‘Democracy in crisis’: Freedom House warns of rising anti-democratic forces in Asia Pacific
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‘Democracy in crisis’: Freedom House warns of rising anti-democratic forces in Asia Pacific

POLITICAL rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, warns rights watchdog Freedom House.

According to the US-based organisation, the year was characterised by crumbling democracies, emboldened autocrats and a struggle for human freedom exacerbated by the United States’ withdrawal from its global leadership role.

“Democracy is in crisis,” the report released Tuesday states. “The values it embodies – particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law – are under assault and in retreat globally.”

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The report also warned of the rise of anti-democratic forces across Asia-Pacific. North Korea, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, were deemed “not free,” according to the freedom watchdog’s scoring. Malaysia, Burma (Myanmar), Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines were all rated “partly free.”

Cambodia

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Kem Sokha’s supporters stand outside the Appeal Court during his bail hearing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Sept 26, 2017. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Cambodia was singled out for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s crackdown on political opposition and his attack on press freedom in the run-up to 2018 general elections.

In 2017, the Supreme Court dissolved the only credible opposition party and imprisoned opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason.

Authorities shuttered independent newspaper Cambodia Daily and closed down several radio stations in what was a series of blows to free expression. Sharing criticism of the government on social media was also deemed a crime.

China

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A demonstrator holds cardboard jail bars, as he protests of the jailing of student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, who were imprisoned for their participation of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong on Aug 20, 2017. Source: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

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Another regional concern is the increasing influence of China’s Communist Party leadership in Hong Kong as it attempts to “stamp out growing public support for local self-determination,” the report said.

The government stepped in to impose harsher punishments on prominent Hong Kong protest leaders, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow. The trio appealed the sentence on Tuesday in a decision that was seen as a litmus test for the independence of the city’s judiciary. It was announced Wednesday, that the sentences will be upheld.

In addition, four pro-democracy lawmakers were expelled from the legislature after their oaths of office were deemed “insincere.”

Burma

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Bodies of Rohingya refugee children from Burma, who were killed when their boat capsized on the way to Bangladesh, are carried by local residents in Shah Porir Dwip, in Teknaf, near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, October 9, 2017. Source: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

The “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya Muslims carried out by the Burmese military, and the leadership’s failure to stop it, “underscored severe flaws in the country’s hybrid political system,” the report states.

The clearing operations that began in August in Rakhine State have forced over 650,000 Rohingya refugees to flee across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The military “continues to use brutal tactics to fight multiple ethnic insurgencies,” said Freedom House, accusing radical Buddhist leaders of supporting the campaign and portraying the Rohingya “as a menace to national unity and security.”

Timor Leste

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Supporters of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor political party shout during a rally on the last day of campaigning ahead of this weekend’s parliamentary elections in Dili, East Timor, on July 19, 2017. Source: Reuters/Lirio Da Fonseca/File Photo

One of the few bright spots in the region was the island nation of Timor Leste. One of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia conducted fair elections that led to a smooth transfer of power and helped to consolidate democratic development in the country.

On a regional and global scale, Freedom House warns that democracy is under attack.

“Today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened. For the 12th consecutive year, …countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains.”