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Southeast Asia: “Freedom of Speech Under Siege”

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made several arrests and sentenced human rights activists to jail. The
long road to free and fair elections in Southeast Asia remains bumpy in
the Philippines, while East Timor emerged unscathed and confident after
its presidential elections. ASEAN finally breaks its silence and calls
for the release of Burma's Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

In recognition of World Press Freedom Day, celebrated throughout the month, FORUM-ASIA is particularly troubled at events occurring in Vietnam this week, including arrests and jail sentences for human rights activists. The long road to free and fair elections in Southeast Asia also remains bumpy in the Philippines, while East Timor emerged unscathed and confident after its presidential elections. In the midst of the most atrocious human rights violations in the region, ASEAN finally breaks its silence and calls for the release of Burma’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in solidarity with mounting consensus internationally for her release.

Freedom of Expression: In a shocking regression for rights in Vietnam, there has been a recent surge in arrests of activists, internet bloggers, and human rights lawyers. Six pro-democracy activists have been put on trial in less than a week, and human rights groups called for the release of jailed activists.1 Described as the worst crackdown in two decades, it is clearly a violation of the right to free expression as outlined by the ICCPR. The government issued a statement dismissing the criticism:2

As we have said time and time again, the Vietnamese government has always respected the rights to freedom and democracy, including the freedom of speech.

In Vietnam, no one is arrested due to their political or religious beliefs. Only those who have breached the law are punished.

In a letter to Judge Van Hien, who presided over the trial of two of the Vietnamese lawyers, FORUM-ASIA noted that “the period of time within which the trial was held clearly demonstrates that Mr. Nguyen Van Dai and Ms. Le Thi Cong Nhan were not allowed to properly present their defence, nor to examine or have examined the witnesses against them. We believe that the entire trial was a sham, with the verdict and sentence prepared even before Mr. Nguyen Van Dai and Ms. Le Thi Cong Nhan appeared in court. The court should really reconsider its decision against Mr. Nguyen Van Dai and Ms. Le Thi Cong Nhan.” For more information on FORUM-ASIA’s comments about the trials, please see our press release.

Sadly, Indonesia is following suit in its disregard for press freedom as it seeks the arrest of journalist Risang Bima Wijaya, who has, according to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance:

… been in hiding following a 2005 Supreme Court ruling rejecting his appeal against a libel verdict handed to him by a lower court.

The Supreme Court sentenced Risang Bima Wijaya, former general manager and editor-in-chief of "Radar Yogya" newspaper, to six months' imprisonment for violating Article 310 of the Indonesian Criminal Code (KUHP).by libelling Sumadi Martono Wonohito, executive director of "Kedaulatan Rakyat" newspaper.

Free and Fair Elections: In what has been hailed as democratic “maturity,” elections in East Timor concluded with no violence. Jose Ramos-Horta defeated Fretilin's Francisco Guterres "Lu-Olo," who conceded in only two days after the close of the polls, a move lauded by international and domestic observers.3

However, the right to free and fair elections unfettered by vote-buying, threats, scandal remains illusive in the Philippines, where the picture was drastically less positive as eight people were killed during the recent national elections, with a total of 121 deaths for the election season. Reports of fraud surfaced from election monitors and results are weeks away due to hand-counted votes.4 It is possible more violence could erupt as results are publicized. The sheer number of candidates and positions and the write-in system of ballots5 produces a voting system that is geared more towards advertisements and campaign tricks than substance, quite possibly setting the stage for further vote buying. The country has a long way to go before it is becomes a shining example of democracy that it would like to be.

