At a time when abuse of human rights and civil rights is actually increasing, the region is lacking a voice for decency and dignity, let alone defence of those silenced.
The May 22 military coup brought predictable criticism from Thais and foreigners alike. In the aftermath, the most significant attacks have concerned the issue of human rights, including continued martial law and suppression of several basic freedoms such as speech and the right to protest. Unfortunately it has also pushed aside problems that are setting back democracy and human rights all around Thailand. With notable exceptions, Asean members are stripping citizens of their most basic civil rights. The region’s Human Rights Commission is even more toothless than its early critics feared.
Vietnam and Laos, while striving to join the world community of nations in trade and commerce, have never truly shaken off their roots. Politically, socially and culturally, both continue as one-party, communist-ruled states where security forces and party apparatchik treat the words “dissident” and “traitor” as synonyms. Since the communist takeover in December 1975, Laos has won a reputation as a place where one does not trifle with authority. The Vietnamese leadership is ever-paranoid, seeing foreign plots everywhere, particularly on the internet.
Hanoi has taken the battle against free speech to heights seldom seen in recent decades. Security forces and compliant judges mount fierce opposition to writers and bloggers. Internet-based activism is seen as a part of foreign-based plots to overthrow the government.
In Thailand, abuse of Article 112 of the Criminal Code — the lese majeste law — is well known. In Vietnam, there is Article 258 of the local criminal code which raises censorship and self-censorship to even more chilling and repressive levels. The Thai law concerns only the monarchy. The Vietnamese law covers everything. In what are quite rightly called kangaroo courts, convictions result in decades in prison.
Myanmar has come far since the army promised to ease its way out of politics and return to the barracks. Yet it, too, is having a difficult time throwing off the repression of the past. In July, authorities slammed five journalists with legal charges because they reported on a case of what they called government malfeasance. The five were given 10 years in prison with hard labour. The month before, authorities expelled an Australian reporter simply for practising what can only be described as professional journalism.
Neighbours to the South have recently regressed as well. In a dinosaur-like decision straight out of the bad old 1970s, Singapore authorities banned a documentary about activists and student leaders who fled the country to live and agitate abroad. The ban on To Singapore, With Love would be laughable if it were not so serious. All of the subjects of the film left Singapore more than 30 years ago. Taken together, their chances of overthrowing the Singapore government plus the damage they are currently doing add up to zero.
In Malaysia, the government last week dredged up a tired, outdated and repressive law. Malaysiakini news website reporter Susan Loone faces up to three years in prison under the 1948 Sedition Act. It is a law Kuala Lumpur frequently promises to strike down, yet repeatedly uses to stifle unpleasant facts it does not want Malaysians to know.
Even without considering Thailand, the summary of violations makes something of a mockery of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Criticism of an Asean member, no matter the offence, remains unthinkable. At a time when abuse of human rights and civil rights is actually increasing, the region is lacking a voice for decency and dignity, let alone defence of those silenced