Asian States Stuck Near The Bottom of Global Freedom Index

By Paul Eckert
nk-workers-dec-2012.jpg North Korean workers walk home after finishing a shift at a nearby factory in Sinuiju, Dec. 15, 2012.

Authoritarian states in East and Southeast Asia remained near the bottom of the annual Freedom House survey of political and civil liberties in 2014, with North Korea and Chinese-ruled Tibet named among the “worst of the worst,” and China and Laos deemed only slightly better.

The report, “Freedom in the World 2015” by the U.S. NGO, also listed Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar among countries or territories considered “not free.” It warned that Myanmar had started to “veer from the path to democracy” and Chinese-ruled Hong Kong was on a downward trend due to restrictions placed on democracy protestors last year.

The deterioration in Asia—which also saw Thailand slide from “partly free” to “not free” after a military coup—was part of a “disturbing decline in global freedom in 2014,” the ninth consecutive year in which freedom declined globally, Freedom House said.

North Korea and Tibet were included in the “worst of the worst” 12 countries or territories in the world because they received the lowest possible score of 7 in Freedom House’s ranking scale of 1-7 in each of the two categories measured by the rights group: political rights and civil liberties.

China and Laos were spared being placed in the worst possible category with a score of 6 in civil liberties and 7 in political rights. In contrast, Mongolia and Taiwan, two young democracies on the periphery of China, received scores of 1 in political liberties and 2 in civil liberties, while Japan, Australia and New Zealand received top scores of 1 in both categories.

Freedom House said that in China in 2014, “harassment of previously tolerated civil society organizations, labor leaders, academics, and state-sanctioned churches intensified” and “Communist authorities also tightened China’s sophisticated system of internet control.”

Although Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign had netted some senior officials, the crackdown “remained selective and ignored the principles of due process,” and was “compromised by an intensified crackdown on grassroots anticorruption activists and other elements of civil society,” the report said.

Freedom House also said China’s “harsh state repression” of  Muslim Uyghurs appeared to have triggered “an escalating cycle of radicalization” that resulted in deadly attacks attributed to Uyghur extremists. “The government responded with heavy-handed collective punishment and more intrusive restrictions on religious identity,” the report said.

Hong Kong, Vietnam and Myanmar

Hong Kong, a former British colony that has been administered by China since 1997 as a special autonomous region, was rated only partly free and trended downward in 2014 “due to restrictions on press freedom and freedom of assembly” in response to student-led protests over Beijing’s decision to vet candidates in future executive elections.

Freedom House said that although Vietnam is attractive to foreign investors and has gained U.S. sympathy for facing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, the country “remains an entrenched one-party state, and the regime imposed harsher penalties for free speech online, arrested protesters, and continued to ban work by human rights organizations.” It scored 7 on political rights and 5 on civil liberties.

The report warned that Myanmar in 2014 “began to veer from the path to democracy” after a series of dramatic reforms in the previous two years, and said restrictions on journalists pushed its civil liberties score down a notch to 6 from 5 the previous year.

“Journalists and demonstrators faced greater restrictions, the Rohingya minority continued to suffer from violence and official discrimination, and proposed laws that would ban religious conversions and interfaith marriages threatened to legitimize anti- Muslim extremism,” said Freedom House.

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