Most nations in Southeast Asia (Myanmar excluded) have made slow but steady progress on human rights issues over the last five years. However, there are worrying signs across the region that the repression of political, religious and other individual freedoms is returning with renewed vigour, as this round-up by the Jakarta Post points out.
The dark history of extra-judicial killings and disappearances of political or human rights activists seems so distant in democratic Indonesia, a decade after the collapse of Soeharto’s authoritarianism.
That, however, is no sign that human rights is no longer an issue in this country of 230 million people.
Only recently, a mob attacked a church that was still under construction in Bekasi, West Java, adding to the long list of cases of religious violence in the world’s largest Muslim country, which includes the banning of Ahmadiyah and the imprisonment of many whose faith has been deemed heretical and blasphemous by religious authorities.
While the mystery surrounding the 2004 killing of Munir Said Thalib has not been resolved, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono riled rights activists last week by appointing Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin as deputy defense minister, a move critics said highlighted Indonesia’s persistent culture of impunity.
The general is alleged to have been involved in a series of human rights abuses during the political turmoil in 1998. “The President’s step could tarnish Indonesia’s good reputation concerning human rights,” said Commission of Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) coordinator Usman Hamid.
And the situation is no less disheartening in other ASEAN countries.
Myanmar has not yet released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from her house detention, and has barred her from participating in the 2010 elections under a new election law, defying calls from leaders around the world to free the country’s democracy icon.
The encouraging signs of the junta opening up to the outside world have not yet resulted in the release of hundreds of jailed political activists there either.
In the Philippines, civilians including journalists were brutally killed in an apparently election-linked massacre in November last year, an atrocity which prompted global condemnation and that was recorded in history as one of the darkest days for journalists.
In Malaysia and Vietnam, political freedom is not yet a reality, even in the blogosphere where anonymity usually provides greater freedom to digital gadflies. Vietnam has recently launched a crackdown on bloggers who are critical of Communist Party policies, sending them to jail for breaching the security law.
According to the Associated Press, the bloggers were arrested because they spoke against the government’s policies toward China.
The supremacy of Islam as the state’s religion in Malaysia has also raised concerns of diminishing religious freedom in the country. The latest example was the government’s insistence on banning a Catholic publication from using the word “Allah” for God, which it said was exclusive to Islam.
Five churches were attacked last week in relation to the “Allah” row after the Malaysian government appealed a high court decision that overturned the ban.
Rights activists have also criticized ASEAN’s handling of sepa-ratist movements in restive regions such as in the southern parts of the Philippines and Thailand, and the eastern part of Indonesia, which often deliberately ignore any human rights approaches to reconciliation.
Thailand last month reprehensibly deported thousands of the Hmong refugees back to Laos, prompting condemnation from the international community who feared the Laos’ ethnic minority who backed the US during the Vietnam War may face more persecution. Myanmar also committed heinous crimes against Muslim Rohingyas.
As if domestic rights issues were not that overwhelming, Southeast Asian countries have now become a transit point for migrants fleeing war-torn and poverty-stricken homelands — another issue that also needs to be addressed with regard to human rights norms
To that list you can add Singapore, where the government has begun a subtle crackdown ahead of the general election expected in the next year. The government has brought in a "cooling off period" designed to give the the ruling People's Action Party an extra advantage, has recently jailed opposition politician Chee Siok Chin for handing out leaflets and is increasing its harassment of foreign journalists. I was the first to be forced out but I hear that others are now experiencing difficulties.
In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen is showing a renewed desire to crush his opponents.