Southeast Asian parliamentarians faced increased threats and harassment in 2021 with 91 lawmakers taken into custody compared with only one last year – often for merely “fulfilling their mandates” – a region-wide group of MPs reported on Thursday.
The report released by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) attributed the spike in detentions to the coup d’état in Myanmar on Feb. 1. It also noted alarming developments in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.
“This year has been yet another dark year for human rights in Southeast Asia, and as our region slides deeper into the grasp of authoritarianism, elected lawmakers have been among those heavily targeted, particularly those standing up for basic decency, human rights, and democracy,” Teddy Baguilat Jr., an APHR board member and former Philippine MP, said in a news release announcing the report.
“On top of MPs being locked up merely for fulfilling their mandates as representatives of the people, we have also witnessed threats to lawmakers for doing their jobs, as well as orchestrated campaigns of judicial harassment and disinformation, aimed at both discrediting and silencing them,” he said.
The group’s 40-page report noted increased pressure on lawmakers after the coup by the Burmese generals who threw civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials from her party behind bars. It noted that in the Philippines, Sen. Leila de Lima, an opponent of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, has been locked up for nearly five years.
“Across Southeast Asia, parliamentarians are increasingly at risk,” the report said.
“Lawmakers who use their mandates to defend human rights or to hold power to account have for years been targeted through trumped-up criminal charges, threats and harassment, physical violence, and detention,” it said.
The report listed three main findings: The response to the COVID-19 pandemic was exploited to curtail and oppress dissent; the number of MPs detained shot up from 1 in 2020 to 91 this year; and online abuse and harassment of MPs occurred at an alarming rate.
“We continued to see MPs targeted, to a large extent because of the military coup in Myanmar and its devastating aftermath, but also due to alarming developments elsewhere,” the group said in its report titled “Parliamentarians at Risk: Reprisals against Opposition MPs in Southeast Asia in 2021.”
“In 2021, the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region also served as an apparent excuse to justify the silencing of democratic debate, either by targeting lawmakers exercising their freedom of expression to scrutinize official measures or by suspending parliament, as was the case in Malaysia,” it said.
Baguilat, the ex-Filipino lawmaker, read a speech written by de Lima where she expressed sympathy and solidarity with MPs, who, like her, face state reprisals.
“We do not have the luxury to cower in fear. Not now,” said Baguilat, reading from de Lima’s speech, adding that people must keep demanding accountability from those who govern.
De Lima has been in police custody for nearly 1,500 days, but continues to write about human rights causes through documents smuggled out of her jail cell by aides. She encouraged supporters of democracy to come together and work for human rights to build a force to fight for freedom.
The APHR report highlighted four of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members, specifically Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. These countries saw attacks against freedom in the middle of the pandemic, it noted.
A fifth country, Cambodia, was not featured in detail, but “the APHR remains deeply concerned about the situation in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled an effective one-party state since the main opposition party was arbitrarily disbanded in 2017.
“In 2021, authorities relied on a politicized judiciary to continue to level baseless charges against former opposition lawmakers and members of the opposition, including several exiled leaders,” it said.
The report flagged alarming trends in the Philippines.
“Disinformation campaigns, threats, and ‘red-tagging’ of opposition lawmakers rose alarmingly ahead of the general elections taking place in 2022. President Rodrigo Duterte and other senior officials made baseless accusations against left-wing lawmakers, claiming they support an armed communist insurgency. Such accusations can come with heavy consequences and have, in the past, been linked to the murder of government critics,” it said.
Red-tagging involves accusing individuals of having links to communist rebels.
In Thailand, Move Forward Party (MFP) lawmakers are being battered in social media posts after calling out the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and his allies over alleged massive corruption, it said.
“The continued harassment against the MFP lawmakers and former lawmakers of the [Future Forward Party], whether through the judiciary or through online targeting, appears to be part of a concerted and systematic effort by the government to discredit and silence the party,” the report said.
“Despite the personal costs involved and the ever-present threat of arrest and even imprisonment, its MPs have continued to challenge the role of the military in Thai politics and promote a human rights agenda in parliament.”
Dozens of lawmakers joined the MFP in early 2020 after the Thai Constitutional Court ordered the FFP be dissolved and its top officials be banned from politics for a decade over allegations that its leader, billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, illegally loaned the party money leading up the 2019 general election. The pro-democracy FFP finished third in that election.
The report also accused the Malaysian government of ex-Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin of using the COVID-19 pandemic in January as a pretext to impose a state of emergency, allowing the suspension of parliament for seven months.
“The suspension violated international human rights and democratic standards, and prevented parliamentary oversight at a time when transparent political representation and actions were critically needed,” it said.
APHR also noted a “growing crackdown on dissent in Malaysia, with about 10 lawmakers known to have been interrogated or charged for expressing criticism related to human rights abuses or the suspension of parliament.
It said these legal cases “rarely lead to convictions” and are “filed to harass MPs and muzzle freedom of expression.”
The APHR offered a series of suggestions to government leaders in the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia.
• immediately ending all forms of politically motivated harassment of opposition lawmaker and dropping all politically motivated investigations and charges against those lawmakers;
• ensuring prompt, thorough and impartial investigations of allegations of such threats and harassment occur and perpetrators are held to account;
• And ending all threatening, sexist and misogynistic rhetoric against lawmakers; and publicly condemning “disinformation” campaigns targeting lawmakers.
“As space for democracy in ASEAN recedes increasingly every year, it is crucial that governments across Southeast Asia and others take immediate steps to better protect the human rights of all parliamentarians,” the group said.
The group representing Southeast Asian lawmakers issued the report a week before U.S. President Joe Biden was to host a two-day Summit for Democracy. His administration has invited 110 countries to it but only three counties in the 10-member ASEAN bloc are on the list of invitees – Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
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