“In Southeast Asia, which already does not have good records on democracy and human rights, as the health crisis continues to escalate and countries go into different variations of a lockdown approach, the concern is that it is affording regimes with authoritarian tendencies the opportunity to further suppress political dissents, and consolidate their power.”, writes Khoo Ying Hooi, Head of the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the University of Malaya in Malaysia.
A day does not go by without news of human rights violations in the Southeast Asia region, as it constantly confronted with state repression of human rights in many forms such as the intimidation and arrest of political dissidents and activists and the infringement of freedom of expression in countries like Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia.
The indexes from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Democracy Index 2019, World Press Freedom Index 2020 (Reporters Without Borders, 2020) and the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report 2020 (CIVICUS, 2020) related to civic space on issues such as freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and freedom of expression have generally shown that the response to and the management of Covid-19 across Southeast Asia has varied, and it does not correlate directly to how democratic or how open a country is. Those indexes are in line from all the available information on the countries that I was able to gather where almost all countries in this region experience governments that are increasingly assertive in showing authoritarian governance.
In Southeast Asia, which already does not have good records on democracy and human rights, as the health crisis continues to escalate and countries go into different variations of a lockdown approach, the concern is that it is affording regimes with authoritarian tendencies the opportunity to further suppress political dissents, and consolidate their power. In Cambodia for instance, the draft public order law (Amnesty International, 2020) has triggered debates as it contains broad and arbitrary provisions, which violate international human rights law and Cambodia’s own constitutions. As raised by Amnesty International, this proposed law enables the Cambodian government to expand its arbitrary control over the lives of Cambodians. It also criminalises groups such as the poor. With livelihoods impacted by Covid-19, if this law is approved, it has the potential to severely impact on their right to an adequate standard of living.
The anxiety and fear that these special powers might continue and subsequently become a permanent feature in the months and years to come in Southeast Asia is real. How leaders and their citizens are interacting with one another during the coronavirus crisis could also provide some clues to the future exercise of power. Looking into the approaches adopted by several Southeast Asian countries, it also raises the question of the weaponisation of Covid-19. If we examine issues such as assembly, disinformation, press freedom, expression, access to information, militarization, movement and surveillance, as raised by the International Center for Not-for-Profit (ICNL) Covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker, the question of how democracy can deliver has become one of the leading challenges of our time. The problem is, in many countries, democratic institutions that are in place are often hollow, weak and ineffective. In this commentary, I explore the trends and lessons learned from Covid-19 in Southeast Asia with a focus on politics and human rights.
Before Covid-19 emerged early this year, the Southeast Asian region was already characterised (United Nations, 2020) by high levels of inequality, low levels of social protection and a regression in strong institutions. How does the Covid-19 response impact on politics including democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia? This needs to be examined together with the question: how will COVID-19 impact politics in the region? Here are six trends I summarise.
The first trend is the lack of regional solidarity and the inward-looking approach of Southeast Asian countries. As we can see, individual Southeast Asian states rely more on their national responses than the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the United Nations (UN). The pandemic poses a significant threat to Southeast Asia and the relevancy of ASEAN (Kipgen and Ansal, 2020) as it finds itself faced with the unprecedented task of addressing the health and socioeconomic costs of Covid-19. Millions are expected to lose their jobs, and for a region with a large informal sector and where social protection is not evenly developed, the costs on livelihood will be high.
