In Report, Watchdog Points to Growing Repression in Malaysia, Thailand

BenarNews Staff
170113-BD-arrested-1000 Bangladeshi police escort men arrested in Dhaka as part of a week-long anti-militant crackdown that led to 15,000 begin taken into custody, June 12, 2016.

Governments from South to Southeast Asia last year behaved repressively or failed to do enough to translate rhetoric about democratic values and freedoms into real action, Human Rights Watch said in a scathing assessment in its World Report 2017.

The 697-page report, released Thursday, assessed the state of human rights in more than 90 countries. It pointed to deepening repression in Malaysia and Thailand, and criticized Bangladesh, Indonesia and India – the world’s most populous democracy – for problems ranging from extrajudicial disappearances and killings, to restrictions on free speech, or not doing enough to defend minorities and secular thinkers from attacks or discrimination.

Malaysia: ‘Out the window’

The human rights climate in Malaysia “markedly deteriorated in 2016” as its prime minister went after more critics who demanded his resignation over a corruption scandal known as the 1MDB affair, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported.

Throughout the year authorities used the Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA) to arrest critics of Najib Razak and his government, including those commenting on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, according to HRW.

“The Malaysian government has responded to corruption allegations by throwing respect for rights out the window,” Phil Robertson, a deputy Asia director for HRW, said in a press release. “By bringing a slew of prosecutions against those expressing dissenting views or peacefully protesting, the government is seriously undermining democratic institutions and the rights of all Malaysian citizens.”

The government has used the CMA to block websites and shut down newspapers over critical reports on 1MDB, and has arrested and prosecuted peaceful protesters, the rights watchdog said. Maria Chin Abdullah, the leader of the grassroots Bersih movement, was arrested one day before her organization held a massive rally calling for clean government under the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act that allows suspects to be detained with no charges filed.

Thailand: ‘Empty promises’

In Thailand, the junta headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha “increased its repression and failed to restore democratic rule in 2016,” HRW reported.

The military government, which seized power in 2014, is now trying to enact a constitution that entrench its unaccountable power, the report said. The National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta is formally known, has banned political activity, censored media, made hundreds of arbitrary arrests and detained civilians in military facilities, the report said.

In addition, the junta has used the country’s strict royal defamation law to prosecute people for any expression that is seen as critical of the monarchy, HRW said. Earlier this week, supporters of suspect Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, better known as “Pai Dao Din,” went to the National Human Rights Commissioner’s office to submit a petition seeking help in efforts to free him on bail.

Jatupat was arrested on Dec. 3 for sharing a BBC article on Facebook that was deemed offensive to new King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Jatupat was released on bail two days later, but rearrested on Dec. 22 and his bail was revoked.

“Prime Minister Prayuth has fed the U.N. and its member countries empty promises on human rights,” Adams said in a press release. “The junta needs to be pressed to end repression, respect fundamental freedoms, and return Thailand to democratic civilian rule.”

Bangladesh: Justice ‘non-existent’

The report blamed authorities in Bangladesh for failing to protect bloggers, secularists, gay rights activists, academics and others from attacks – sometimes fatal – by militant groups. In a press release accompanying the report, HRW said government officials had initially warned bloggers and others to refrain from “hurting the religious sentiment of others.”

Finally in May, authorities set out to capture and try suspects linked to the killings of secular writers and minorities, but one month later, they rounded up 15,000 people wanted for crimes not tied to the attacks, the report noted.

Following a terrorist attack at a café in Dhaka that left 29 people dead, including five suspects, authorities launched a series of raids that killed dozens of militants allegedly linked to the attack. Other suspects were detained by police and could not contact family or attorneys, HRW reported.

“Bangladeshi security forces have a long history of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Justice for these abusive practices is non-existent,” said HRW Asia Director Brad Adams.

“It is important that the Bangladeshi government act to protect its citizens from what has obviously been a growing security problem in the country, but it needs to do so in a rights-respecting manner.”

India: growing speech restrictions

In India in 2016, government officials kept using sedition and defamation laws to prosecute critics, calling them anti-national, HRW said. Authorities, its view, also failed to address attacks against religious minorities by vigilantes who said they support the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“The BJP came into office with the promise of development and foreign investment, but has been unable to contain its supporters who engage in vigilante violence,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a press release.

“Repression and an ostrich approach to problems will only make investors doubt India’s commitment to basic rights and the rule of law.”

Indonesia: failed rhetoric

Human Rights Watch also took aim at Indonesia’s president, who was elected in 2014 on a platform of bringing sweeping changes to government.

Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s “rhetorical support for human rights failed to translate into meaningful policy issues,” the report said.

Beginning in January 2016, Indonesian officials made anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) statements and policy pronouncements that increased threats and at times led to attacks on LGBT activists and others, HRW observed.

“Jokowi’s second year in office was distinguished by his failure to speak up in defense of human rights for persecuted minorities desperately in need of government support and protection,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Although Jokowi’s government announced long-overdue initiatives to promote accountability for the worst human rights abuses of the past, there was no official follow-through, and current abuses persisted.”


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