Asia And The Pacific
On 20 May, in Kawhmu township, near Yangon, the Myanmar authorities
prevented desperate survivors of Cyclone Nargis from coming out onto
the street to beg while punishing people who tried to help them–
effectively cutting them off fromany informal assistance. Almost three
weeks earlier, the cyclone had devastated much of southern Myanmar,
killing tens of thousands of people and displacing hundreds of
thousands more from their homes and livelihoods.
The cyclone should have also wiped away any lingering doubts over whether repressive government policies can impoverish a population. The world watched in horror as Myanmar’s government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), refused to acknowledge the scope of the disaster and provided little assistance to the estimated 2.4 million survivors of the cyclone. For three weeks, the SPDC also rejected international assistance and blocked access to the Ayeyarwady delta when survivors most needed food, shelter and medicine. Instead, a week after the cyclone, as victims were still struggling to survive, the SPDC diverted crucial resources towards a rubber stamp referendum to approve a new and deeply flawed Constitution. By deliberately blocking vital aid while failing to provide adequate assistance itself the SPDC violated the rights of hundreds of thousands to life, food, and health.
In countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region, hundreds of millions of people suffered from government policies they were either unable or afraid to challenge. Millions more slid into poverty as the cost of food, fuel, and other commodities rose, in part as a result of a global financial crisis. Most of these people were denied the right to help shape an appropriate response to these crises by their own governments.
But the events around Cyclone Nargis were so extreme they elicited action from Myanmar’s neighbours in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as from China, the country’s chief international backer. Although these governments have previously claimed that international human rights clash with “Asian values”, threaten national sovereignty, and deny the primacy of economic development, in the face of such large-scale disaster, ASEAN publicly called on the Myanmar authorities to provide access to aid, and went on to mediate between the SPDC and the international community.
Evenmore notably, the Chinese government responded to the scope of the catastrophe (and the desire to protect its image in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing) by deviating from its long-held position of not interfering in the affairs of other sovereign states and seems to have used its significant influence to persuade the SPDC to cooperate with international offers of aid.
The Beijing Olympics, and China’s resulting heightened sensitivity to its image, raised hopes for real and sustained improvements in the country’s overall human rights situation. Indeed, this had been one of the reasons offered by the International Olympics Committee for awarding Beijing the Games. Instead, the run-up to the Olympics was marred by increased repression throughout the country as authorities tightened control over human rights defenders, religious practitioners, ethnic minorities, lawyers and journalists. The Chinese authorities forcibly evicted thousands of Beijing residents from their homes and punished those who dared challenge the government’s actions.
As a sporting event, the Games were widely praised for their magnificence. They showed the government’s ability to marshal massive resources and proved, as they were intended to, that China has assumed its position as one of the world’s leading powers. But the Games also served to point out that a country capable of mounting such a spectacle cannot justify the failure to meet many of the human rights aspirations of its people, and in particular the rights of tens of millions of citizens who have not been allowed to share in the country’s phenomenal economic development.
For years, the Chinese government advanced its economic policies upon the back of some 150 million migrant workers, most of whom flocked from the countryside into slums in China’s rapidly growing cities. But with the end of the building boom associated with the Olympics, and the growing impact of the global economic crisis, China’s millions of migrant workers faced an uncertain future as 2008 waned and they returned to their villages, without the promise of a constantly growing economy, and aware of how much their lives differed from those of China’s increasingly affluent urban middle classes. The social tensions caused by this growing rift and awareness of the disparities between rich and poor, urban and rural, led to thousands of protests throughout China.
The Asia-Pacific region as a whole houses some of the world’s wealthiest areas (in Australia, China, Japan, South Korea) next to some of the most impoverished populations (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea, Papua New Guinea). Throughout 2008, the differences in the wellbeing of these people seemed much more to do with government policy, than the distribution of natural resources.
Asia’s other giant, India, has tried to achieve economic progress while maintaining a solid commitment to civil and political rights internally. But the Indian authorities have not managed to ensure the rights of the urban poor and already marginalized communities in rural areas, including landless farmers and adivasi communities who oppose exploitation of their land and other resources for industrial projects. In several states, authorities ignored existing constitutional provisions demarcating areas as exclusively adivasi territories and allotted them to mining and other industries. In Orissa, one of India’s poorest states, the competition over limited resources was intertwined with political struggles about the rights of the adivasis, freedom of religion, and the government’s development policies. The result was ongoing communal violence that led to at least 25 deaths and displaced at least 15,000 people, mostly Christians facing persecution – and prevented thousands of people from receiving adequate health care, education, and housing.