The second trend is the authoritarian approach adopted by most countries in Southeast Asia. As of now (ASEAN Briefing, 2020), the region has crossed the 376,000-case mark with the Philippines topping the highest total of cases at more than 160,000 with active cases close to 50,000. With an ongoing pandemic, many in the Philippines were enraged that Duterte’s government prioritized passing an anti-terror law (Capatides, 2020) than prioritising on the health of the people. Earlier in April 2020, 14 senators (The Star, 2020) have called on for the Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to resign over Covid-19 crisis response. In Malaysia in the earlier phases of containing the Covid-19, those who violate the Movement Control Order (MCO) were treated like criminals (Malaysiakini, 2020) where they are put in close proximity with other detainees during remand, then brought to court to be charged while handcuffed with other offenders. As the government put in place the mandatory face mask policy (Malay Mail, 2020) in public places, there have also been concerns raised about the RM1, 000 fine imposed on offenders as some have argued that the approach by the government is more of punishment, rather than educating the public. Moreover, it puts on burden especially for the lower-income group and at the same time, the fine that is relatively high comparing to many other countries may also open up opportunities for corruption for enforcers. In Myanmar (Human Rights Watch, 2020), people including children have been sentenced to between one month and one year in prison since late March 2020 for violating movement control orders.
As mentioned earlier, the region as a whole suffers from a lack of civil liberties such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of information. Many governments are adopting securitisation (Aaron, 2020) to address the crisis and simultaneously cracking down on critics of the crisis response. Covid-19 has been a political opportunity for many governments. While securitization is required, the problem occurs when governments do not exercise restraints.
The third trend is the militarization approach that has a linkage to the aforementioned securitisation approach, adopted by several Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia (Laksamana and Taufika, 2020) and the Philippines. The UN has raised concern over some countries’ repressive measures in the implementation of their lockdown approaches, including the Philippines (UN, 2020), citing it as a “highly militarised response”. Duterte is also quoted (Capatides, 2020) as saying, “I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military, as well as village officials, if there is any trouble, or occasions where there’s violence and your lives are in danger, shoot them dead.” He further said in a mix of Filipino and English in the televised address, “Do not intimidate the government. Do not challenge the government. You will lose.” In countries where military actors have a history of human rights violations, the militarisation of Covid-19 accompanies, either direct military rule or periodic military intervention, all of which can bring lasting political repercussions. This is worrying as most of ASEAN member states have authoritarian or partial‐democracy governments.
The fourth trend is the limitation in governance capacity. Covid-19 has revealed the weak governance (The Edge, 2020) in the Southeast Asian countries and the ASEAN itself. States have basic obligations to provide security, education, public health, and a legal system to their electorates. For instance, in the Philippines, the pandemic exacerbates the inequitable public health system (Naguit, 2020) in a densely populated country with the existing widespread socioeconomic disparities. As we debate about democracy vs authoritarianism, the discourse on the importance of good governance is clearly missing in this region. What we can see is that the governments were unable to cope with the pandemic with existing institutions and authorities and aimed for extended power, but these emergency powers, in some cases such as in Thailand (Pashuk, 2020), were used to go after dissenting voices. In Indonesia, the hashtag “Indonesia?? Terserah!!” (“Indonesia?? It is up to you!!”) (The Star, 2020) is a signal of frustration with the government’s poor response to Covid-19.
Fifth, the pandemic has exposed the glaring inequities in terms of economy distribution around the region. This reveals that the problem of human rights in the region is not mainly civil and political rights. The economic, social and cultural rights have also been neglected. The pandemic response further reinforces existing inequalities from healthcare to technology faced by vulnerable populations, particularly informal workers, migrant workers, people with disabilities and refugee communities, among others. Covid-19 is a stark reminder that Southeast Asia’s economic growth has been distributed inequitably. In Singapore and Malaysia, the blame quickly fell on migrant workers. In Malaysia, the civil society groups have made the hashtag, “MigranJugaManusia” (Menon, 2020), which translates to Migrants Are Humans Too to highlight the plight of migrant workers. While Singapore (Ratcliffe, 2020) was initially lauded as one of the best country examples in managing Covid-19, the crisis has shone spotlight on how it treats marginalised migrants when the second outbreak involving mostly migrant workers went out of control.
