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Joint analysis on the situation of defenders in Asia

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Regional analysis

  1. Asia at a glance

In the period considered in this analysis, Asia has witnessed an overall repression of civic spaces, coupled with widespread hostility towards HRDs and their work. This precarious regional context was exacerbated by the ongoing crises that affected some Asian countries, and whose effects are still taking place and impacting defenders. The attempted coup in Myanmar, staged by the military on 1 February 2021, unleashed an unprecedented season of violations against human rights defenders, who stood at the frontline of those opposing the military rule and demanding the restoration of democracy at large.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban took control of the country on 15 August 2021, leading to a dramatic deterioration of the situation of civil society and human rights defenders, already alarming before the takeover. Community-based WHRDs, media workers, and NGO staff were particularly affected by the Taliban violence and harassment, paying a high tribute for their brave struggle for upholding human rights.

In January 2022, the sharp rise of the gas price triggered a series of mass protests across Kazakhstan, where civilians took the street to express their grievance against the government, deemed responsible for impoverishing the country and its citizens. While the demonstrations also led to violent incidents, a number of community-based and pro-democracy defenders, including WHRDs, faced assault, arbitrary arrest, and other violations from the authorities for taking part to peaceful rallies, or reporting the violent response of police.

From March 2022, large sectors of civil society in Sri Lanka joined mass protest to call for the resignation of the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and its family members serving top institutional roles, accused of the lasting mismanagement of the national economy. Rajapaksa eventually stepped down in July, but several defenders such as students, trade unionists, and pro-democracy monks were met with arrest and physical violence, including by means of rubber bullets and water cannons used by the police.

From 1 January 2021 to 30 June 2022, FORUM-ASIA has documented 1,217 violations committed against HRDs in 21 monitored Asian countries.[1] As a result, at least 3,482 including defenders, their family members, and NGOs were affected. The overall number of cases documented is far from being comprehensive of all the violations occurred in Asia in the period considered, but it rather offers an overview of key trends of violations happened in the region, reckoning that many other cases are likely unreported.

In a similar fashion with the previous years, judicial harassment was the most common violation recorded in the region, with 600 cases documented. It was commonly coupled with the arbitrary arrest and detention of defenders, which ranked second with 560 cases recorded, confirming to be a common tactic used by government across the region to silence defenders and prevent them from continuing their human rights activities. Also related to the judicial harassment of defenders were the use of repressive legislation (108 cases) and denial of fair trial (74 cases).

Physical violence followed as the third most recurring violations (323 cases), leading to wounds and injuries of defenders in at least 71 cases, many of whom had to be hospitalised. Defenders were attacked also in their houses or offices, where 84 cases of raid were recorded. Lastly, in the period under review, FORUM-ASIA documented 94 cases of killing or death of defenders, claiming the lives of at least 200 individuals including defenders and their family members.

Intimidation and threats were prevalent in the region (221 cases), mounting to death threats in at least 32 cases. Family members of HRDs were also particularly targeted by this violation (22 cases), showing how the systemic repression of those advocating for human rights work is more often affecting the right to a safe environment also of their beloved ones.

Other common violations documented were administrative harassment (96 cases), broadly used to deny peaceful demonstrations as well as registration of NGOs and independent media outlets, and vilification (55 cases), oftentimes in the form of smear campaign intended to discredit defenders and NGOs, and to delegitimise their work.

State actors, including police, the judiciary, government, and military, were the perpetrator in 1,019 of the violations documented, equal to nearly 84% of the total cases recorded. Non-state actors were the perpetrator in 124 cases documented, with corporations being responsible for 25 violations. The perpetrator remained unknown in 49 cases.

  1. Emblematic situations in Southeast Asia

In the period under review, Southeast Asia was the sub-region with the highest number of cases reported.[2] As many as 659 violations out of 1,217 were recorded in this sub-region, which is equal to 54% of the total cases documented in Asia.[3] A total of 2,052 defenders and family members, communities, and NGOs were affected. While the overall picture for HRDs in Southeast Asia was bleak, in some countries they experienced heightened and multifaceted harassment, or the main trends of violations against them exacerbated.

