Regional Leaders Use COVID-19 to Consolidate Power, Reports Find

John Bechtel
201002-SEA-replace-620.jpg Thai police monitor an anti-government rally at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Aug. 3, 2020.

Updated at 8:15 a.m. ET on 2020-10-05

Some leaders in South and Southeast Asia are using fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen their grip on power and erode human rights, a pair of watchdog groups stated in recent reports.

Freedom House, a Washington-based independent watchdog, reported on fears of criticizing the government expressed by people in Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Philippines, in a study released Friday and titled “Democracy under Lockdown: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Struggle for Freedom.”

In its “Human Rights Outlook 2020” report, London-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft noted efforts by leaders in the Philippines and Thailand, along with other countries in the region, to use the pandemic to strengthen their hold on power as people give up elements of privacy and freedom to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“Authorities have, however, used these increased powers to silence whistleblowers and government critics, giving rise to concerns that free speech is under threat,” Sofia Nazalya, a human rights analyst with Verisk Maplecroft, said Wednesday, referencing the firm’s report released in early September.

The Freedom House echoed Nazalya's statement.

"Governments have responded by engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics, and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public health," the Freedom House report said.

Nazalya said government leaders were not likely to relinquish their newfound powers along with surveillance tools once the pandemic subsides. Verisk Maplecroft reported that surveillance efforts were ramping up in Thailand and the Philippines, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and President Rodrigo Duterte, respectively, noting they had enacted emergency measures “to crackdown on ‘false information’ or ‘fake news’ pertaining to the coronavirus.”

Nazalya wrote that she expected the Thai government to continue using the pandemic to squash dissent as it had “done since the beginning of the outbreak.”

The kingdom, since mid-July, has seen a groundswell of mass anti-government street protests. Led by youths, these have been calling for the dissolution of the government headed by Prayuth – a former army chief and leader of a 2014 coup – revisions to the constitution and reforms to the all-powerful monarchy.

In the Philippines, “the Duterte government is likely to expand these restrictions as part of an ever-growing list of controls on free speech and assembly in the Philippines, which includes the Anti-Terrorism Act,” Nazalya said.

Signed by Duterte in July, the act has empowered law enforcers to arrest suspected terrorists without warrants and detain them without charges for up to 24 days. Even before he signed it, Filipinos protested, saying the new law could be used to curtail basic freedoms and silence criticism of Duterte and other government leaders.

Philippine press ‘under assault’

Regarding efforts to silence critics, Freedom House pointed to the Philippine government’s efforts against the country’s largest television and radio broadcaster, the ABS-CBN network.

“In the Philippines, where independent media is under assault by the Duterte government, ‘journalists covering the pandemic are pushing back through their enterprising methods of reporting despite the limitation in movement. They are also more indignant whenever restrictions are applied to the press, such as in the case of [the] ABS-CBN shutdown, wherein hundreds of journalists stood in support of the news network,’” Freedom House said.

ABS-CBN had devoted years of coverage to criticizing Duterte’s war on drugs that has left thousands dead.

Bangladesh, Malaysia

In Bangladesh, the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed the ruling Awami League to grow stronger even as democracy in the South Asian nation was seen as weakening in 2020, Freedom House reported, noting the pandemic has caused some people to be more careful about speaking out.

“I am more cautious in publicly criticizing government responses on COVID-19,” an unnamed Bangladesi told Freedom House.

Elsewhere, Malaysia and other nations have adopted “pandemic-related policies and practices to target refugees who have fled from persecution,” Freedom House also said.

“The Malaysian government ‘falsely promis[ed] no action on refugees for taking COVID tests, but later ended up arresting and detaining many to be deported,’” it said.

While the report did not include any specific incident, officials in Kuala Lumpur deported Bangladeshi citizen Rayhan Kabir in August following his appearance in an Al Jazeera documentary which sparked public anger.

The July 3 documentary alleged that the government, under the guise of providing aid and COVID-19 tests to migrants, instead handcuffed those without proper documentation and sent them to detention centers.

“They made a trap for us. They may give food, they give medication. All these things they give,” Rayhan told a reporter in the documentary titled “Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown.”

He was blacklisted as “unwanted” and detained on July 24 even though officials never said that his arrest was linked to his comments in the documentary.

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated to add more information from the Freedom House report.


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