Southeast Asia’s Unlikely Young Dissidents

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Southeast Asia’s Unlikely Young Dissidents

A look at some of the faces in the region’s new generation of change seekers.

The 14 anti-junta protesters in Thailand. The teenager who criticized Singapore’s founding prime minister. The student who heckled the Philippine president during the country’s Independence Day celebration. They are young activists and critics who were penalized for speaking out against their respective governments. This week they walked to freedom. But their struggles are far from over.

Amos Yee is a 16-year-old video blogger from Singapore who posted a video which offended the admirers of the late Lee Kuan Yew. For causing ‘distress’ to many Singaporeans he was charged, arrested, and placed under police custody for 55 days. He was released on July 7.

On the same day, a local court dismissed all cases against student leader Pio Emmanuel Mijares, who was charged for direct assault, tumult and public disturbance after he unfurled a banner denouncing the lack of reforms under the government of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III when the latter was delivering a speech more than a year ago.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, 14 protesters who are mostly university students were allowed to go home on July 8, 12 days after they were arrested for organizing a protest action against the military-backed government of Prayut Chan-o-cha. Protests and the public gathering of five or more people are prohibited in the country where the army grabbed power last year.

Perhaps ‘dissident’ is an inaccurate term to describe these critics. After all, they are neither opposition politicians nor veteran revolutionaries. Yee is clearly just an articulate teenager who is not connected to any political party. But their peaceful protests and the subsequent legal persecution they suffered highlighted the sorry state of political freedom in their own countries. They became icons of free speech even if many of their fellow citizens disagreed with their views and bold actions. By challenging the propaganda of the state, despite the existence of restrictive media laws, they somewhat earned the recognition as dissidents who could inspire others to defy authorities.

Their cases attracted national and even international attention. Yee’s ordeal reminded us once more that Singapore continues to practice media censorship. Mijares’ arrest on Independence Day confirmed the allegation that human rights violations persist in the Philippines. And the recent detention of the 14 Thai protesters embarrassed many institutions which kept quiet when the Thai army refused to restore civilian rule in the country.

These beleaguered activists got a respite this week after winning on some legal issues, but they continue to face several challenges. Yee was forced to take down his ‘offensive’ posts from the Internet and he reportedly made a commitment to refrain from making commentaries with sensitive content. The 14 Thai activists are now free but they will still have to face a military tribunal.

Except for Yee, who didn’t talk to reporters, these young activists vowed to continue with their struggles. Mijares hailed the court decision as a victory for truth and free speech. After attending his hearing, he challenged the Philippine president to focus more on improving the welfare of the youth and poor Filipinos.

Jatupat Boonpatararaksa, one of the 14 Thai protesters, assured his fellow Thais that their group will still fight for the restoration of democracy. “We will not negotiate. We will not compromise. Twelve days in prison has made us stronger. If they want to send us back there, we are ready for it.”

These young activists join other celebrated democracy advocates in the Asia-Pacific like Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong and Alex Chow who represent a new generation of change seekers. They are all brave, idealistic, media savvy, and combative. Despite their teenage status, states treat them as dangerous individuals. Yee was thrown in a facility with adult prisoners. Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong was barred from entering Malaysia.

When the elders are silent or cowed into submission, perhaps it is a good thing that the young take more responsibility in society. Governments should encourage this activist attitude, instead of suppressing the inherent idealism and curiosity of the youth. Indeed, while young people can be swayed by irrational emotions, it is more disturbing if they surrender to apathy and cynicism. Let these young activists have their chance in history to revive the spirit of democracy in their respective countries.