Right to protest: Under attack in Asia Pacific

December 11, 2022

Researchers and CSOs, link arms with the people! Fight for human rights and system change! 

As we commemorate the 74th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights today, many obstacles continue to thwart the full realization of people’s rights. The worsening human rights crisis in many parts of the world has become more apparent and alarming as we march toward an unavoidable global recession.

Meanwhile, protesters and democratic movements continue to make their governments accountable for policies that violate people’s rights. In response, state repression has intensified during the pandemic alongside the rise of fascism in the Global South. We are seeing a growing trend of intolerance against civic action and activism.

2022: Year of protests amid repression

According to the CIVICUS’ Global Assessment on Protest Rights 2022, violations against the people’s right to protest have been committed by governments in over 100 countries. Data shows that half of these countries belong to the Asia Pacific region. 

Movements against corruption and government accountability from the economic and political crisis have been growing and they are demanding change.

Mongolians protested in their capital and in other cities against government officials’ involvement in the coal industry corruption as well as the country’s worsening inflation rates. Thousands marched into the Prime Minister’s residence and were met by police violence.

In Indonesia, civil society and progressive organizations opposed the country’s newly-enacted criminal code. Masked as a “morality law” prohibiting extramarital and premarital sex, it heavily penalizes dissent and progressive ideologies as well as the act of joining organizations or groups that “goes against Islamic morals.”

Police forces recently cracked down on Bangladeshi protesters critical of the government and arrested thousands of activists. A few months before, opposition leaders and activists were targeted and killed.

With almost two years in power, the Myanmar junta continues to crack down on dissidents, activists, and the opposition. In recent news, the junta sentenced seven university students to death which sparked global outrage and renewed protests led by youth and student activists.

Almost three years into the pandemic, China’s Zero COVID Policy finally relaxed due to the massive protests since November. The administration vowed to respond with a “crackdown” against “hostile forces and infiltrative activities.” The actions are still ongoing despite drastic measures by the government authorities against the Chinese people.

In the Westernmost part of Asia, the Iranian government is being shaken by youth-led protests. The execution of activist Mohsen Shekari is the latest in the government’s attempt to intimidate the protesters. Initially sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old girl who was penalized for the “improper wearing” of a hijab, mass protest actions are not slowing down in the Muslim country. 

In the Philippines, activists and citizens continue to face danger from the draconian laws and anti-insurgency programs. The recently-enacted Anti-Terrorism Law and the military-led witch-hunting unit of the government arbitrarily label activists as “communist-terrorist.” Despite threats of arrest and state violence, Filipinos are massively mounting protests to demand wage increases amid rising inflation and against projects mired in corruption and human rights abuses. 

Confronted by a public-private partnership between the local government and the Adani Group, fisherfolk in Kerala mounted protests as they fear the loss of their livelihood and homes. Months prior, the proposed new military recruitment system was opposed in many parts of the country which the Indian authorities tried to quell. Massive farmer-led protests continue in the country condemning neoliberal policies that aimed to deregulate the agriculture sector.

After the heavy flooding that destroyed huge acres of land and claimed thousands of lives and livelihoods, Pakistani farmers have been tirelessly protesting the government’s inaction, neglect, and collusion with the US government. Months before, the indignation protests against the enforced disappearances of two students were cracked down by the police.

After the massive public demonstrations against the monarchy and the old constitution last year, the people of Thailand hit the streets last November in opposition to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings. Many groups from different parts of the country gathered and were dispersed violently by the Thai police with rubber bullets and tear gas. Several activists were also arrested.

In the Maldives, a decree was enacted by the government to ban protests against India. This was followed by human rights violations committed by state forces against activists, the opposition, and even journalists.

Many governments in the periphery of Russia and Ukraine used the conflict between the two countries to ban civic action. In Kyrgyzstan, the government restricted public gatherings in the guise of combating misinformation. This further escalated the restriction of free speech by penalizing journalists and online attacks on media outlets.

Clearly, people are standing up for their rights. The massive protests in the Asia Pacific region, albeit differing in intensities, prove that there is urgency in protecting and advancing people’s rights.

These cases also clearly show a trend toward authoritarianism and militarism among governments in the region. Governments have intensified attacks that have further shrunk civic spaces. This has brought about a suppression of the people’s right to demand accountability.

Governments continue to implement various anti-people and anti-democratic policies in collusion with transnational corporations and at the expense of the people’s rights and welfare. We have seen how the COVID-19 pandemic response has exacerbated the conditions as the governments used this to pacify discontent, and implement lockdowns and restrictions on civil and political rights.

Human rights and military aid

The increased militarism in Asia Pacific is also fueling human rights violations. In an effort to keep China at bay and preserve its superpower status, the US continues to bolster its influence in the region. Alongside aggressive diplomacy, it has been pumping money for war to autocratic regimes. Five out of the top 10 US military aid recipients in 2020 are from countries in Asia. Israel got the most military support with 3.30 billion dollars followed by Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and the Philippines. 

In Southeast Asia, the Philippine government received 1.14 billion dollars in aircraft, warships, and military training from 2015 to 2022 making the country by far the greatest recipient of US military aid in the subregion. 

US military aid is associated with elevated incidence of human rights violations. The provision of military aid to certain countries has been widely criticized by civil society because it has been used to commit human rights abuses. US military funding to countries like Israel and the Philippines has enabled those governments to crack down on dissent and commit rights abuses against the people. Additionally, there have been instances in which US-made weapons have been used in conflicts in which killings and attacks against civilians have been committed.

Our task: link arms with the people

The path towards claiming our rights is hobbled with deep-seated economic inequalities and multipolar imperial order. The human rights crisis is born out of intensifying wars of aggression, fascist governments, criminal neglect in the COVID-19 response, and anti-people economic policies.

We, researchers and civil society organizations, must link arms with the marginalized, grassroots organizations, people’s movements, and communities who continue to resist.  In this time when the right to protest and our civil and political rights are under attack, solidarity and collective action are our greatest weapons. 

APRN commits to ramp up its efforts as a research network in strengthening people’s movements in collectively asserting democratic rights amid the rise of fascist regimes in the Asia Pacific region. We will continue to support grassroots organizations through a rights-based approach and advance people’s research with a critical understanding of issues to support struggles for social justice.#

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