Myanmar was the country with the highest number of violations documented (156 cases), in large majority coming as result of the attempted coup staged by the military junta on 1 February 2021. Human rights defenders have been (and continue to be) a regular target of the daily atrocities committed by soldiers and police. It included student and youth, WHRDs, and other pro-democracy defenders like civil servants, who joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in opposing the attempted coup. Out of 60 cases of killings and death of HRDs recorded in Southeast Asia, 47 took place in Myanmar, resulting in at least 104 casualties.

Thailand followed with 141 violations documented, most of whom connected to the pro-democracy movement that since 2020 has consistently called for constitutional amendments, together with democratic reforms of the monarchy. The groups of defenders most affected for bringing forward pro-democracy demands across the country were student and youth (70 cases), and WHRDs (55 cases). Defenders’ right to freedom of expression was largely impacted, as it was violated in 121 cases documented in the country.

With 111 violations recorded, Indonesia ranked third in Southeast Asia in the period considered. The western provinces of Papua and the right to self-determination of its citizens remained key issues, triggering widespread violations against those standing up for Papua’s greater degree of autonomy. A total of 35 cases, or more than one third of all violations documented in the country, were related to Papua issues. At the same time, while the total number of individuals arrested has increased, the number of cases of arrests recorded declined, meaning that mass arrests became more common. It indicates the attempt to disrupt and further shrink the right to freedom of assembly. Similarly to the previous years, authorities resorted to treason charges to criminalise defenders who were promoting the right to self-determination for the people of West Papua. The Indonesian Government continued to label the work of Papuan defenders and frame them as promoting “separatism”, thus contributing to their criminalisation and leading to a chilling effect.

In Cambodia, where a total of 87 violations were documented, labour rights defenders (25 cases) and WHRDs (24 cases) were disproportionately affected. Starting in December 2021, the casino workers’ union of NagaWorld complex held a series of strikes to demand the reinstatement of 365 of their colleagues who were laid off in April. In response to the mass strike, authorities resorted to physical violence, mass arrest, and intimidation, targeting particularly women labour leaders. With the pretext of COVID-19 prevention, over 100 of the arrested workers were taken to quarantine centers, where they were denied access to basic sanitary services.

Vietnam confirmed to be a particularly repressive country for defenders, holding a tight grip on the freedom of expression including in online spaces. Bloggers and social media activists were targeted for voicing their dissent on social media, commenting on social issues, or sharing news that challenge the Government narrative. They were the most targeted group of defenders, with 38 violations recorded out of 82 cases documented in the country. The systemic repression of fundamental freedom is reflected in the widespread use of repressive legislation against defenders (30 cases, more than any other country in Asia).

In line with the regional trend, judicial harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention of defenders were the most common violations recorded in Southeast Asia, and went hand-in-hand with 330 and 331 cases recorded respectively. Myanmar (114 cases) and Thailand (108 cases) logged a significantly higher number of cases than any other Southeast Asian country. In Myanmar, the military and police made a systematic use of the notorious Section 505 of the Penal Code, to persecute and imprison anyone criticising the military authority, while in Thailand the charges of royal defamation under Section 112 of the Criminal Code continued to be commonplace.

Pro-democracy defenders were the most affected by the two violations above (180 cases), followed by students and youth (139 cases), and WHRDs (124 cases). In an emblematic case, Wai Yan Phyo Moe, prominent student leader from Myanmar, was arrested in March 2021 by the authorities with other fellow students, for taking part in an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon. He was found guilty of incitement almost a year later, in February 2022.[4] During the detention, Wai Yan Phyo Moe was brutally beaten by prison guards together with around 90 other inmates, for staging a silent strike against the junta.[5] Later in September, he was tried for the second time on additional incitement charges for his activities prior to the attempted coup, bringing the prison term he has to serve to seven years.[6]

Physical violence was documented in 173 cases, including at least 36 cases where the HRDs suffered wounds and injuries as result of it. After Myanmar (76 cases), Indonesia was the country in Southeast Asia where physical violence was most frequent (46 cases). In the most serious cases, physical violence led to the death of defenders, for example as result of beatings or gunshot. In other cases, defenders died in unclear circumstances shortly after their arrest. In total, FORUM-ASIA recorded 60 cases of killing and death of defenders, claiming the life of 146 individuals.

