ACTIVISTS across Asean faced serious threats from authorities, powerful people and corporates during 2016, highlighting the lack of human rights awareness in the region, rights campaigners said.
This year has been a tough one for activists who campaigned in various fields in the region, with instances of murder, forced disappearance, threats, and legal prosecution.
Some of the prominent activists who lost their lives or disappeared during 2016 as a result of their fight to protect natural resources, environment, and human rights, included Malaysian land rights activist Bill Kayong; Filipino anti-coal campaigner Gloria Capitan; Myanmar environmentalist Naw Chit Pandaing; Cambodian political commentator Kem Ley; and Thai land rights activist Den Kamlae.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) senior researcher Sunai Phasuk said the overall situation for activists in Southeast Asia this year was very dangerous and worse than in the previous year. Sunai said many activists were killed because of their campaign and many were subjected to criminal and civil lawsuits by authorities and private companies to silence their campaign.
“We have observed that the threat to activists was universal throughout the region. Activists in Asean not only faced life threats, but they were also vulnerable to legal actions by the state and the private sector,” Sunai said.
“This year, we not only saw an increase of the number of cases of threats to activists, but we also saw many existing cases unsolved, such as the forced disappearance cases of Billy (Pholachi Rakchongcharoen), Somchai Neelapaijit, or Sombath Somphone, have not been brought to justice.”
Angkana Neelapaijit, a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) member and wife of missing Muslim lawyer Somchai, stated that while this year had seen fewer threats to the lives of Thai activists with the exception of Den, who has been missing and is presumed to be have been killed, the threat to the activists is coming in the form of legal prosecution.
‘Many females harassed’
“Many activists were sued for their activities, while many past cases have not been solved yet. Some young activists have been sued for more than seven cases, which has caused them financial problems fighting these cases in the court,” Angkana informed.
She also stressed that many female activists were sexually harassed and a lot of people were taken into secret detention, which was also considered forced disappearance.
Sunai highlighted that the intensifying problem was because most countries in Southeast Asia adhered to the principle that the state cannot be challenged or checked, so many countries in the region had laws to limit freedom of speech and expression. This was aimed at controlling activism in their countries and in many cases, the effort to silence the opposition voices cost lives.
He said many people, who tried to expose the misconduct of the government or big companies, were subjected to criminal lawsuits.
He cited the experiences of Pornpen Khongkachonkiet for exposing the use |of torture in the deep South and Andy |Hall for revealing the use of forced labour in a giant fruit company, by using the |laws such as Computer Crime Act or defamation law.
Similar sentiments were voiced by Lao human rights activist and Sombath’s wife Shui Meng Ng, who stated that the strict regime in Laos greatly jeopardised the cause of social workers in the country.
“Because of the lack of freedom in Laos, the activists there have to work very carefully. However, I do not fear prosecution because I am not working against the government, I am just seeking justice for my husband and promoting human rights,” Shui said.
Meanwhile, Sunai emphasised that the most important thing the state needs to understand and protect is the standard human rights of all people. It is the right of everyone to protect their resources, question the government, and guide their future, Sunai said.
Fallen activists in Asean in 2016
Bill Kayong, land rights activist, Malaysia
He campaigned for the land rights of indigenous communities and was shot dead on June 26.
Gloria Capitan, anti-coal campaigner, the Philippines
She was a prominent protester against an open coal storage facility and was shot dead on July 7.
Naw Chit Pandaing, environmental activist, Myanmar
She was a strong advocate against human right violations, land confiscation and the impacts of mining based in Dawei. She was stabbed to death on November 10.
Den Kamlae, land rights activist, Thailand
He fought for communal land rights. It is believed that he was kidnapped and killed on April 16.
Kem Ley, political commentator and activist, Cambodia
He was a popular political commentator and frequent critic of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. He was shot dead on July 10.