Democracy under seige

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Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University. She is based in Southeast Asia, where she works on Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia and other countries in the region. She is committed to engagement, fostering mutual understanding and empowerment. Recently she wrote –

Between a military coup, killings, sedition charges, religious oppression, lawsuits and censorship, Southeast Asian nations took alarming steps backwards in 2014

It has, without question, been a hard year for democracy in Southeast Asia.

The coup in Thailand in May is perhaps the most obvious marker. It is far more repressive than previous examples, as the military is not acting as a transitory national guardian but has entrenched itself.

Indeed, what distinguishes 2014 across the region has been an increased use of draconian tools to stay in power, from control on protests to restrictions on social media and religious freedom.

This speaks to the growing insecurities of regional governments facing more empowered and demanding societies.

Early in the year, police in Phnom Penh killed four labour protesters, which led to a ban on protests for six months. Premier Hun Sen did reach a deal with the opposition in July that led to them taking their seats in parliament and launched a reformed National Election Commission. But the killings set the regional tone: that open dissent was to be less tolerated, if at all.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Thailand. The military junta cracked down on peaceful protests, banning gatherings of more than five people and even arresting people for distributing sandwiches, reading George Orwell’s 1984 or flashing a three-finger Hunger Games salute in public. All these signs of resistance face strict penalties.

The climate of restriction extends to journalists, who are on the front line for doing their jobs, perhaps most hazardously in the Philippines. In April, talk show host Rubylita Garcia was shot by gunmen. In May, outspoken radio commentator Samuel Oliverio was gunned down. News anchorman Nilo Baculo faced the same fate in June. These crimes remain unsolved, as impunity rather than justice is the norm.

Elsewhere in the region, the media face a loss of livelihood. The junta ordered Thailand’s PBS station host Nattaya Wawweerakup to be removed from her job for a report featuring villagers and activists criticising the coup, in violation of its new rules forbidding media outlets from discussing political issues. She was used as an example to reinforce the chill in media freedom.

The increased use of laws to limit expression was a theme of 2014. Laos passed a cybercrime law to criminalise dissent. In Vietnam, the chill was felt from Decree 174/2013, passed just a month before the year began, increasing penalties for “anti-state propaganda” on social media.

The Vietnamese government charged three bloggers and activists for minor traffic offences in February. In August they each received between two and three years in jail. Blogger Pham Le Vuong Cac was arrested on his return from a UN meeting in Geneva focused on Vietnam’s human rights record.

In Myanmar, even as authorities lifted the draconian Press (Emergency Powers) Act and its Printers and Publishers Registration Act, investigative journalists still faced arrest, among them four reporters and the chief executive of Unity Weekly who were jailed for 10 years with hard labour under the Official Secrets Act for reporting on a possible chemical weapons facility.

Some regional leaders reacted forcefully to personal criticism. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong successfully sued blogger Roy Ngerng Yi Ling for defamation over claims he was corruptly linked to management of the country’s retirement savings fund.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak sued online media portal Malaysiakini for reader comments he found offensive about his handling of political infighting in Terengganu state. The site faces five further defamation charges this year alone from increasingly litigious politicians.

Around the region, royalty was out of bounds for comment. Social activist Ali Abd Jalil faced sedition charges in Malaysia for insulting two state sultans in September. He sought asylum in Sweden and his passport was revoked.

In Thailand, the already fierce use of lèse majesté charges worsened. They are now shrouded in secrecy, as the military has taken them over to prevent appeals. Court decisions in 2014 include a musician sentenced to 15 years and a student to 30 months jail for Facebook comments, lèse majesté charges filed in a business dispute, a taxi driver sentenced to 30 months for comments recorded by a passenger, and a web radio host to five years. Multiple new cases are pending, but it is forbidden to discuss them.

As Taiwan’s Sunflower and Hong Kong’s Umbrella student movements captured global headlines, academic freedom in Southeast Asia faced more constraints. Three Thai professors and four students were detained for holding a seminar on the interim Constitution in August.

Students faced disciplinary measures for holding a rally at the University of Malaya on the eve of the sodomy trial appeal of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in late October, as constraints continue to be placed on political assembly for students. Government universities continue to ban Anwar from entering campuses, as political activities are curtailed more broadly.

Malaysian law professor Azmi Sharom was charged with sedition for giving an expert opinion, as was the late lawyer and opposition politician Karpal Singh.

While academic freedom flourishes in Indonesia and the Philippines, the region’s other major nations limit student activism, and self-censorship and disincentives for active public engagement are the norm.

Pressure on opposition political figures, especially from courts, also appears to have increased. In moves widely seen as politically motivated, Thailand’s Constitutional Court forced Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawarta to resign for abuse of power in May. An anti-corruption court also found her guilty of negligence in a national rice subsidy scheme and recommended impeachment. The case is pending.

In August, 308 Senate and House members predominantly from Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party were investigated, with 38 recommended for impeachment in November.

In Malaysia, new twists were added to Anwar’s court saga. In March, a conviction for sodomy was reinstated just ahead of him being able to stand for a by-election in Malaysia’s most wealthy state, Selangor, where he would likely have become chief minister. Instead he faces jail again, with his appeal pending for the past two months.

Malaysian opposition politicians now see greater threats, especially under the country’s feared Sedition Act. Prime Minister Najib had promised to rescind this colonial-era law, but displayed his non-reformist colours by reversing his decision in November. More than 10 sedition cases have been filed, mainly against prominent opposition politicians and youth activists.

Ordinary citizens also found their religious freedoms further curtailed. Many Muslims in Myanmar live in fear and worsening ethnic conflict killed 48 in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state in January, then flared in Mandalay in July. In a move seen as acquiescing to an anti-Muslim movement led by extremist Buddhist monks, President Thein Sein has promoted controversial laws to limit inter-faith marriages and religious conversions by requesting these laws be discussed in parliament.

Controversy also attended Singaporean Muslims being forbidden from wearing headscarves in front-line jobs such as nursing; 114 Shia Muslims in Malaysia being arrested for attending a religious celebration in Perak; and the Malaysian government not condemning religious authorities’ seizure of hundreds of Malay-language Bibles for using the word Allah.

Indonesia stands out as a bright spot for democratic governance in 2014, with the July election of President Joko Widodo, and new faces in the country’s legislatures, including a Shia Muslim representative in West Java and a Chinese-Indonesian governor for Jakarta.

These victories for greater inclusion came after a heated contest with strengthening authoritarian forces led by defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto backed by more conservative religious and economically nationalistic groups.

While Indonesia’s democratic credentials were marred by attempts to abolish direct elections for local leaders, for now Indonesia remains the region’s strongest example of democratic dynamism.

The picture for democracy that emerges for the year is largely negative. But it is important to keep in mind that the increased use of draconian measures reflect the messy reality of more empowered societies.

People are speaking out, protesting and seeking political alternatives that cut across the agendas of authoritarian governments. Activism in society is alive and well as citizens call for better governance.

Yet the trend of governments relying on repression rather than greater consultation and policy deliverables reflects poorly on the region’s leaders. This show of weakness rather than strength does not bode well for the year ahead.

Published on Dec 12, 2014 in The Edge Review Column.

Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University. She is based in Southeast Asia, where she works on Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia and other countries in the region. She is committed to engagement, fostering mutual understanding and empowerment.

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