access to protected areas in Southeast Asia. Similarly, activists have asserted their Indigenous identities in Taiwan to resist eviction for the development of luxury hotels and similar developments [Smith, 2015], and large economic land concessions associated with plantation development, mining, and large-scale hydropower dam development have also faced resistance in various parts of Southeast Asia [Baird, 2016b; 2018; Keating, 2013; Hall et al., 2011; Nicholas, 1996]. At an even broader scale, such environmental issues as climate change and environmental futures have relied heavily on “planetary consciousness”, thus leading Sidaway et al. [2014] referring to “planetary indigeneity”.

38In response to the threats facing many Indigenous peoples due to environmentally and socially destructive development projects, some international bodies, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), have created policies specifically designed to ensure that those defined as indigenous are not unduly impacted by such initiatives. Special consideration to ensure that they are provided with appropriate compensation for project impacts on them [Hathaway, 2010; World Bank, 2005; ADB, 1998], although research has shown that such policies have often been ineffective at achieving their objectives [Ehrentraut, 2011].

39Michael Hathaway [2010], in writing about the circulation of concepts of indigeneity in Yunnan Province, southwestern China, also argues that large international NGOs, such as WWF, the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International played a crucial role in introducing the idea of Indigenous people there beginning in the 1990s. This was done through both targeting particular upland minorities programmatically, and also by altering projects so to take into account this new category of people. Even though the People’s Republic of China firmly follows the salt-water theory by proclaiming that all citizens of China are “Indigenous”, a more international view of indigeneity has nevertheless found its way into China, where it has also affected the ideas of some Chinese public intellectuals [Hathaway 2010]. Morton and Baird [2019], Baird [2015], Hathaway [2010], Merlan [2009], Kuper [2003] and others have all pointed to the importance of NGOs, United Nations agencies and multilateral banks in promoting and circulating ideas about indigeneity.

40Indigenous peoples have gained ground in various parts of Asia. In the Philippines, in particular, the adding of Indigenous peoples to the constitution in 1987, and the creation of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act in 1997, have helped Indigenous peoples gain considerable access and rights over land and resource-use in areas categorized as “ancestral domain” [Bryant, 2000; Theriault, 2011; 2013]. In addition, in Cambodia the 2001 Land Law has provided that only officially classified “Indigenous communities” have the right to obtain communal land titles [GoC, 2011; Baird, 2011; 2013; 2019; Milne, 2013; Keating, 2013]. Communal or collective land titling are also being increasingly provided to Indigenous peoples in parts of Asia [Andersen, 2011; Hall et al., 2011; Kurtz, 2004], and elsewhere in the world [Anthias and Radcliffe, 2015].

41Claims and demands made by Indigenous advocates have, however, alarmed some nation states. Colin Nicholas [1996], for example, argued that Indigenous peoples desire “autonomy within the nation state,” a claim that is closely linked to notions of territory and nature-society relations, and is thus quite sensitive. Indeed, indigeneity, in connecting people to particular places, can be seen as resistant to both off-ground globalization and also abstractions linked to the nation-state. Instead, “place-based sovereignty” is attractive to many Indigenous advocates [Dirlik, 2003: 25]. Bellier and Préaud [2012] have also pointed out that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is intended to support Indigenous peoples to gain “permanent sovereignty” or a set of inherent and inalienable collective rights to land, another potentially touchy point. They state, however, that the implementation of these strong rights depends heavily on state laws and practices. Marschke et al. [2008] discuss “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC), a concept that was developed by the global Indigenous movement and was also included in UNDRIP. They forward that the concept has the potential to become a powerful tool for empowering Indigenous peoples. As a result many governments see FPIC as a potential threat to their national sovereignty, and oppose the rise of the so-called “fourth world” and the concept of Indigenous peoples because they see Indigenous movements as having the potential to incite minority populations, leading to uprisings calls for self-governance, and even violence that could affect national sovereignty and security [Dirlik, 2003; Gibson, 1998].

42The overall purpose of this section has been to demonstrate how concepts associated with indigeneity have become entangled in struggles related to gaining access to land and other natural resources, but also how struggles associated with natural resources have themselves often been important determinants of the ways that the concept of indigeneity has emerged in various parts of Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. Thus, it is important to remember that nature-society politics is frequently intertwined with Indigenous identity politics, and thus ideas about time and space. As James Sidaway et al. [2014: 9] have written, “There are many histories and geographies of ‘international indigeneity’ that remain undocumented.”


43In this paper I have considered the shifting relationships between time and space and the concept of indigeneity in Southeast Asia and beyond. In particular, new conceptions of indigeneity, such as those related to thinking of Indigenous peoples as ‘colonized peoples’, have been particularly important for changing the geographies of indigeneity in Southeast Asia, and they are thus extremely important for understanding how Indigenous movements in Southeast Asia are reimagining and repositioning themselves in relation to other local politics and geopolitics. These changes are also significantly impacting on nature-society relations and Indigenous activism in various ways.

44While these new ideas about indigeneity represent an important opportunity for peoples who have been oppressed and dominated by others over history, such categories can also create new divisions and dilemmas, and leave behind some minority groups not characterized as Indigenous, thus leading to new forms of differences and potentially inequality. There are various reasons why people do not support Indigenous movements in Southeast Asia, but whatever one’s opinion might be, nobody can reasonably deny that the concept of Indigenous peoples is becoming increasingly significant, both materially and symbolically. Therefore, the existence of such concepts of indigeneity require more consideration, especially in regions such as Southeast Asia, where identification of certain groups as Indigenous remains highly contested due to the lack of heavy settler colonization in the past. It is especially important to consider how to employ the concepts of time and space when engaging with the concept of indigeneity, as they are the key for understanding the ways that indigeneity is applied, especially in Southeast Asia, but also in other parts of the world.

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1 There are many similarities between the situation in Asia and the circumstances in much of Africa [Pelican, 2009; 2013; Balaton-Chrimes, 2013; Igor, 2006].

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Ian G. Baird, « Thinking about Indigeneity with Respect to Time and Space: Reflections from Southeast Asia », Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], 2020/1-2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2020, consulté le 15 août 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Ian G. Baird

Associate Professor
Department of Geography
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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