2017: Southeast Asia’s Year in Review

Burmese female migrant workers sewing or stitching leather shoes in footwear production line of factory in Sankhlaburi, Kanchanaburi, Thai-Burma border province.

A year is a long time in Southeast Asia. Some of the world’s biggest stories have come from the region, particularly the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar which briefly looked like it would split the region down religious lines and the Marawi City siege in Southern Philippines highlighting the threat Islamic terrorism continues to play. But beyond the headlines, 2017 has been a dynamic year for the region’s long-running issues. While human rights took backward steps in just about every country, small wins for labour and LGBT rights offer slivers of hope for the year ahead.

Rainbows Coming After the Rain

An overarching view of LGBT rights in the region is a hard thing to quantify, watchers often note. With the political, religious and cultural diversity across Southeast Asia comes a diversity in acceptance and tolerance of the LGBT community running across the spectrum from celebration to criminality. This year was no different, says Ryan Silverio, the regional coordinator of the Asean SOGIE Caucus which monitors and advocates for LGBT rights within Asean.

In July, Timor Leste hosted its inaugural Pride March which saw hundreds of Timorese take to the street in Dili in celebration and support. The march was followed up a week later by then Prime Minister Rui Maria De Araujo delivering an address in open support of the country’s LGBT community speaking at length on the important contributions which all Timorese make to the country’s development. Silverio calls the speech a “big win” for the cause.

He also points to the recent rejection of a judicial review before the Indonesian Constitutional Court which would have made same-sex relations a criminal act as well governments in Indonesia and the Philippines both accepting recommendations made by Asean SOGIE Caucus as signs of hope for the future.

The year’s setbacks, which Silverio says are “nothing new,” caused condemnation around much of the world but prompted little change. The caning of two young men in Indonesia’s sharia-practising province of Aceh in May and new restrictions enforced on Singapore’s annual Pink Dot Day rally are two of the larger developments indicating a tightening on freedoms and activism across the region. Alongside this, Asean SOGIE found anti-LGBT rhetoric had been picked up by right wing and conservative parties in all countries in an effort to drum up political wins.

VietPride 2017 in Ho Chi Minh City. Credit: Dam Xuan Viet

“Our analysis is civil society spaces are shrinking and this is having a negative impact on LGBT activism. Attacks against LGBT activists have happened in Southern Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Meanwhile, governments in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, which have problematic human rights records including silencing opposition, are now espousing LGBT rights,” Silverio says, adding that this shift equates to pinkwashing.

The fight has not been lost yet, he says. “I think LGBT activists and groups are getting savvy with how to influence governments and in responding to backlash. Groups are getting active in doing various research so that we are armed with needed evidence.”

“Hope and vigilance both fuel our activism. We shall leverage the gains in 2017 to undertake bolder activism in 2018.”

A Tough Year for Human Rights

Human rights infringements in Southeast Asia dominated headlines for much of the year, but focused largely on the Rohingya crisis, a mounting death toll in the Philippines’ war on drugs and restrictions on press and political freedoms in Cambodia. This is only part of the 2017 story in the region, Marte Hellema, communications manager at human rights organisation FORUM-ASIA, notes.

This year marked the fifth anniversary of the Asean Human Rights Declaration but few member states were keen to celebrate the occasion, she says.

“Asean has generally kept silent on these issues overall. Its main human rights bodies, the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the Asean Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) did little to protect the rights of the Asean people either,” Hellema says.

A silent protest on the MRT train in Singapore led to an investigation. Human rights activist Jolovan Wham was later charged with organising public assemblies without permit, vandalism and refusing to sign statements to the police. Credit: Jolovan Wham (Facebook)

A crackdown on dissenters in Vietnam, notably the jailing of blogger Mother Mushroom, is a trend seen across the region. Critical voices in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore all faced the wrath of their respective governments, with the targeting of Bersih campaigners in Malaysia and Thai democracy activists a taste of things to come in the new year with elections slated for both countries.

Alarmingly, it’s the countries where the less the rest of the world hears the more likely it is the climate is tense.

“The little news coming from Laos more than anything is an indication of the culture of fear among those wanting to speak up for human rights in the country, since the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone five years ago,” she says.

Hellema is not confident the year ahead will bring many wins for human rights. A political obsession with maintaining sovereignty and security comes at the cost of activism and freedoms in many cases and has led to abuses of laws and further restrictions on freedom of speech, particularly online, across the region she says.

“For the moment it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to human rights in Southeast Asia, particularly when it comes to the freedom of expression, assembly and association. Likely the region will remain a dangerous place for human rights defenders, reporters, bloggers and anyone speaking critically of authorities. In 2018 elections, especially in Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand, will likely further exacerbate the situation.”

Lots of Work on Migrant Workers

In a dark year for rights and freedoms, Southeast Asia’s migrant workers have much to be optimistic for in the year ahead with long-running negotiations resulting in the acceptance of the Asean Consensus on Migrant Workers at the November summit in Manila. That the issue is complicated by a split between push countries—namely the Philippines and Indonesia—and intake countries Malaysia and Singapore is a further testament to the magnitude of the win.

Ruji Auethavornpipat, a researcher in migrant workers at the Australian National University, says it is both a “major accomplishment” and “a long time coming.”

“The Consensus is the first official regional document that spells out what ‘migrant worker rights’ mean for Southeast Asia. The adoption further reaffirms the position of the Philippines as the major proponent of migrant worker agendas as well as the overall commitment of Asean members in ensuring that the protection of migrant worker remains a relevant issue in the region,” he says.

Construction workers queue to enter a site. The Thai capital is undergoing a construction boom with numerous residential and commercial developments. Credit: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com

The announcement came months after a policy change in Thailand sent thousands of migrant workers, mostly working in construction and fisheries, fleeing home to Myanmar and Cambodia. The new regulations mean employees found to be forging documents or hiring migrant workers without the correct permits face hefty fines. But, the move left the estimated three million migrant workers in Thailand vulnerable to human trafficking, migrant worker organisations warned.

While the Consensus is aimed at eventually establishing policies which would prevent similar fears in the future, Auethavornpipat says advocates still need convincing.

“Although the Consensus has been welcomed by various stakeholders, civil society organisations have voiced their concerns on whether the non-legally binding document would result in substantive improvement for migrant workers. I will be interested to see in the future how the obligations outlined in the Consensus are translated into subsequent work plans and which issues are to be prioritised,” he says.

But he remains optimistic the “Culture of Prevention” regional initiative will lead to meaningful change in the years ahead.

“This initiative aims to prevent various societal problems, especially among vulnerable populations, from occurring by tackling the root causes of such issues. The integrated and preventive approach is significant and what we can hope to see in the future is the increasing and closer coordination between Asean sectoral bodies in consolidating regional efforts to address cross-cutting issues, including the prevention of migrants from being trafficked.”

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