From the crackdown on freedom of expression by the military government in Thailand to restrictions on LGBT communities in Singapore and Indonesia, 2016 has not been a good year for the human rights situation in Southeast Asia.
Events elsewhere in the region also indicate that the situation is deteriorating - fast.
That was the prognosis from a prominent regional human rights monitor who told VOA Khmer that government actions have made it “quite clear” that the rights situation across Southeast Asia is “getting much worse.”
“The situation broadly in the region – and certainly within Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] – is going downhill very quickly,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has recorded a wave of repression and rights abuses, from Myanmar to the Philippines, including: Freedom of expression severely curtailed by Thailand’s military leadership; online activists jailed in Laos and Vietnam; opposition figures mistreated in Malaysia; Rohingya Muslims suffering severe abuse in Myanmar; opposition politicians and rights workers jailed in Cambodia; LGBT communities curtailed in Singapore and Indonesia; and thousands of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines.
Robertson described the situation as “a disaster” in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called war on drugs has led to thousands of suspected drug dealers and users being shot dead across the country. As the death toll mounts, the government in Manila both denies responsibility and also hits out at international criticism, citing – as the Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay did recently – a need to fight the drug scourge that has “torn apart” communities across the country.
Robertson expressed concern that Western countries, particularly the United States, traditionally known for its commitment to human rights and democratic principles in foreign policy and international cooperation, are not doing enough to advocate respect for rights in Southeast Asia.
“It’s pretty worrisome that, despite increasing engagement by the United States – the so-called Asia pivot strategy by President Obama – ‘human rights’ remains the policy that is left off the list,” Robertson said.
At the U.N. General Assembly last month, senior representatives from the Asean region, including Cambodia and the Philippines, hit back at their critics.
Defending their much-criticized rights records, the representatives of Manila and Phnom Penh cited national sovereignty and offered their own interpretation of respect for human rights and what defines a democratic state.
Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon defended his country’s record on human rights and political freedom, telling the U.N. that a “perfect model democracy” does not exist, the Cambodia Daily reported.
Robertson said the situation is unlikely to improve unless Western countries focus more on human rights and democracy in their engagement with Southeast Asia.
Despite the 10-nation Asean bloc adopting an unprecedented declaration of human rights four years ago in Phnom Penh, basic rights-related issues “remain unaddressed” and donor countries are “dashing out” rather than pressing the region on abuses and the narrowing democratic space, Robertson said.
“There’s lack of respect on basic democratic principles of having a main political opposition that contributes to the country,” he added.
“Many of these governments view any sort of political challenges to themselves as being [attempts] to topple them,” he said.
Robertson said he did not think that the situation would improve without a renewed commitment from regional governments to democratic principles.
Despite the dire forecast, Robertson said people needed to continue to exercise their right to speak out and stand up peacefully for their rights in line with international human rights standards.