Southeast Asian Laws That Ought to Be Repealed in 2015

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Southeast Asian Laws That Ought to Be Repealed in 2015

The region is not short on laws that impinge on human rights. Here are some that need urgent attention.

Southeast Asian Laws That Ought to Be Repealed in 2015
Credit: REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Singapore’s anti-gay sex law, Malaysia’s Sedition Act, Thailand’s anti-royal insult law (lèse majesté), Philippine libel law, Vietnam’s media regulation laws, Brunei’s Sharia law – all these notorious laws made news this year and they ought to be reviewed, if not outright repealed, in 2015.

Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code is an archaic regulation imposed by the British colonial government in 1938. It criminalizes male homosexual acts and those found guilty can be detained for up to two years. The constitutionality of Section 377A was challenged by several petitioners but the Court of Appeal upheld the law last October. However, all hope is not lost since the court reminded the petitioners that they can still ask the parliament to repeal the law: “Whilst we understand the deeply-held personal feelings of the appellants, there is nothing that this court can do to assist them. Their remedy lies, if at all, in the legislative sphere.”

Malaysia’s Sedition Act, another legacy of the British colonial era imposed in 1948, has been used by authorities to suppress the political opposition. It contains broad provisions that could easily criminalize legitimate dissent. For example, it is a crime to cause “discontent or disaffection” and “feelings of ill will” among the inhabitants of Malaysia. In 2012, Prime Minister Najib Razak made an election pledge that his government would repeal the measure. Last month, however, Najib retracted and even vowed to strengthen the law: “This act will not only be maintained, but strengthened. There will be a special provision to protect the sanctity of Islam, while other religions also cannot be insulted. Secondly, we will insert a provision so that action is taken against anyone who calls for the secession of Sabah and Sarawak.”

As an alternative to the Sedition Act, some government scholars are proposing the enactment of a National Harmony Bill, National Unity Bill, or National Unity and Integration Commission Bill.

In Thailand, article 112 of the criminal code provides a minimum mandatory sentence of three years in prison and a maximum sentence of 15 years for those found guilty of defaming or insulting the King and members of the royal family. The king of Thailand is the country’s most revered public figure and is the world’s longest reigning monarch. The law, enacted in 1908, is often invoked to censor web content and shut down websites. Even ordinary citizens have been jailed for allegedly sending mobile phone text messages that insult the royal family or even monarchs of the past. Since the army took power last May, the new government has filed more than a dozen lèse majesté cases.

It may be difficult to repeal the law but it can be reformed, as advocated by some Thai academics and media freedom activists.

In the Philippines, libel is a criminal offense as stipulated in the 83-year old Revised Penal Code, which mandates a prison term of six months to six years and/or a fine of 200 to 6,000 pesos. But the fine could be much higher for arrested persons. For years, journalists have been petitioning for the decriminalization of libel, which they argue is contrary to the commitment of the Philippines to uphold media freedom. The campaign suffered a setback this year when the Supreme Court ruled that Internet libel is constitutional.

Vietnam’s dissident bloggers and other independent journalists are often detained for violating article 88 of the criminal code which bans anti-state propaganda. In addition, article 258 of the criminal code punishes misuse of “democratic freedoms to attack state interests and the legitimate rights and interests of collectives and individuals” and carries a sentence of seven years in prison. Several Internet-related regulations were also drafted that restrict free speech. Decree 72 has confusing provisions that seem to ban the sharing of news stories on various social networks. Last October, Circular 09 imposed new and stricter requirements for licensing or registration of websites and social networks. Broadly speaking, vague provisions in the law allow authorities to make arbitrary arrests with little structure for accountability.

Sharia law took effect in Brunei last May, making it the first country in East Asia to implement the law at the national level. The first phase in implementing the law covered general offenses such as eating in public during the fasting month of Ramadan, failing to perform Friday prayers, and pregnancy out of wedlock. The second phase included amputation for theft, and flogging for violations such as abortion, alcohol consumption, and homosexuality. The death penalty will be applied during the third phase, which would involve stoning to death for adultery, and also capital punishment for rape and sodomy. The teaching of other religions is prohibited under the law, which already worries some Christian schools. Brunei has ignored the global outcry against some aspects of the law that would violate human rights.

All of these laws undermine human rights, which is the reason why so many citizens and cause oriented groups have actively lobbied for their reform or repeal. So far, the petitioners failed to sway their governments. Let’s hope they have better luck in 2015.