ASEAN rights activists demand change ahead of People’s Forum
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ASEAN rights activists demand change ahead of People’s Forum

The missing Laotian civil society leader Sombath Somphone will be at the forefront of the conversation at the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum meets in Kuala Lumpur next month. Sombath is a victim of enforced disappearance, and was kidnapped in Vientiane, Laos, in 2013. The Laos government has consistently denied involvement or refused to provide real information about the missing civil society leader, and his case has come to represent one of the most egregious human rights offenses still committed in the ASEAN countries.

The ACSC/APF allows civil society activists from all the ASEAN countries to voice their concerns about rights violations in their countries, and become empowered by the strength in numbers there. In countries such as Laos and Vietnam, dissent is often suppressed with jail time or enforced disappearances, which makes it extremely dangerous for activists to speak out. Jerald Joseph, chair of the APF’s Regional Steering Committee, said that by coming to the forum, activists who face risks in their home countries find a safer space to voice their concerns. And their participation puts serious human rights issues in the international spotlight, putting pressure on their governments to address injustices.

ACSC/APF organizers recently condemned the crackdown on protesters in Burma, where 100 people were arrested for speaking out against a new education law. They also pointed to a spate of political arrests in Malaysia and the murder of Indonesian farmer and lands rights activist Indra Pelani, who was allegedly shot to death by “security guards of a subsidiary company of Asia Pulp and Paper,” according to an ACSC/APF statement. They also referred to the many instances of enforced disappearances.

“There are numerous cases where human rights defenders have just disappeared. Somchai Neelapaijit in Thailand, Sombath Somphone in Laos, and Jonas Burgos in the Philippines—where are they?” said Mugiyanto, a member of the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development.

Joseph said in the statement that there is a “dangerous negation of democratic processes” happening in the region.

The Laos government is notorious for restricting civil society activism, and for routinely committing human rights abuses. However, Laos is set to take over the ASEAN chairmainship in 2016, and Joseph said they’ll have to answer for some of their abuses when that happens. Already, civil society actors have been discussing the rights situation in Laos with activists and government officials there.

“The conversation has started, and the pressure is up already,” he said in a phone interview. Despite the lack of progress on Sombath’s case up to this point, Joseph said that will have to change once Laos takes on the chairmanship.

“I think they will have to address it, and give actual answers about what’s happening,” he said.

LGBTQ and land exploitation issues are also high priorities for activists in the ASEAN region, as is religious conflict and unrest. The dire situation of the stateless Rohingya in Burma is also an urgent concern, and Joseph said it will be a key issue addressed at the conference, along with Sombath’s disappearance.

“The silence of the [Burmese] government” makes fears about abuses against the Rohingya all the more urgent, Joseph said.

Participating organizations sent a letter on behalf of the ACSC/APF to all the ASEAN member governments in January, highlighting their priorities for “reclaiming the ASEAN community for the people.”

The letter stated:

While ASEAN governments are heading towards developing the ASEAN Community’s Post-2015 Vision, the people of ASEAN continue to suffer from authoritarian and military regimes, increased militarisation, violence and armed conflicts, unlawful foreign interference, lack of fundamental freedoms and human rights violations, undemocratic processes, corruption and poor governance, development injustice, discrimination, inequality, and religious extremism and intolerance. …

The failure of ASEAN to meaningfully address the people’s issues is deeply rooted in the organisation’s continued adherence to a neo-liberal model that prioritizes corporate interests and elite groups, including state-owned enterprises, over the interests of the people. Our engagement with the ASEAN process is therefore anchored on a critique and rejection of deregulation, privatisation, government and corporate-led trade and investment policies that breed greater inequalities, accelerate marginalization and exploitation, and inhibit peace, democracy, development, and social progress in the region.

The authors identified four priorities for ASEAN governments to focus on: development justice; democratic processes, governance, and fundamental rights and freedoms; peace and security; and discrimination and inequality.

It is clear from reading the letter, and from talking with Joseph, that there is much, much work to be done across ASEAN countries. Even in those that appear more democratic and free, the government stifles free speech and political dissent, and routinely commits human rights violations against its people.

“Sadly, every country will probably have a story to [share] about human rights defenders in their country” at the forum, he said.

But that makes it all the more important for conferences such as this one to happen, to raise international awareness and pressure these governments to reform their policies and protect activists by putting them and their cause in the spotlight.

“Sombath is an example of how dangerous [the situation is for] human rights defenders in the region,” Joseph said. “Governments need to step up when there is threat to life.”