Southeast Asia Theater
Military officials in Thailand on July 26 charged three human rights defenders with criminal defamation and violations of the Computer Crimes Act because of a report they published detailing acts of torture. The defenders, Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, Anchana Heemmina and Somchai Homlaor, face up to five years in prison if convicted. The report, "Torture and ill treatment in the Deep South Documented in 2014-2015", details 54 incidents of torture and rights abuses in South Thailand, and the activists hoped that it would encourage victims to share their experiences. Several rights groups have protested the arrests in a joint report (PDF), calling them a "reprisal against civil society groups seeking to bring to the authorities' attention the continued abuse of power and ill-treatment of detainees in Thailand." The report urges the government to drop all charges against the rights defenders and ensure that retaliation is not allowed, as well as making general human rights recommendations.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled (PDF) in favor of the Philippines on July 12 in its dispute with China over most of the South China Sea. Manila brought the case in 2013 disputing Beijing's territorial claims, a move China decried as "unilateral." The PCA concluded that China does not have the right to resources within its "nine-dash line," an area covering nearly the entire 3.5 million square-kilometer Sea—believed to be rich in oil and minerals. The tribunal found that none of the disputed Spratly Islands are "capable of generating extended maritime zones." Therefore, the tribunal wrote that it could "declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China." China entirely denies the PCA's jurisdiction in the matter, and rejected the ruling.
Human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities in Burma may amount to crimes against humanity, according to a report released June 20 by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The report documents abuses against minorities that include "arbitrary deprivation of nationality, severe restriction on freedom of movement, threats to life and security, denial of rights to health and education, forced labour, sexual violence, and limitations to...political rights, among other violations." The report states that the Rohingya and Kaman Muslims continue to live in camps for internally displaced people after approximately four years since violence began in the Rakhine state. Muslims in Rakhine state are severely restricted from accessing basic healthcare, emergency medical treatment and education. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein urged the government of Myanmar to take "concrete steps to put an end to the systemic discrimination and ongoing human rights violations against minorities."
The White House has announced a partial lifting of sanctions on Burma in recognition of progress in its democratic transition. Restrictions are to be dropped on state-owned banks and businesses, although some 100 companies and individuals linked to the armed forces will remain iced. This relaxation comes at the request of longtime democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, who although barred from holding the presidency is effectively the country’s leader following November's elections. But human rights concerns remain—especially around the fate of the Rohingya Muslims, persecuted and made stateless by the military junta that has now (mostly) surrendered power. And the multiple ethnic insurgencies in Burma's opium-producing northern mountains, while receiving less world media attention lately, continue to vex the country.
Presidential election results in the Philippines came in May 10, with bombastic anti-crime hardliner Rodrigo Duterte emerging the victor. Ruling-party candidate Mar Roxas quickly conceded defeat. Duterte is the mayor of Davao City in the conflicted southern island of Mindanao—which has been hit by a wave of death-squad terror in recent years. The paramilitaries are ostensibly a response to crime and narco networks on the island, but ecology activists and peasant leaders have also been targeted. Duterte has been named as a mastermind of the paramilitaries, and certainly makes no bones about his intolerant position on drug use. "All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you," he Duterte told a huge cheering crowd in his final campaign rally in Manila. "I have no patience, I have no middle ground, either you kill me or I will kill you idiots."
Hanoi saw a rare public protest on May 1, as hundreds demonstrated against a Taiwanese firm they accuse of causing mass fish deaths along 120 miles of Vietnam's central coast. A steel plant run by a subsidiary of Taiwan's Formosa Plastics is believed to be the source of a massive toxic release into the ocean that has killed tons of fish and affected thousands of families in fishing villages along the coast. The company released a statement saying it was "deeply shocked and sorry" for the fish deaths, without accepting culpability. Suspicions were heightened in late April when two divers contracted for construction at the plant on Vung Ang Bay were mysteriously hospitalized, and a third died. The Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant, still under construction, is slated to be the biggest steel mill in Asia.
Nearly 2,000 people were arrested by security forces over the past week in Indonesia's Papua province for "illegal" pro-independence demonstrations, activists report. Over 1,000 were detained in the provincial capital, Jayapura, and hundreds more elsewhere in the territory. Victor Yeimo, chairman of the West Papua National Committee, said many people were assaulted during the arrests. "There's no room for democracy in West Papua, so they came suddenly to the place where we wanted to prepare for demonstration," he said. "And they arrested the people, they beat the people. This is peaceful action, we are the peaceful resistance... but Indonesians give us the torture." The protests mark the anniversary of the end of Dutch colonial rule over the territory in 1963, and a weekend visit to the province by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. (SBS, Al Jazeera, May 3)
At least 18 soldiers and five militants were killed in a fierce 10-hour fire-fight between Philippine government forces and the Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan province, on the southern island of Mindanao April 10. More than 50 soldiers were wounded in the clash at the barangay (village) of Baguindan, Tipo Tipo municipality. Local media report that an entire platoon was "wiped out," and that four of the soldiers were beheaded. The fighting began when an army patrol found a camp of some 100 Abu Sayyaf fighters. Patrols had been hunting Abu Sayyaf across across Basilan and the nearby Joso islands for weeks, hoping to free at least 18 foreigners being held by the group. Abu Sayyaf has recently joined the ISIS franchise, with leader Isnilon Hapilon pledging to make Southeast Asia a "wilayat" or province of the Islamic State. (Straits Times, Singapore, April 10)