The sixth trend is technology with a focus on contact-tracing apps. The question raised is that, is it a boon or a bane? While technology plays an important role in the midst of the current crisis to protect the rights to health, life and security, Covid-19 forces countries, despite their political systems, to face confrontation between protecting individual rights and collective right to health. Under the name of managing the pandemic, there have been debates (Data Protection Excellence Network, 2020) about how contact-tracing apps can be an intrusion to the rights to privacy if it is implemented without adequate oversight. For instance in Vietnam, its contact-tracing app named Bluezone (Shepherdson, 2020) does not have a specific privacy notice or statement and this might cause issues about individual privacy.
Lessons and Moving Forward
Based on the six trends as identified in the above section, this commentary offers two lessons learned and ways to move forward. First is the discourse of human rights and power relations. In the Southeast Asian region, it is significant that the conception of human rights has been constantly challenged and it somehow sustained particular forms of power, especially coming from the top. This explains how both concepts are thus playing a highly ambivalent role. Facing the challenges of restricted policies in place that potentially constrain the full function of human rights, it is important that a full account of human rights should include such considerations. There is a vibrant discussion within the human rights community around the need for new narratives that build public support for human rights, as the concept of human rights is under attack with the rise of authoritarian populism (Jayasuriya, 2020) in the region. For instance, the “powerful”, in the Southeast Asian case often referring to the state, can use their disproportionate power both to threaten human rights of others and to constraint the attempts to secure their control. As we move forward and taking into consideration the lessons from Covid-19, attempts to build public support require a deeper recognition of the power relations that shape people’s perceptions.
The second point is the role of non-state actors, particularly human rights actors. In the Southeast Asian region, human rights actors are often seen as “enemies” rather than strategic allies of the state. Having said that, the impact of human rights actors is context-dependent, that is, it depends upon political, economic, and social context. As CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report 2020 shows, essential civic and democratic freedoms were already tightly restricted prior to the pandemic. The challenge for human rights actors is how it can counter government policies that might hurt the poorest together with heightened authoritarianism. The battle is on ways to avoid this and instead put forward alternative plans for recovery that can, among others, expand rights and make economies fairer with a redistribution policy in place.
It is undeniable that the Covid-19 has been devastating (Searight, 2020) for Southeast Asia’s economy. Covid-19 teaches us that the correlation between the economy and the perception of democracy cannot be ignored, as there is no direct causal analysis between the two. Perception of democracy can be low while experiencing high economic growth. People who are dissatisfied with their governments’ approaches during Covid-19 could include those who want a more liberal approach and those who want more autocratic responses. This has certainly posed a huge challenge for the pro-democracy and human rights groups in the future.
At this point of time, any generalisation on the model of crisis management in any particular system of government is premature. Still, regardless of whether there is conclusive evidence, the danger is there: if we fail to handle the crisis, people in the Southeast Asian region may look toward a system outside of democracy. The extent depends on how long the pandemic lasts and its level of impacts on economies and societies. There is no qualm about how public health is more important than the economy. But the irony is that some governments, who have said this, did not, in fact, put healthcare as the priority before the pandemic. The global pandemic means that governments must take steps to safeguard the right to health of those they serve. Laws brought in to protect health must not disregard the fundamental rights of the citizens.
Jayasuriya, K. (2020). The Rise of the Right: Populism and Authoritarianism in Southeast Asian Politics. Southeast Asian Affairs 2020(1), pp. 43-55.
Palatino, M. (2020). How Duterte’s anti-terror law unleashed public outrage against his leadership. The Diplomat. [online]. Available at https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/how-dutertes-anti-terror-law-unleashed-public-outrage-against-his-leadership/ [Accessed 7 August, 2010]
Philippines: Covid-19 as a public health crisis. (2020). Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). [online]. Available at https://www.fes-asia.org/news/philippines-covid-19-as-a-public-health-crisis/ [Accessed 7 August, 2010]
The Coronavirus in Asia and ASEAN – Live Updates by Country. (2020). ASEAN Briefing. [online]. Available at https://www.aseanbriefing.com/news/coronavirus-asia-asean-live-updates-by-country/ [Accessed 10 September, 2010]
2020 World Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders (RSF). [online]. Available at https://rsf.org/en/ranking [Accessed 5 August, 2010]
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.