This year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) marks 50 years of its existence. The region is a source of envy when it comes to economic progress, boasting the highest levels of economic growth seen anywhere outside China and India. But when it comes to human rights, there’s been a marked regression. At a time when countries of the region are signing deals to open their borders to greater trade, Southeast Asian countries are imposing increasingly greater restrictions on the flow of opinions and ideas, whether online or offline.
Over the past year, as Amnesty International documents in its Annual Report, they have rivaled each other when it comes to invoking crude, draconian laws to restrict people’s rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Alongside old laws, long favored by repressive governments to keep people off the streets, new laws have been unleashed to muzzle criticism online.
In Malaysia, for eleven days last November, Maria Chin Abdullah was detained and held in solitary confinement. A soft-spoken 60-year-old mother of three, she was arrested and held under the Sedition Act and the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA), two draconian laws the second of which includes the death penalty as a possible punishment. Her only crime was to have led the Bersih (“clean” in Malay) protest, where thousands took to the streets to peacefully call for electoral reform and good governance.
Abdullah was the most prominent of 15 civil society activists who were arrested under this repressive law. Earlier in the year, SOSMA was frequently invoked to intimidate and silence government critics. In May, activist Hishamuddin Rais was found guilty under the Sedition Act and received a hefty fine. All he had done was call for electoral reform. Student activist Adam Adli also received a fine for the same charge.
The crackdown on peaceful voices hasn’t been limited to Malaysia. In Thailand, Jatupat Boonpattararaka, a prominent student activist also known as “Pai”, remains in pre-trial detention. Over recent years, he has repeatedly met the hostility of the authorities for protesting military rule. In all, he faces charges in five different criminal cases, with potential penalties that could add up to decades behind bars.
Pai isn’t alone. Throughout Thailand, researchers, environmental activists, academics, journalists and others also face arrests, criminal investigations, and prosecution. They include people, like Pai, who protested military rule, researchers who reported torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of Thai soldiers, professors who called for academic freedom, and online activists who satirized the authorities. It almost feels as if all of Thai civil society is under assault.
In Myanmar, hopes rose with a new government coming to power. Prisoners of conscience walked out of prison cells where many had languished for years – just for exercising their human rights peacefully. The quasi-civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, however, has struggled to shake off the country’s longstanding legacy of repressive rule.
The steps the new government took to amend Myanmar’s legal framework, which includes several laws severely restricting freedom of expression, have largely stalled. Even as the country has opened up, with the use of new technologies proliferating, vaguely-worded criminal defamation laws have been used to stifle dissent online.
Journalists reporting on the series of grave human rights violations against the Rohingya community in northern Rakhine state late last year, which may amount to crimes against humanity, have been repeatedly denied access to the area, while the government has callously dismissed reports of rape and other sexual violence as “fake rape” and “fake news”.
In the Philippines, the government of President Rodrigo Duterte has dispensed with denials when it comes to the rights of journalists and human rights activists. Presiding over a murderous “war on drugs”, which has claimed the lives of more than seven thousand people in a wave of extrajudicial executions that may also amount to crimes against humanity, Duterte has chillingly threatened people who report on these human rights violations with death.
In Cambodia, fear has returned to the streets of Phnom Penh, following the July unsolved murder of political commentator Kem Ley. One suspect has been arrested but the authorities have failed to provide any details on the investigation in the face of widespread public demands for information.
As the country moves towards the next elections, the authorities are using the criminal justice system to harass and punish civil society activists. People have been threatened, arrested and detained for their peaceful activities. Unfair trials have been used to throw them behind bars.
It’s a fate depressingly familiar to activists next door in Vietnam, where prisoners of conscience are isolated deep within the country’s police jails and prison system, subjected to torture] through a variety of grim methods, including beatings, electric shocks, and prolonged solitary confinement, often in total darkness.
As a region, Southeast Asia boasts a vibrant and fearless civil society, national human rights institutions that often stand up to governments, a lively social media and others who are keep the torch of human rights alight, even as governments try and snuff it out.
As a regional association, however, ASEAN has proved weak and ineffective at dealing with human rights issues. The regional body charged with promoting and protecting human rights, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, has been dormant, constricted by rules requiring consensus for any decision it makes, which has had a paralyzing effect on its actions. Member states have found it easier to remain bound together by their poor records on human rights. When they have criticized fellow members on human rights, as Malaysia did on the Rohingya, it has often been to distract from their own problematic records.
Much of this has been down to a false belief, promoted by contestable notions like “Asian values”, that human rights threaten the region’s ambitions. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has said, empirical studies “give no real support to the claim that there is a conflict between political rights and economic performance.” Indeed, a suppression of rights risks impeding that performance.
ASEAN can only truly serve as a model when it overcomes its structural inertia, empowers its regional human rights body, and attaches as much value to human dignity as it does to economic growth.
Champa Patel is Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.