Indigenous communities in Bangladesh also suffered from government policies. While the political struggle between a military backed caretaker government and veteran political leaders dominated the headlines, behind the scenes the government continued its steady support for the Bengali settlers seizing land from Jumma Indigenous inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
In October, the Asian Development Bank warned that 2 million Cambodians may have been thrust into poverty as the cost of food, fuel and other commodities rose amid the global financial crisis. This was in addition to the 4.5million, around a third of the population, already living in poverty. More than 4,000 Phnom Penh families living around Boeung Kak Lake, many of them in basic housing, faced displacement as the lake was turned into a landfill site. Residents were given no notice before the landfill began on 26 August 2008, and protesters faced widespread threats from local authorities and company workers. Meanwhile, Phnom Penh’s police increased night-time raids among those living in poverty and on the margins of society, arbitrarily arresting sex workers, homeless people and beggars.
“Arresting one man is to threaten hundreds of thousands of people, scaring them from struggling and advocating again... I see this as an injustice for the Cambodian people.”- Oeun Sarim, farmer and human rights defender, talking about the systematicarrest of land activists in Cambodia, February 2008.
In North Korea, millions of people experienced hunger on a scale not seen in a decade.Women, children and the elderly were the most vulnerable. Thousands continued to cross the border into China mainly for food and economic reasons. Those arrested and forcibly repatriated were subjected to forced labour, torture and other ill-treatment in prison camps. The North Korean government took no action to address the situation, and did not even request assistance from South Korea, one of the biggest donors of rice and fertilizer in previous years, due to strained relations.
No countries in the Asia-Pacific region were officially at war with each other during 2008, but conflicts between governments and armed opposition groups threatened the lives of tens of thousands across Asia and prevented millions more from accessing health care, education, housing and food. These conflicts were at least partially based on ethnicity, with one group often taking up arms against another to demand equal, or greater, access to resources.
Regardless of the cause of the conflict, it was civilians, especially those already marginalized by gender, ethnicity, religion, caste or social class, who were particularly vulnerable in such conflicts.
“For us, relief is only when our loved one is safe and sound, standing freed before us... I believe that my husband is held only three kilometres from my home, yet he continues to suffer unknown ill-treatment.” -Amina Masood Janjua, wife of Masood Janjua – a victim of enforced disappearance – Pakistan, July 2008.
Residents of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, southern Thailand and the southern Philippines faced significant threats from armed forces – government and anti-government – that frequently trampled on even the basic laws of armed conflict.
Millions of Afghans living in southern and eastern Afghanistan, terrorized by the Taleban and other insurgent groups as well as local militias ostensibly allied with the government, faced persistent insecurity, further restricting their already limited access to food, health care, and schooling, especially for girls and women. The year set another bloody record of violence in Afghanistan – the death of around 1,400 civilians as a direct result of the fighting, while tens of thousands of people fled their homes to avoid it, many gravitating to the relative security and prosperity of major cities such as Kabul and Herat, huddling in new slums. The Taleban and other anti-government groups were responsible for most of the injuries to civilians, but the nearly 60,000 international troops in Afghanistan continued to carry out air strikes and night raids that harmed civilians and their property, predictably fostering tremendous popular anger.
The Afghan government failed to maintain the rule of law or to provide basic services to millions of Afghans even in areas under its control. The Taleban and other anti-government groups extended their sway overmore than a third of the country, again barring girls from education and health care, and imposing their own brutal brand of justice, which frequently relied on public executions and flogging. As a result, despite some gains in terms of children’s enrolment in school and basic health care, most Afghans lived short lives of great hardship. Life expectancy was just 42.9 years, the country again experienced one of the highest recorded levels of maternal mortality on the planet and the average per capita income was just US$350 per year – one of the lowest in the world.
The insecurity in Afghanistan overflowed the border and engulfed large parts of Pakistan; not just in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan but increasingly in other areas of Pakistan, as members of the Pakistani Taleban took hostages, targeted and killed civilians, and committed acts of violence against women and girls. By the end of the year, Pakistani Taleban groups had entrenched their hold over large parts of the frontier tribal areas, as well as the Swat valley, a settled area outside the tribal territories and within easy distance of Islamabad. The Taleban shut down dozens of girls’ schools, health clinics, and any business deemed insufficiently
devout, such as music shops. Not surprisingly, people – especially women and girls – living in the tribal areas of Pakistan lived shorter lives than in other parts of Pakistan, suffered higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, and experienced significantly lower rates of education.
A newly elected civilian government came to power in Pakistan in February and made many promises to improve the country’s human rights situation. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari followed through on some of those promises, but proved as hapless in addressing the country’s growing crisis of insecurity as the military government of General Pervez Musharraf. By the end of the year, it was simply repeating the former’s disastrous vacillation between abandoning significant portions of Pakistan’s citizens to the rule of brutal insurgent groups, and pursuing a scorched earth policy – punishing the local populace without significantly diminishing the fighting ability of anti-government groups.
