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Human rights defenders and journalists under attack in Southeast Asia

Categories: Activism, Advocacy, Free Expression, Human Rights, Law, Media, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, East Asia
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The crowd in front of the Criminal Court flashing the three-finger ‘Hunger Games’ salute after the ruling on Anon and Panupong's temporary detention request. Photo and caption from Prachatai, a content partner of Global Voices.

Since July 31, several human rights activists and journalists across Southeast Asia have been arrested, convicted, and experienced harassment which reflect the surge in state-backed attacks on freedom of expression.

In Thailand, a lawyer and student activist were arrested for their participation in democracy protests. A Cambodian union leader was detained for his statements expressing concern about farmers reportedly losing land at the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Three media offices in Malaysia were raided for featuring a documentary on the government’s treatment of migrant workers. And finally, eight defendants in Vietnam were convicted for ‘disrupting security’.

Thailand cracks down on democracy protest

Human rights lawyer Anon Nampa and youth activist Panupong Jadnok were arrested on August 7 for their participation in democracy protests last month.

In recent months, protests were organized [2] calling for democratic reforms in the country. Youth activists have issued three demands: stop harassing citizens, draft a new constitution, and dissolve parliament. They also rejected a military coup as a solution to the political crisis which intensified when the army grabbed power in 2014.

Anon and Panupong were released on bail the following day. They were also ordered not to repeat the offenses they allegedly committed. After release, Anon vowed to continue exercising his freedom of expression and added that he still intends to join a protest rally on August 16. He has a message [1] to authorities:

We mean well to the country and respect those who think differently. We would like you to listen to us. We thank the officers who took good care of us, but as for those who do bad things, we are going to have to deal with them.

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Anon Nampa after he was released. Photo and caption by Prachatai, a content partner of Global Voices

Cambodian union leader detained

Cambodian union leader and Cambodia Watchdog Council member Rong Chhun was arrested on July 31 after the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee asked law enforcement authorities to charge him with ‘incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest’ for spreading ‘fake news’ about a land issue at the Vietnam-Cambodia border.

After visiting the border on July 20, Rong Chhun released a statement [3] for the Cambodia Watchdog Council expressing concern that farming communities had about the loss of their land which they blamed on the action of authorities.

Rong Chhun was later accused [3] by the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee of distorting the issue.

Around 141 civil society groups signed a statement calling for the release of the union leader. They also highlighted [4] the chilling effect of Rong Chhun’s detention:

This latest arrest of a respected union leader is a direct threat to every Cambodian who exercises their constitutional right to freely express their beliefs without having to fear a midnight visit by police and years lost in prison.

Media offices raided in Malaysia

The police raided the Kuala Lumpur office of Al Jazeera which is being probed [7] for sedition after it released a documentary on the government’s treatment of migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Malaysian media outlets ASTRO and UnifiTV were also raided for broadcasting the Al Jazeera documentary.

Authorities said the documentary ‘Locked Up In Malaysia’s Lockdown’ was malicious and inaccurate since it claims that migrants were mistreated at immigration centers.

But the Centre for Independent Journalism pointed out that the government has yet to formally debunk the allegations in the documentary. It advised [8] authorities to focus on investigating the situation of migrants rather than intimidating the media:

We reiterate our call for the government to conduct an independent inquiry or investigation into the allegations, as reported in the documentary, and base its course of action on the results of said investigation.

Aside from the raid, the work visas of two Al Jazeera reporters were not renewed [9] by the Malaysian government.

Vietnam convicted eight journalists and activists

On July 31, a court in Ho Chi Minh City convicted eight defendants for charges of ‘disrupting security.’

One of the convicted was Ngo Van Dung, a journalist and member of a Vietnamese press freedom collective called Hien Phap (Constitution) Group. This network of journalists and activists is calling for the enforcement of a provision in Vietnam’s constitution which supposedly guarantees press freedom.

Ngo Van Dung was under pre-trial detention for nearly two years following his arrest in 2018. He was sentenced [12] to five years in prison followed by two years on probation.

Another member of Hien Phap, Doan Thi Hong, was among those convicted [13] despite her plea for release since she has a child who is below three years old. Vietnam’s law prohibits the detention of mothers with children under three years old.