On 7 March 2021, nine community-based defenders and NGO workers in Calabarzon region, southern Philippines, were killed in a joint operation by the Philippines National Police and the Philippine Army, who conducted simultaneous raids into the houses and offices of the defenders over unverified allegations of their affiliation with terrorist groups. Four more defenders were arrested in the operation.[7]

Intimidation and threats took place in 97 cases documented, oftentimes with the aim to silence and discourage defenders from continuing their legitimate activities. In at least eight cases, this violation escalated to death threats. Intimidation and threats were also the most common violation against family members of defenders, with 9 cases recorded. It took place in the form of questioning by police officers, house visits, summons to police stations, and threats of arrest. A direct consequence of this violation is the creation of an unsafe and unhealthy environment for the affected HRDs. It also has negative effects on HRDs’ psychosocial well-being due to the constant feeling that they or their families are being targeted and in danger.

Wawan Soneangkano is an environmental defender from Southeast Sulawesi Province, Indonesia, serving as Chairperson of the Jaringan Lingkar Pertambangan (which translates as Mining Ring Network). On 21 March 2022, Wawan received a threatening phone call from an unknown number, claiming to be from the mining company, and warning him to stop investigating and reporting to police the alleged irregularities in the company’s operation.[8]

Another violation recurring in the region was administrative harassment (50 cases), in the form of cancellation or revocation of the registration of NGOs and independent media outlets, or of denial of legitimate demonstrations, oftentimes alleging COVID-19-related restrictions. Lastly, vilification (21 cases) was used as a tool to delegitimise defenders and expose them to further harassment. This violation included smear campaigns in online spaces, and was mostly recorded in the Philippines (17 cases), where it is commonly referred to as red-tagging. It is a common tactic used by authorities to spread false narratives on human rights advocates by alleging their affiliation with banned and violent groups, with the intent to discredit their work, and incite violence and harassment towards them.

It is worth to highlight that oftentimes defenders were targeted with more than one violation at once, and that several violations, such as intimidation and threats, vilification, and surveillance, took place repeatedly rather than as single incidents.

In the period under review, FORUM-ASIA identified 16 groups of defenders targeted by violations. Pro-democracy defenders were the most affected group, with 241 cases documented. Individuals and groups advocating for democratic principles and institutions, and demanding political pluralism and participation, faced a range of violations. In advancing their demands, pro-democracy defenders faced the systematic violation of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and association, with 187 and 110 violations documented respectively. Thailand (108 cases) and Myanmar (105 cases) were the two countries where pro-democracy defenders were most affected.

Tantawan Tuatulanon is a Thai pro-democracy youth and WHRD who encountered multiple harassment for demanding reforms of the monarchy. She was first arrested in February 2022 for conducting a poll on whether the royal defamation law should be repealed.[9] In March, she was arrested again for livestreaming herself during a royal procession, and charged with royal defamation and under the repressive Computer Crime Act.[10] Despite being granted bail, she was re-arrested later that month for attending another royal procession.[11] Her bail request was repeatedly denied, leading Tantawan to stage a hunger strike for more than a month.[12]

Student and youth ranked as the second most targeted group, with 182 violations recorded. The past two years have confirmed the leading role played by this group of defenders, who stood at the forefront of the movement for the advancement of human rights in Southeast Asia. Students and youth held mass demonstrations and campaigns in the face of rising authoritarianism and heightened repression, boldly calling for progressive reforms and the upholding of civil and social rights. In challenging authorities, students and youth were met with violations ranging from physical violence, including use of unnecessary and disproportionate force, to arbitrary arrest and detention.

In July 2021, Sarah Irdina Mohamad Ariff, a 20-year-old member of the youth-led collective MISI: Solidariti, was arrested by the police of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for taking part to a rally held under the #Lawan campaign, which called for the Prime Minister’s resignation. When summoning Sarah for questioning, the police allegedly harassed her family members. Sarah was held and interrogated for over ten hours on alleged sedition charges, and released late at night.[13]

Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) followed closely with 174 cases recorded. This group of defenders encompasses women defending human rights, as well as NGOs and persons of any gender supporting women’s rights or gender-related issues. WHRDs challenge patriarchal structures that are still dominant and widely accepted, while raising their voices to defend the most vulnerable and marginalised communities and groups. Gender-based harassment was prevalent against WHRDs, who were the most affected group by vilification, with ten out of 21 cases documented. Moreover, WHRDs’ intersecting identities resulted in their greater exposure to violations, as in the case of women based in remote areas or who are member of indigenous or other minority groups.

