Asia-Pacific: New generation of activists lead fight against repression - annual report

Hong Kong protests over the controversial Extradition Bill have been ongoing for months.

A wave of youth-led protests across Asia is defying escalating repression and a continent-wide crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, Amnesty International said today, as it published its annual report on human rights in the region.

The 68-page report, Human Rights in Asia-Pacific: A review of 2019, describes how a new generation of activists are fighting back against brutal crackdowns on dissent, damaging social media operations and widespread political censorship.

The report is a detailed analysis of human rights developments in 25 countries and territories in Asia-Pacific, highlighting major concerns in Hong Kong, China, India and Vietnam.

Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Director for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific, said:

“2019 was a year of repression in Asia, but also one of resistance.

“As governments across the continent attempt to uproot fundamental freedoms, people are fighting back – and young people are at the forefront of the struggle. Online and offline, youth-led popular protests are challenging the established order.

“Protesters across Asia in 2019 were bloodied, but not broken. They were stifled, but not silenced. And together, they sent a message of defiance to the governments who continue to violate human rights in pursuit of tightening their grip on power.”

Progress against the odds

People standing up against atrocities were routinely punished, but their determination to speak out made a difference and their efforts to achieve human rights progress in Asia paid off.

In Taiwan, same-sex marriage became legal following tireless campaigning by activists. In Sri Lanka, lawyers and activists successfully campaigned against the resumption of executions.

Brunei was forced to backtrack on enforcing laws to make adultery and sex between men punishable by stoning, while former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak took the stand on corruption charges for the first time.

And in Hong Kong, the power of protest forced the government to withdraw the controversial Extradition Bill.

Hong Kong’s defiance echoes across the world

China and India set the tone for repression across the region with their clampdowns on human rights. China’s backing of an Extradition Bill for Hong Kong, giving the local government the power to extradite suspects to the mainland, ignited mass protests in the territory on an unprecedented scale.

Since last June, protesters in Hong Kong have regularly taken to the streets to demand accountability in the face of abusive policing tactics that have included use of tear gas, arbitrary arrests, physical assaults and abuses in detention. This struggle against the established order has been repeated all over the continent.

In India, millions protested against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act that discriminates against Muslims in a series of peaceful demonstrations. In Indonesia, people rallied against parliament’s enactment of several laws that threatened public freedoms. In Afghanistan, thousands risked their safety to march for an end to the country’s long-running conflict.

Dissent met with crackdown

Peaceful protests and dissent were frequently met with retribution by the authorities. Protesters faced arrest and jail in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, as repressive governments across South-East Asia attempted to silence their opponents and muzzle the media.

In Indonesia, several people were killed as police clamped down on protests with excessive force – but few steps were taken to hold anyone to account for the deaths. No police were arrested, nor were any suspects identified. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, activists and journalists were targeted by draconian laws that restrict freedom of expression and punish online dissent.

Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director, said:

“The authorities’ attempts to crush any form of criticism and suppress freedom of expression were as ruthless as they were predictable, with those daring to speak out against repressive governments often paying a high price.

“Asians are told their aspirations for fairer societies are fantasies; that economic disparities can’t be addressed; that global warming is inexorable and natural catastrophes unavoidable. Most emphatically of all, they are told that challenging this narrative will not be tolerated.”

Minorities feel the weight of intolerant nationalism

In India and China, minorities have been deemed a threat to “national security” in the midst of ongoing crackdowns.

Meanwhile, in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, up to a million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities have been forcibly detained in “de-radicalisation” camps. Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, saw its special autonomous status revoked as the Indian authorities imposed a curfew, cut access to all communications and detained political leaders.

In Sri Lanka, where anti-Muslim violence erupted in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings, the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dimmed hopes of human rights progress. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte continued his murderous so-called “war on drugs”.

It has been left to the International Criminal Court to investigate crimes against humanity committed by the Myanmar military in Rakhine State against the Rohingya in 2017. The court is also looking into the thousands of killings carried out by police in the Philippines, and hearing an appeal on its decision not to authorise an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Australia’s offshore detention policies left those seeking asylum languishing in detention facilities on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus, Papua New Guinea.

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