Asean is falling short in duty to protect citizens’ human rights
Charles Santiago/ SCMP
The latest Asean Summit, the 36th of its kind, was organised under the theme of a “cohesive and responsive Asean”. In a 27-page statement published at the end of the event, this year‘s chair, Vietnam, said the leaders of the 10-member bloc had made commitments to upholding “Asean unity, solidarity and centrality”.
On the eve of the summit, fishermen off the coast of Aceh, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, rescued about 100 stranded Rohingya refugees. They were driven to intervene after officials said they planned to push the refugees back out to sea. Here was a prime example of Asean citizens displaying unity and solidarity while their leaders’ claims of such rang hollow.
It is not only the Indonesian government that has consistently let down the Rohingya in Asean. Myanmar in particular, as well as Thailand and Malaysia, have directly contributed to the Rohingya’s suffering through various inhumane actions in recent years, and the situation has grown worse during the Covid-19 pandemic. They have pushed back Rohingya boats under the guise of protecting their citizens against the spread of the coronavirus, with Malaysia in particular witnessing a surge in hateful anti-Rohingya rhetoric.
All other Asean member states deserve their fair share of scrutiny for failing to speak up or act on behalf of the Rohingya and other groups in vulnerable situations. With Myanmar still unwilling to take meaningful steps to address the causes of this crisis, the issue has become a regional shame.
It is not only the Rohingya, of course. For many people who call this region home, Asean is increasingly viewed as a rich man’s club. It is one that pursues lucrative business opportunities at the expense of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its people.
The coronavirus pandemic has further strengthened this viewpoint. Although case numbers in Southeast Asia have remained relatively low compared to other parts of the world, the virus has exposed major flaws and inequalities in the region’s governance. Measures introduced by governments to combat the virus have ignored the concerns of those in already vulnerable situations, including informal and migrant workers.
For those relying on a daily wage, self-isolation was not an option. The Malaysian government in particular has used the crisis as an excuse to crack down on migrants and refugees and detain them. In addition, lockdowns risk triggering more incidents of domestic violence amid increased stress and difficult living conditions.
Not only have authorities failed to protect the most vulnerable, but Asean has remained silent as some leaders use the pandemic to strengthen their hold on power and silence dissenting voices. Cambodia, under the increasingly despotic rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, has been one of the region‘s worst cases.
In April, his government enacted a state of emergency law under the guise of dealing with Covid-19 that grants authorities overly broad powers to restrict freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. He has also used the virus as an excuse to arrest dozens of critics, including members of the now-dissolved opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Things aren’t looking much better in the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte – another leader hardly known for his commitment to democratic values – has enacted a state of emergency, granted the state security apparatus permission to behave as it wishes, cracked down on critical media and enacted further repressive legislation.
Thailand keeps extending its emergency decree despite coronavirus cases being at a negligible level but amid growing student-led, anti-government protests. In my own country of Malaysia, a back-door government that came to power in March has tried to limit parliamentary oversight on its activities by only holding one parliamentary sitting in May, months after the outbreak began.
With Asean’s leaders being directly responsible for the dismal state of human rights in the region, their claims of regional unity and solidarity do not ring true. However, the challenges and inequalities the pandemic has highlighted also present an opportunity for the region‘s leaders to reflect on past mistakes and change course towards an Asean that is people-centred.
An effective starting point would be improving regional cooperation and assistance to ensure everyone in the region has access to basic services and social protection measures. This includes those working in the informal sector and migrant workers, who have been heavily affected by the current situation.
Asean must also focus on greater environmental sustainability. Post-pandemic recovery plans must move our economies away from a reliance on fossil fuels and towards renewable energy projects that reduce contributions to climate change.
Shifting towards a greener economy that boosts decent employment, offers social protection to all and creates sustainable food supplies will help the region absorb the immediate impact of the recession and be better prepared for similar shocks in the future. Sustainable, fair economies will also enhance public safety and guarantee the long-term economic prosperity of the region.
The worrying rise in xenophobic and hateful rhetoric in recent months is increasing risks at a time of economic hardship. Asean leaders must play a preventive role in ensuring unity and peace by speaking out against hate speech of all kinds.
The Covid-19 crisis has showcased what liberties authoritarians will take when presented with an opportunity to strengthen their hold on power. To safeguard against the rise of authoritarianism, we must strengthen parliamentary oversight – especially when it comes to human rights – and find ways for citizens to better participate in democracies. The expected increased embrace of technology could create new opportunities for governments and parliamentarians to improve people‘s involvement in democracies.
So far, our region’s leaders have not put their people at the forefront of their priorities, but Covid-19 presents an opportunity to change course. Let’s learn from the mistakes of the past and ensure an Asean that is inclusive, sustainable and can benefit everyone.