Since 2020, a growing number of Cambodian women began to gather on Fridays in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, to peacefully demand the release of their husbands, unjustly detained for being members of the defunct Cambodia National Rescue Party, the then main opposition party. The community movement was regularly attacked by authorities, who used excessive force to disband the peaceful gatherings. One of such violent incidents occurred in June 2021, when the women-led group of around 20 demonstrators was disrupted and manhandled by the police.[14]

With 112 violations documented, land and environmental defenders were highly targeted as result of their work. This group includes individuals, communities, and organisations that advocate for the protection of, and access to land and natural resources, that often provide their livelihoods and they have used for generations. Land and environmental defenders were the group most targeted by violations perpetrated by corporations (from sectors such as agricultural business and extractive industries), who targeted with judicial harassment, particularly in the form of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). SLAPPs are meritless lawsuits intended to drain energy and financial resources of the defendant, and are used to silence and intimidate HRDs.

Dang Dinh Bach is a Vietnamese environmental lawyer who has long engaged with local communities adversely affected by development projects and poor industrial practices in Viet Nam. In June 2021, Bach was arrested pending an investigation on alleged tax evasion charges, an accusation commonly used by the Vietnamese authorities to criminalise defenders.[15] In January 2022, Bach was found guilty and convicted to five-year imprisonment.[16] The sentence was upheld in August by the Higher People’s Court in Hanoi, and in October Bach was transferred to prison 300 km away from his residence.

In the period under review, state actors remained the perpetrator in the large majority of violations documented, a trend in line with the past years. They were responsible in 582 out of 659 violations recorded, equal to more than 88% of the total cases. Police alone accounted for 352 violations, followed by the judiciary (145 cases), military (112 cases), and central and local governments (37 cases).

Non-state actors were the perpetrator in an increasing number of cases, including corporations who were responsible for 17 violations. Concerningly, in as many as 30 cases the perpetrator was unknown, highlighting the climate of impunity that often surrounded violations against defenders, and depriving them from their right to a healthy and safe environment.

  1. A glimpse of hope: positive developments in the region

Despite the multiple challenges that defenders faced, some positive developments took place in the region.

In February 2021, the Asian Pacific Forum (APF) published the Regional Action Plan on Human Rights Defenders for National Human Right Institutions (NHRIs), setting out regional and national actions that the APF and its members commit to carry out to support HRDs in the Asia and Pacific region. In February 2022, the APF issued the Implementation Guidelines for National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), to assist them in enforcing the Regional Action Plan.

In the aftermath of the attempted coup in Myanmar, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) spread all over the country to counter the military takeover, and to call for the restoration of the democracy and civilian rule. The CDM soon developed as a cross-cutting movement, able to gather and join the efforts of anti-junta citizens from different backgrounds, including but not limited to students and youth, teachers and civil servants, HRDs and NGOs personnel, lawyers, and monks. Today, despite the atrocities and crimes committed by the military on a daily basis, the CDM continues to stand as the main opposition to the military junta and catalyse the work of those pushing for the return of democracy in the country.

At the sub-regional level, the Milk Tea Alliance (MTA) continues be a transnational solidarity movement, serving as a youth-led loose network mostly that relies on online platforms. The MTA is particularly active in Southeast Asian countries where protest movement is strong such as Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia, where it promotes initiatives against authoritarianism and to advocate democracy.

In light of the increasing challenges for human rights defenders in the region. It is important to continue support the work of human rights defenders and build stronger solidarity among the movements, to address the systematic challenges that the defenders are facing in the region. Human rights defenders are key to ensure the fulfilment of human rights and their work shall be celebrated, not criminalised.

[1] The cases can be accessed at FORUM-ASIA’s Asian HRDs Portal.

[2] Including Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste, and Vietnam.

[3] [3] The cases can be accessed at FORUM-ASIA’s Asian HRDs Portal.