At the other end of the spectrum, in Burma, where not even a façade of democracy exists, more than four dozen former heads of states from around the world called for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi this week when her current house arrest term runs out on May 27. The letter was signed by numerous former heads of state in Asia, including: Filippino Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos, Indonesian Presidents Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri, Thailand Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, Cambodian Prime Minister Ung Huot, East Timorese Prime Minister Marí Alkatiri, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, Indian Prime Ministers V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, and Mongolian Prime Minister Elbegdorj Tsakhiagiin.6

AIPMC (ASEAN Inter-parliamentary Myanmar Caucus) has also issued a statement calling for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, reiterating the appalling history of her situation and also urged the military government to allow Suu Kyi to exercise her basic human rights.

However, it remains to be seen if the junta will acquiesce. The situation remains bleak as the military has within the past week arrested 31 activists on their way to hold prayers for the release of Suu Kyi.

Impunity, Extra-judicial killings: In Indonesia, Suciwati, the widow of murdered human rights activist Munir Said Thalib still awaits justice, but recently “an Indonesian court found national flag carrier Garuda Indonesia guilty of negligence in the killing of Munir in a civil lawsuit filed by Suciwati,” still falling short of full accountability. On May 3, 2007, three defendants employed by Garuda Indonesia were ordered to pay Rp 664,209,900 (about USD 72,000) to Suciwati, who expressed disappointment that the panel of judges did not order an internal investigation by Garuda. The investigation is to be continued and it is hoped the murder trial will begin soon, while a new suspect, a rock star by name Olgen Latuihamallo from Ambon, is now in police custody.

Right to Assembly: The ongoing struggle in southern Thailand has turned violent again as police arrested protesters, violating their right to peaceful assembly as some 2,000 peasants peacefully demonstrated in southern Surat Thani province on May 9, 2007. A local hospital reported that 20 protesters and 12 police officers were hurt during the hour-long confrontation where police armed with shotguns, batons, water cannons and tear gas forced peasants to lie on the ground, shirtless, with hands tied behind their backs. Thai police arrested about 800 farmers who had gathered to protest land allocation to a private company, claimed to be illegal by the protestors, and to request some land be allocated to the poor.7

In response, FORUM-ASIA issued a press statement condemning the heavy-handed approach and urged the Royal Thai Police and the Thai government to conduct an impartial investigation of the handling of the incident. FORUM-ASIA also called upon the National Human Rights Commission to mediate a dialogue on the issue between the stakeholders.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: The 60th Assembly of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has slated compulsory licensing of pharmaceutical drugs for developing countries as one of the major topics for the discussion. Thailand’s use of the compulsory license for AIDS drugs has sparked controversy, and groups like MSF have called on the WHO to issue more explicit support for other developing countries to follow. The pharmaceutical companies have expressed concern over Thailand’s stance on the issue and fear it might opt to use compulsory licensing for more drugs in the future.

In a show of solidarity, organizations in other countries have expressed support for Thailand’s progressive move towards realization of the right to health:

"International supporters have entered to debate, saying that they will support Thailand on the issue in every way," said Thai Health Minister Mongkol Na Songkhla, as quoted by the state-run Thai News Agency (TNA).

…Mongkol said that independent organisations belonging to the Third World Network as well as groups from Brazil, Germany, India, Malaysia and the Philippines had met with him and praised Thailand on the issue.8

Thailand has shown leadership in this area and paved the way for other countries to use compulsory licensing to help their populations gain access to live-saving drugs at prices that are reasonable for the global south.

ASEAN: Despite the many human rights violations occurring in both countries, Indonesia and Philippines ran uncontested for re-election to the UN Human Rights Council and were elected to the body for three-year. Both countries landed in the top four spots of the 14-member group, a move that shows a disturbing amount of confidence other have in their respective human rights records. FORUM-ASIA released a press statement urging both countries to play a leadership role in facilitating access to UN treaty body complaint mechanisms for citizens, to address their own internal human rights issues, such as providing accountability for Philippines’ extra-judicial killings and arbitrary executions, and bolstering Indonesia’s human rights standards within its own borders. The countries have three years to prove they can address the issues plaguing them domestically, and live up to the high expectations of their peers.