Rights Today in Southeast Asia – 2018

Defending human rights on the frontlines in Southeast Asia and the Pacific

From the mounting body count in the “war on drugs” perpetrated by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and his government, to the silencing of political opposition and independent media in Cambodia, to the Myanmar military’s violent campaign of murder, rape and arson that caused the flight of more than 720,000 Rohingya women, men, and children from northern Rakhine State to Bangladesh, the state of human rights in many countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific has continued along a deteriorating trajectory in 2018.

Amid a growing climate of impunity for human rights violations, human rights defenders (HRDs) are increasingly vulnerable. Governments across the region continue to fall short of, or even ignore, their obligation to protect HRDs, who often find themselves subjected to harassment, threats, criminal proceedings and violence. Those on the frontlines – such as youth and land activists, women’s rights defenders and trade unionists – are all too often the target of state repression for speaking out in defence of rights.

Mother Mushroom, a blogger from Vietnam who was released after over 2 years in prison for criticising the government

It’s not just freedom for myself and my family, It must be for all the Vietnamese. I think we have a lot of things to fight for in the future

Tools of repression, from cyber surveillance to online harassment

Governments have displayed increasing intolerance of peaceful dissent and activism, abusing judicial powers to impose and enforce legislation that restricts the peaceful exercise of rights and shrinks civic space. Threats to a free media continue at a disturbing rate. In Singapore, activists have faced targeted pressure and criticism, including convictions for “scandalizing the judiciary” for expressing themselves on Facebook. In Thailand, scores of human rights defenders, journalists, politicians, lawyers and activists were prosecuted for peaceful assembly, and faced charges of criminal defamation and sedition. In Fiji, three media executives and a letter-writer were put on trial for sedition – and later acquitted – on charges that were politically motivated.

In the Philippines, as in Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia, there has been an increase in the use of social media to fuel hate speech against social, religious or ethnic minorities, particularly on Facebook. At the same time, people are increasingly being penalized for views expressed online, including peaceful criticisms of authorities. Repressive cyber laws are being pushed across the region, raising an unprecedented long-term threat to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. In one such example, in July Viet Nam passed a sweeping and deeply repressive new law that provides censors with the authority to force technology companies to hand over vast amounts of data, including personal information, and to censor users’ posts.

Despite committing to abolishing the death penalty, Thailand executed a 26-year-old man convicted of murder, thus ending an execution-free period of nine years.

Abusers hide behind mask of democracy

In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party won the general elections in July — having used legislation and the judiciary to effectively eliminate any meaningful opposition and shut down dozens of media outlets in the lead-up to the vote. Myanmar’s power-sharing deal between the civilian government and the military has seen a further erosion of human rights and freedoms — despite the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy government having a majority in the Parliament, which would allow it to revise or abolish at least some of the most repressive laws.

Peaceful critics still targeted – despite hopes in Malaysia

Malaysia’s surprise election upset in May, which saw former Prime Minister Najib Razak ousted, was seen as a possible gateway to positive human rights change. Prisoner of conscience Anwar Ibrahim was released from jail, marking the end of over two decades of political persecution of the former opposition leader. In October, the government announced plans to repeal the death penalty for all crimes, as well as the repressive Sedition Act. These would represent significant steps forward if implemented.

Elsewhere, politically motivated arrest and detention of those speaking out on human rights violations continue unabated. In Myanmar, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were each sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for their role in exposing a massacre, led by state security forces, of Rohingya men. In the Philippines in September, Duterte critic Senator Antonio Trillanes IV was arrested and released, and awaits trial on bail. Senator Leila de Lima has been in detention for over a year on politically motivated charges. In a rare positive development, Cambodian housing rights activist Tep Vanny was released from prison after serving two years of her politically motivated sentence. In Viet Nam, blogger Me Nâm (known as Mother Mushroom) was also released after two years in detention, and sent into exile in the USA.

LGBTI people continue to encounter major discrimination. In Malaysia and Indonesia, individuals can face intense persecution and harsh penalties under laws regulating sexuality. In August, two Malaysian women were fined and caned in public for “attempting lesbian sex”. In seven Pacific countries where homosexuality is criminalized thousands of people face prejudice and live under the threat of jail.

Lack of protection for refugees and asylum-seekers

Conditions for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrant workers remain extremely precarious throughout the region, made worse by a lack of formal legal protection for asylum-seekers in many countries. In August, authorities in Thailand placed in indefinite detention at least 168 Montagnard refugees from Viet Nam and Cambodia, including pregnant women and children. Earlier in the year, Thai authorities forcibly returned a Cambodian refugee, Sam Sokha, in violation of the principle of non-refoulement.

For refugees and internally displaced people, access to aid remains fraught. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Myanmar, where both the civilian and military authorities restrict access for UN and NGO humanitarian bodies. In Kachin and northern Shan states, authorities have blocked humanitarian access to areas beyond government control, while in Rakhine State, more than 125,000 people, mainly Rohingya, remain confined to squalid displacement camps where they rely on humanitarian assistance for their survival.

Australia continues to attract condemnation for its refusal to extricate over 1,000 asylum-seekers and refugees from bureaucratic limbo in the offshore processing centres it operates in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, in partnership with those countries’ governments. High-profile cases involving denial of adequate medical care as well as suicide attempts by young people have led to calls on Australia by the UN, medical bodies, lawyers and broader civil society to correct its failings and live up to its duty of care to these people.

An accountability vacuum

Impunity of state security forces who violate human rights continues to flourish. In Indonesia, allegations of abuses regularly surfaced from its disputed Papua province, yet very few were independently investigated or the perpetrators held accountable in the country’s courts. Moves towards accountability – including passing legislation criminalizing torture and enforced disappearances in Thailand – continued to be delayed.

The Myanmar government has shown itself to be unable and unwilling to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for the devastating campaign of violence against the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State. Security forces killed thousands, raped women and girls, hauled men and boys off to detention sites and burned hundreds of Rohingya homes to the ground in what were clearly crimes against humanity and which a UN investigation team said may amount to genocide.

Extrajudicial executions continue in the third year of the “war on drugs” in the Philippines. Widespread evidence of police abuses as well as violations of the right to health – which may amount to crimes against humanity – highlight the urgent need for the UN to launch its own international investigation into the killings.

In the absence of national, independent and impartial inquiries in Myanmar or the Philippines, pressure is building at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for proceedings against individuals suspected of crimes against humanity and other crimes. In a positive move in February, the ICC announced the opening of a preliminary examination into the Philippines. In September, the UN Human Rights Council established an accountability mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of atrocities in Myanmar – a step forward on the path to justice, but no substitute for an ICC referral by the UN Security Council. The Philippines, together with China and Burundi, was the only state in the region to vote against the move.

Without a concerted effort to strengthen human rights protections – and the vital work of HRDs – the hardliners who loom large in this region are set to continue abusing rights and shattering human lives without consequence.