Southeast Asian Nations Still Fall Short on Ensuring Basic Freedoms: NGO Reports

By Roseanne Gerin
cambodia-hun-sen-john-kerry-jan26-2016.jpg US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) in Phnom Penh to discuss concerns about political repression and human rights, Jan. 26, 2016.

Several countries in Southeast Asia have backpedaled on the democratic process and enacted restrictive measures to keep government detractors at bay, while Asia’s communist regimes deepened repression of bloggers and activists, according to reports issued by two prominent human rights organizations.

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for three decades, and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have not undertaken measures to improve the nation’s human rights situation or address corruption, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its annual review of human rights practices in more than 90 countries.

The "culture of dialogue" forged between the prime minister and Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), fell apart last year with the convictions of 11 CNRP organizers in July on trumped-up insurrection charges, brutal attacks on two party lawmakers by CPP supporters in October, and the issuance in November of a politically motivated arrest warrant for the politician based on a conviction in a defamation case.

“Hun Sen ignored his commitment to a ‘culture of dialogue’ with the opposition and reverted to a culture of violence and intimidation in 2015,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued Wednesday. “He used his control of Cambodia’s security forces, courts and civil service to force the opposition leader into exile, beat up opposition politicians, jail critics, pass draconian laws and increase the ruling party’s stranglehold on the country’s institutions.”

HRW also cited Myanmar in its report for President Thein Sein’s continued incarceration of political prisoners, despite promises to free them as part of a gradual political liberalization of the country.

Although he ordered the release of 52 political prisoners, including land rights activists from five detention facilities last Friday, about 100 others remain behind bars, including students arrested last March during a peaceful demonstration against a controversial education law, HRW’s World Report 2016 said. The protest had turned violent when police attacked the students in the central Myanmar town of Letpadan.

“[The] limited release of prisoners should be followed by freeing all remaining prisoners and a commitment to drop all ongoing politically motivated charges against peaceful activists and critics,” Adams said.

Thein Sein, who will leave office in March could “leave a lasting legacy by fulfilling his stated commitment to release all political prisoners,” he said. “Otherwise, he will be seen as little more than a transitional figure who was not committed to a real change in Burma’s political culture.”

Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House, which gave Myanmar an upward trend arrow in its Freedom in the World 2016 report, lists the country as one of 10 nations to keep an eye on this year to see whether the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which swept general elections last November, makes good on its promises of continued democratic reform.

Crackdowns on bloggers and activists

Vietnam came under fire in HRW’s report for the government’s ongoing crackdown on writers, bloggers and rights activists deemed to be against the ruling Communist Party and continued attacks on those who criticize the regime.

The report cited the beatings last year of at least 45 bloggers and activists by plainclothes police. It also noted that the legislature passed a revision of the country’s penal code to include the criminal conviction of bloggers and rights activists.

“As part of an international public relations campaign, the government appears to have changed tactics by arresting fewer critics and replacing prison with beatings,” Adams said. “A change from imprisonment to physical assault can hardly be called an improvement.”

HRW did not include neighboring Laos in its World Report 2016, but Phil Robertson, the organization’s deputy Asia director, took its government to task on Monday for restrictions on freedom of the press and assembly, media censorship, and a ban on independent trade unions, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry paid an official visit to the country and others in the region.

“Demanding that Laos respect human rights should be a core part of every major meeting agenda going forward this year in Vientiane,” said, in a statement issued Monday, referring to the capital city’s hosting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and visits by foreign leaders next November.

New Chinese laws

President Xi Jinping of China last year put in place new measures curtailing free speech on the Internet, in higher education, in traditional media, and within the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), HRW’s report noted.

The government also restricted freedom of religion by destroying churches and removing crosses in Zhejiang province, which has a significant Christian population, it said.

The Chinese government enacted laws to increase censorship, surveillance of citizens and social groups, including the monitoring and harassment of five women’s rights activists and interrogations of human rights lawyers, HRW’s report said.

Freedom House weighed in on China’s anti-terrorism law passed last year to limit the activities of individuals and companies in the country. The law, which came into effect this month, requires IT firms and Internet service providers to share technical information with the government and further restricts the media’s ability to report on terror attacks.

“The anti-terrorism law is another attempt by China to limit free expression and dissent under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts,” said Mark Lagon, president of Freedom House, in a press release.

HRW also cited North Korea in its report for stepping up repression, increasing border controls, harshly punishing citizens who try to leave without official permission, tightening freedom of movement inside the nation, and cracking down on those found with information from outside the isolated country.

“[North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un and his government are fooling themselves if they think they will be able to avoid international accountability forever for their continued infliction of rights crimes on the North Korean people,” Robertson said in a statement issued Wednesday.


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