From Myanmar to Cambodia and Vietnam, restrictions and attacks on activists have persisted across the Asian region, according to a new report released by CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists that tracks fundamental freedoms worldwide.
In a report published on Wednesday, CIVICUS said that out of 26 countries or territories in Asia, four – China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam – were considered “closed”, while Myanmar was among the “repressed” states, following the February 1 military coup and crackdown.
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In all, it rated 11 countries in Asia as “repressed” and seven as “obstructed”, with Singapore downgraded to the “repressed” category following the passage of an “anti-fake news” law, according to the report called ‘People Power Under Attack 2021’.
“A staggering number of people in the Asia region are living in countries with closed or repressed civic space where their freedoms to speak up, organise or mobilise are severely restricted,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS researcher in Asia-Pacific.
“As authoritarian leaders in Asia seek to hold on to power, they have deployed restrictive laws to arrest and criminalise human rights defenders. Scores of activists and journalists are behind bars, facing trumped-up charges, and some have been tortured and ill-treated.”
Of particular concern was Myanmar, the report noted, where “thousands of protesters were arbitrarily detained by the junta following the February 2021 military coup and some were even met with deadly force”.
At least 1,305 people have been killed due to the military crackdown on anti-coup protests as of Wednesday, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a rights group tracking deaths and detentions. At least 10,756 others have been arrested.
‘Rapid decline in fundamental freedoms’
The report noted the “rapid decline in fundamental freedoms” in Myanmar following the coup “with the crackdown on protests, the arrest, detention and criminalisation of hundreds of activists, the targeting of journalists, as well as the torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners.”
An earlier CIVICUS report published in November also noted a “wave of atrocity” allegedly committed by the military in Myanmar’s Chin State, which borders India on the country’s west.
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It had urged the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution “to consolidate international action” to stop the military’s violent assault against the people of Myanmar.
The decline in freedom is part of a worldwide trend, with CIVICUS’ data showing that 89 percent of the world’s population now live in “closed, repressed or obstructed” countries and governments sometimes using COVID-19 as a cover to extend their control.
“Instead of listening to peoples’ demands, the authorities have also resorted to disrupting peaceful protests in numerous countries, at times under the guise of the pandemic, with excessive or deadly force,” Benedict said.
Amid the attacks, however, he said that civil society has “not relented and are finding new ways to push back and to demand their rights”.
Meanwhile, the CIVICUS report said that in Vietnam, activists and bloggers are facing long sentences for “anti-state propaganda” and “abusing democratic freedoms”, while in Cambodia, “incitement” laws are “systematically used to target dozens of activists”.
Curtailing civic space
In Asia, the top civic violation this year was the use of restrictive laws in 21 countries, as governments use legislation to muzzle dissent.
Human rights defenders were detained under such laws in at least 19 countries, and in 11 countries they were prosecuted.
CIVICUS said it was downgrading the wealthy city-state of Singapore from “obstructed” to “repressed” because of attempts to “silence dissent”.
Journalists and bloggers also faced defamation charges with exorbitant fines imposed, while the country’s “vaguely worded” contempt-of-court law has been used to prosecute activists for criticism of the courts “under the guise of protecting the judicial system”, the report said. A foreign interference law passed in October has raised new concerns about the impact on the island’s already tightly regulated media.
Civic space in Japan, Mongolia, South Korea and Australia was also “narrowed”, according to CIVICUS. Taiwan and New Zealand were rated “open”.
“In reality, this means that the basic freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly and association are not being respected in most countries in this region,” it said.
China also continues to prosecute scores of human rights defenders under vaguely worded offences while in Hong Kong, the “draconian” National Security Law has been weaponised to target dozens of activists, the report said.
In Thailand, the government has disrupted pro-democracy protests, at times using excessive force, including live ammunition.
Thai authorities have also used criminal defamation laws to “criminalise” activists and critics including for lèse majesté or royal defamation, the report said.
Such defamation legislation was also used in Malaysia against those who criticised politicians, and in Bangladesh for online dissent, it noted.
In Indonesia, activists protesting against the renewal of the Papua Special Autonomy Law were detained, while in Malaysia, the authorities “attempted to stifle” several anti-government protests organised by young people and government critics.
Despite the threats to civic freedoms, there has been some good news, the report found.
Mongolia’s civic space rating was “upgraded from obstructed to narrowed” after the country adopted a new law protecting rights defenders in April, making it the first country in Asia to provide a legal framework for their protection.
Other “positive developments” also included progress in the campaign by activists to hold Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte accountable at the International Criminal Court, and the decriminalisation of same-sex relations in Bhutan.