The pattern of civilians caught between pro- and anti-government forces disdainful of their wellbeing occurred throughout Asia. In southern Thailand, violence has simmered intermittently for a century, reflecting the long-standing disenfranchisement of the area’s population, which is predominantly Malay in ethnicity and language, and Muslim in religion. The area is one of the poorest and least developed in Thailand, and the population has long resented efforts at assimilation by the country’s Thai Buddhist central government andmajority. Insurgent forces have resorted to brutal tactics, such as decapitating and otherwise targeting Buddhist citizens, and attacking schools. But the government’s heavy-handed security response, including torture and other ill-treatment of Muslim suspects, has led to widespread human rights violations and has alienated the local population.
A somewhat similar dynamic fuelled the conflict in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, where the Muslim population, feeling disenfranchised from the country’s predominantly Christian population and leadership, suffered significantly lower rates of economic development. The failure of peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) led to a resumption of violence in August that continues to be accompanied by abuses by both sides. The number of civilians directly affected by this most recent escalation of hostilities has increased dramatically, with no clear end in sight. After attacks by the MILF on civilians in predominantly Christian and sometimes mixed Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods in August 2008, more than 610,000 people fled their villages to escape – both from MILF direct attacks and from fighting between the MILF and security forces. Around 240,000 of them have subsequently gone back to their homes after the Philippine military declared their villages safe. Many returned to find their houses burned and their livestock stolen, and they continue to live in fear.
“I was still a young lady when we first had to evacuate. Then when I had young children, we had to evacuate again. Now, I have three grandchildren, but nothing has changed.”- A 63-year-old woman, one of the internally displaced people from North Cotabato province, Philippines, August 2008.
In Myanmar, even as the government’s policies pauperized the entire population, the SPDC acted with particular venom in its treatment of the country’s 135 ethnic and religious minority groups – nearly a third of the entire population. The Myanmar army continued its offensive against the Karen civilians of Kayin (Karen) State and Bago (Pegu) Division. Since November 2005, when the current government offensive began, more than 140,000 Karen civilians have been killed, tortured, forcibly displaced, sexually violated, forced to work, including dangerous work related to military exercises, like clearing landmines, and otherwise subjected to widespread and systematic violations of their human rights. These violations amount to crimes against humanity.
Another ‘forgotten conflict’ of 2008 raged between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The island’s large Tamil population had long complained of political and economic discrimination by the ruling Sinhalese majority. The LTTE had used a range of brutal tactics, such as bomb attacks on civilians and forced recruitment of children as soldiers to carve out a de facto independent state in the north and east of the island for nearly a decade. But this hardly proved a haven for the Tamil population, as the LTTE brooked no opposition. As 2008 waned, the Sri Lankan government was on its way to overrunning this enclave in a series of military victories. Nearly the entire Tamil population of the northern area known as the Wanni, more than a quarter million, fled their homes in a search for safety. Many, if not most, of this population had already been displaced several times by the fighting, including in previous years, and some had survived the ravages of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The Sri Lankan government prevented international aid workers or journalists from reaching the conflict zone to assist or witness the plight of those caught between the two sides. For their part, the beleaguered LTTE exploited this population as a ready source of forced labour, military personnel, and a buffer against approaching Sri Lankan troops.
Even where ethnic discrimination did not give rise to armed conflict, it remained a common feature of the social landscape in the Asia-Pacific region, fromthe wealthiest societies to the most impoverished. In February, the Australian government made an historic apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who as children were forcibly removed from their families under government laws and policies. But the government announced it would not set up a compensation fund nor any other form of redress.
The government of the world’s newest republic, Nepal, struggled to meet its promise to improve the lives of Nepalis who had suffered generations of officially sanctioned deprivation. The Maoists controlling the government had built much of their appeal on championing the rights of women, lower castes, and the poor. However, they met the most significant challenge to their rule from the country’s large population of Madhesis, residents of the flat southern third of the country, who felt the new government did not sufficiently take account of their long-standing grievances.
“We are always under threat. We want support from the state, support from the police. If we call to report an incident of violence we want the police to take action, not ignore us”. - Mohna Answari, Muslim lawyer, woman human rights defender, Nepalgunj, Nepal, November 2008.
China’s large ethnic minorities in the west of the country, in Tibetan-populated areas and the predominantly Muslim province of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, continued to suffer systematic discrimination. Both areas witnessed some of the worst unrest of recent years in 2008. Protests by Tibetan monks on 10 March and subsequent protests by more monks urged a halt to government imposed political education campaigns and easing of restrictions on religious practice. Violence erupted as lay Tibetans joined the protests, expressing long-term grievances including perceived exclusion from the benefits of economic development and the weakening of Tibetan culture and ethnic identity through government policies. Some of the protesters attacked Han migrants and their businesses in Lhasa but protests continued largely peacefully throughout Tibetan areas. Chinese authorities ultimately reported that 21 people had been killed by violent protesters and that more than 1,000 individuals detained in the protests had been released, and overseas Tibetan organizations reported that more than 100 Tibetans had been killed, and estimated that at least several hundred remained in detention at the end of the year. Exact numbers were difficult to determine because the authorities denied access to media and independent monitors.
