Activists across Asia marked International Human Rights Day on Thursday by calling for greater freedom in China and other authoritarian and repressive states, joining foreign diplomats in urging the release of political prisoners, bloggers, and others imprisoned for the peaceful expression of dissent.
The day saw a hunger strike by an ethnic Mongolian dissident and his family in China, rallies in the capitals of Cambodia and Myanmar and – by a coincidence of the calendar – a hearing on North Korea’s dire human rights situation in the United Nations Security Council that proceeded despite China’s efforts to block it.
In Beijing, U.S. ambassador Max Baucus marked the day with a call on China to ease up on its long campaign of suppressing lawyers, human rights defenders and other activists.
Nearly six months after President Xi Jinping launched a sweeping crackdown that has seen hundreds of lawyers harassed, detained or disappeared, Baucus urged his hosts to treat lawyers as “partners, not enemies of the government."
The United States remains "concerned over the crackdown on human rights lawyers and others who seek peacefully to contribute their views to the public discourse on the future of China,” Baucus said in a statement posted on Dec. 10 to the website of the U.S. embassy, one of several foreign missions to make appeals on Thursday.
'Serious problems persist'
Baucus cited the cases of detained human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti as high-profile prisoners of conscience, as did the German embassy, which warned in a strongly worded statement of its own that “serious problems persist with regard to freedom of opinion in China.”
China was also rapped in a U.N. report calling the use of torture by Chinese police to obtain confessions “deeply entrenched” in the country’s justice system. Beijing dismissed the report, and U.S.-based veteran activist Liu Qing said the report is unlikely to lead to real change in China.
“China isn’t going to stop using torture to get forced confessions out of people because the U.N. says it should,” Liu said.
“The [ruling] Chinese Communist Party wants to ensure its dictatorship continues, and it needs to use such methods to terrorize and subjugate its subjects,” he said.
Rights abuses, especially toward China’s minority populations, have also been made worse by China’s “failed environmental policies,” according to a joint statement released on Thursday by Han Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Southern Mongolian activists.
Tibetans, especially, are on “the frontline of a climate crisis with the temperature of the plateau rising twice as fast as the rest of the world,” with over 2 million Tibetan nomads forced from their traditional grazing grounds in the name of grassland protection, the statement said.
In the same way, hundreds of thousands of Southern Mongolian herders and their families have been evicted from their land and relocated to areas predominantly populated by China’s majority Han ethnic group, the statement said.
Ethnic Mongolian dissident Hada marked the day with a hunger strike with his family to highlight human rights abuses and ongoing harassment by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, long after his release from two decades in prison.
"Over the past five years, we have undergone unbearable ordeals," Hada wrote in a brief statement translated and posted online by the U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC).
"All of our rights have either been taken away or restricted. We have been treated like criminals," said the 60-year-old Hada, who was released from extrajudicial detention in December 2014, but his family’s bank accounts remain frozen by authorities.
Meanwhile, in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma, activists gathered on Thursday to celebrate at the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters Network (HRDP) office in Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon.
They had earlier been refused permission to hold the event at a local church, Aung Myo Min, director of the rights group Equality Myanmar, told RFA.
“We didn’t get permission to hold the International Human Rights Day event in the place we had wanted to,” Aung Myo Min said, adding that in spite of earlier releases, Myanmar still holds political prisoners and that many people fear arrest for their work in pressing for greater rights.
“This shows the true situation of human rights in Myanmar” despite dramatic political changes that saw the pro-democracy opposition sweep elections last month.
Any government formed by Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which won national elections in a landslide victory in November, will have to confront human rights violations in the formerly military-ruled country as its “biggest challenge,” Khin Ohnmar, coordinator for Burma Partnership, said.
Article 18 of Myanmar’s penal code, limiting the rights to peaceful assembly, should especially be revoked, he said. “We must have proper laws.”
In the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, thousands of people rallied at several sites under the slogan “Upholding and Respecting Human Rights and Justice for the Country” and some petitioned with the Ministry of Justice for reform of the justice and legal system.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with the Cambodian rights group Licadho said that Cambodians who protested against land grabs by corrupt officials, businessmen and soldiers have “suffered a continuous series of unjust events.”
“And when they are victimized by land grabbing and they protest, they are accused of crimes and sent to jail,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Among the unjust cases, there are many activists, including environmental and nature conservation activists, who were shot dead and still haven’t received justice,’ added Am Sam Ath.
North Korea discussed
In New York, China, Russia and two other authoritarian members of the UN Security Council failed to stop the Council from holding its second meeting on North Korea’s human rights situation since last year.
The United States and its allies have pushed for follow up on the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report, which compiled exhaustive evidence of widespread abuses in North Korea including murder, starvation, torture, and other crimes—many of these committed in the country’s remote prison camps.China argues that North Korea's human rights situation is not a proper topic for the Council.
The Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (CHRNK) marked International Human Rights Day with briefings for UN missions in New York and a call for Council action.
“It is well past the time to take a direct, meaningful stand on accountability, as we have seen throughout history the tragic consequences of inaction and impunity by the international community for millions of victims,” ,” CHRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu said in a statement.
“Through UN Security Council action, we can ensure greater accountability for gross human rights violations, particularly crimes against humanity, committed by the North Korean regime.”
Reported by RFA. Translated by Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service and Pagnawath Khun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Richard Finney and Paul Eckert.