Amnesty names 6 women leading human rights activism in Southeast Asia
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Amnesty names 6 women leading human rights activism in Southeast Asia

IN CONJUNCTION with International Women’s Day, Amnesty International has recognised Southeast Asian women activists for their resolve to stand up for human rights in the face of harassment, threats, imprisonment and violence.

“In Southeast Asia, there are few governments who can be proud of their human rights records, but there are countless women across the region who have braved great dangers to take a stand against injustice,” Amnesty International director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Champa Patel said in a statement on Wednesday.

“On this International Women’s Day, we want to recognise … women, from … different countries, whose heroism inspires many in the region and whose contributions to society should be commended, not condemned.”

The six women are:

Thailand: Sirikan Charoensiri

Sirikan regularly defends clients investigated and prosecuted for peacefully defending human rights guaranteed by international law. The 31-year-old lawyer, who is a leading member of Thailand’s civil society, faces 15 years’ imprisonment under charges of treason and violating a ban on “political” assembly of five or more persons.

The charges, Amnesty said, were filed in connection with her defence of her clients, penalised for acts of peaceful protest.

Malaysia: Maria Chin Abdullah

Last November, Maria Chin Abdullah, 60, was detained without trial and held in solitary confinement for 11 days.

Maria, who is known as a soft-spoken mother of three, was arrested under Section 124C of the Penal Code for activities “detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and held under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act.

“This draconian law allows detention for prolonged periods without judicial oversight in secret locations. Her only crime was to have led the Bersih (“clean” in Malay) protest, where thousands took to the streets to peacefully call for electoral reform and good governance,” the watchdog said.


Maria chairs Malaysia’s Bersih 2.0, the Coalition of Clean and Fair Elections. Source: @Reaproy.

Amnesty said Maria was the most prominent of 15 civil society activists who were arrested under various penal code offences for their connection with the Bersih rally.

She has also been repeatedly investigated and charged under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 for the organisation and participation in the other peaceful rallies, the group said.

Cambodia: Tep Vanny

Housing rights activist Tep Vanny has been detained in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar CC2 Prison Since August 2016.

Amnesty said her incarceration is meant to silence her and send a “chilling message to other activists”.

The group said Vanny and her community had attracted hostile attention from the authorities despite peacefully protesting against the forced evictions of thousands of people from the Boeung Kak Lake area in Cambodia’s capital city for almost a decade.

“She and the other women activists from Boeung Kak have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, violence from security guards, unfair trials and imprisonment for their peaceful protests. Yet, they are still determined to stand up for their rights and justice”.

Philippines: Leila de Lima

Senator Leila de Lima, a former justice secretary and former chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, has been recognised as the most prominent critic of President Rodrigo Duterte and his bloody “war on drugs”.

Amnesty said De Lima, 58, had been arrested on politically-motivated charges to silence her.

De Lima, who is currently held at the Philippine National Police headquarters in Manila, faces 12 years’ imprisonment if convicted.


De Lima remains defiant in the face of three drug-related charges. Source: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

“Duterte made de Lima the target of his divisive rhetoric when she convened Senate hearings last August, when the wave of extrajudicial executions of alleged drug offenders had claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people,” the group said.

Since then, de Lima has been the target of vilification.

Last month, Duterte told a crowd of his supporters: “If I were de Lima, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll hang myself.”

Despite her detention, Amnesty said de Lima has remained resolute. “My arrest is an appalling sign of the return of a power-hungry, morally bankrupt and abusive government,” she said prior to arrest.

Vietnam: Trần Thị Nga

The land rights activist and pro-democracy advocate from Hà Nam province was arrested in January under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code for “spreading propaganda against the state”, a provision “regularly used to jail dissidents for lengthy periods”.

Amnesty said Nga was one of 94 prisoners of conscience behind bars in the country.


Nga was accused of ‘spreading propaganda against the state’. Source: YouTube.

The group said Nga taught herself about human rights while recovering from a serious traffic accident while working in Taiwan, where she suffered abuse as a migrant worker.

After her stint in Taiwan, Nga returned to Vietnam where she has relentlessly advocated for human rights, joining the independent Vietnamese Women for Human Rights network.

“Nga has been targeted and physically assaulted on a few occasions by men in plain clothes, as well as police. These attacks have happened in front of her four children,” Amnesty said.

Burma (Myanmar): Wai Wai Nu

Under the country’s military government, Wai Wai Nu, her two siblings and parents were prisoners of conscience.

Amnesty pointed out in 2005, the family was shown to a closed-door room, where there was no lawyer present and they were not allowed to speak, to be “tried” and convicted. Wai Wai Nu, who was an 18-year-old law student at the time, was told she would have to spend the next 17 years behind “narrowly spaced” bars.

Wai Wai Nu, who was an 18-year-old law student at the time, was told she would have to spend the next 17 years behind “narrowly spaced” bars.

As Burma creaked open to reforms in 2012, Wai Wai Nu walked out of her cell “determined to rid her country of the injustices” she grew to know so intimately in jail.

At the age of 25, she completed her law degree and founded two human rights organisations, the Women’s Peace Network-Arakan and Justice for Women.

Wai Wai Nu, a member of Burma’s repressed Rohingya minority, is now widely regarded as an “eloquent and fearless advocate for quality and tolerance,” Amnesty said.