In Xinjiang, on 14 August,Wang Lequan, Secretary of the Communist Party in Xinjiang, announced a “life and death” struggle against Uighur Muslim“separatism”. The authorities cited a series of violent incidents by alleged terrorists to justify a sweeping crackdown and continued their tight control over religious practice, including prohibiting all government employees and children from worshipping at mosques. The Chinese authorities reported that more than 1,300 people had been arrested during the year on charges of terrorism, religious extremism or other violations of state security laws, and 1,154 were formally charged or
faced trials or administrative punishments.
As the year ended and the effects of a downturn in the global economy were manifested in lost jobs, less food on the table, and less income for necessities, such as housing, education, and health care, more people throughout the Asia-Pacific region demanded account ability from their governments. Rather than responding to their needs, their governments tried to silence them. This trend aggravated the long-standing, prevalent intolerance of free expression bymany governments in the Asia-Pacific region, nowhere clearer than in NorthKorea and Myanmar, which have effectively banned freedomof expression absolutely for years.
Chinese authorities temporarily eased restrictions on freedom of the press in the run-up to the Olympics. They allowed foreign journalists unprecedented latitude to report and unblocked access to websites such as that of Amnesty International and the BBC. By the end of the year, however, with popular discontent on the rise, Chinese authorities reverted to silencing and intimidating critics. Signatories of Charter 08, which had called for fundamental legal and political reform, came under intense government scrutiny and several members of the group were harassed and subjected to ill-treatment. At least one signatory, Liu Xiaobo, remained in arbitrary detention at the end of the year. By the start of 2009, Amnesty International’s website was one of many again banned.
Similarly, Viet Nam continued its crackdown of supporters of Bloc 8406, an Internet-based pro-democracy movement, as well as other unauthorized groups calling for democracy and human rights, many charged under Article 88 of the Penal Code, “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam” or laws criminalizing “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”.
Assaults on free speech were not limited to socialist states. The government of Singapore continued its misuse of libel laws to silence criticism: the Far Eastern Economic Review was convicted of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Lee, while the Wall Street Journal Asia faced legal action in September for challenging the judiciary’s independence. Some 19 anti-poverty campaigners faced charges for holding unauthorized public street gatherings.
In Thailand, there was a sharp increase in the number of people charged with lese-majesty, a law prohibiting any word or act that defames, insults or threatens the royal family. Fiji’s interim government announced in August that it would establish a media tribunal to provide “stronger regulation” of the media.
In Sri Lanka, what was once a vibrant media environment suffered tremendously as the wave of attacks on journalists and media workers continued. At least 14 media workers have been unlawfully killed in Sri Lanka since the beginning of 2006. Others have been arbitrarily detained, tortured or reported to have become victims of enforced disappearance, while in the custody of security forces.More than 20 journalists have left the country in response to death threats.
Under increasing political and economic pressure, many people in the Asia-Pacific region turned to the international human rights framework to bolster their efforts to secure greater dignity for themselves and others.
Setting aside its historic reluctance to speak in the language of human rights, ASEAN’s valuable efforts in the wake of Cyclone Nargis helped those devastated receive critical assistance. With longer-term effect, the ASEAN Charter came into force in November when it was ratified by all 10 ASEAN member states. The Charter assertsmembers’ commitment to human rights and provides ASEAN with an unprecedented opportunity to create a strong human rights body.
Parliamentarians at the Pacific Parliamentarians Conference in December unanimously supported moves to establish a Pacific regional human rights mechanism– a serious step forward for the Pacific Islands and for the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.
Both these initiatives are a credit to human rights activists in Asia and the Pacific, who have been at the forefront of pushing for such
change. And despite heavy-handed responses by governments, placin human rights defenders at great personal risk, such individuals continued to work to secure the rights of people suffering deprivation and abuse. In many places, a growing number of activists and government critics began using the internet as a tool to voice dissent and mobilize support. In China, internet usage has grown tremendously, enabling people to share information about their government’s actions and, in the case of a few, daring individuals, to call for reform. Similarly, in Viet Nam, brave activists increasingly took to blogs to call for change and voice dissent.
In Malaysia and Singapore, countries where repression of free speech continues unabated, bloggers are the main source of independent information, analysis, and criticism– and pay the price for it.
At the root of all these efforts is the notion that all individuals have a claim to human rights and dignity. Although often honoured in the breach, the events of 2008 strongly indicated that this belief now has taken firm root among many communities in the Asia-Pacific region.
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