CIVICUS speaks with Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso, a globally recognised human rights advocate and the new Executive Director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), on the state of civic space in the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the regional body’s response to the human rights situation in Myanmar.
In March 2023, Myanmar’s civic space was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor to the worst category, closed, in response to developments including the detention of thousands of activists and protesters, many of them convicted by secret military tribunals in unfair trials and given harsh sentences including the death penalty. Some have been tortured or killed. The ruling military junta has also systematically targeted journalists and forced civil society organisations (CSOs) to shut down and their leaders to go into hiding or flee the country. The junta has committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, including unlawful attacks, killing and injuring civilians through the use of extrajudicial executions, artillery shelling and banned landmines and cluster munitions.
What is the state of civic freedoms in ASEAN member states?
In recent years, there has been a discernible trend in ASEAN toward democratic regression and shrinking civic space.
In Cambodia, as an election draws near, there is an ongoing assault on civic space and an increasingly violent campaign of repression and harassment against union activists, environmental campaigners, opposition politicians and media workers.
In Myanmar, the path toward democracy, which began in 2011, was dismantled and civic space has closed. The junta’s nationwide crackdown has spread beyond cities into rural and ethnic minority areas, where resistance has grown. There is a climate of fear and insecurity, characterised by extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and other atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity. But ASEAN leaders have been unable to respond uniformly, and the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) they reached in April 2021 has miserably failed to address Myanmar’s crisis.
In Singapore, civil liberties are curbed through the prosecution of journalists, protesters and harassment of activists. Civil space has been further limited by repressive laws such as the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act and the 2021 Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which include vague provisions that allow for executive discretion in interpretation and implementation.
Overall, civic space in ASEAN countries has deteriorated. But in the midst of this darkness, the results of recent elections have cast a ray of hope that could have an impact at the regional level. Election results in Malaysia in November 2022 and Thailand in May 2023 have brought hope and a breath of fresh air after years of regression of fundamental freedoms. ASEAN’s youngest member state, Timor-Leste, is unique in that it has committed to consolidating democracy and held a free, fair and transparent election on 21 May 2023, allowing voters to cast their ballots peacefully, thus making their voices heard.
As the current ASEAN chair, has Indonesia made any efforts to engage with civil society and protect human rights?
Indonesia became ASEAN chair amid a lot of expectations regarding its potentials to address the Myanmar crisis, following the lack of progress under its two predecessors, Brunei Darussalam and Cambodia – and possibly on the assumption that no further progress will happen under its successor, Laos.
Led by Indonesia, ASEAN managed to adopt several Leaders’ Declarations related to human rights, including one on combating trafficking in persons caused by the abuse of technology and one on the protection of migrant workers and family members in crisis situations, adopted at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May 2023. These represented a crucial step toward protecting rights. However, questions of implementation and domestication have long plagued the ASEAN region.
Progress made at the regional level is not necessarily reflected by domestic developments. For example, ahead of the 2023 ASEAN summit, held in Labuhan Bajo, the Indonesian police summoned two residents, Viktor Frumentius and Dominikus Safio, over a planned protest regarding compensation for houses and land clearing for a road project. The criminalisation attempt happened a few days after the police issued a warning letter for local people not to conduct actions that could ‘create incitement’ during the summit. This incident came on top of ongoing attacks on civil liberties in Indonesia.
Regarding engagement with civil society, unfortunately the Indonesian government failed to respond to civil society’s request to conduct an interface meeting during the summit. Taken together, this and the attempted criminalisation of protesters reveal the government’s exclusionary approach to critical voices.
Did the summit’s outcomes include any commitment on human rights?
The summit’s outcome document highlighted the commitment to strengthen efforts to combat human trafficking and protect migrant workers. Human trafficking is indeed a serious and systemic violation of human rights in Southeast Asia, with the pandemic exacerbating the already precarious situation of marginalised people who might end up in hands of human traffickers.
Regarding Myanmar, however, disappointment continues. On 11 May, despite expressing concerns over the continuing violence in Myanmar, specifically in light of the recent attack against a convoy carrying ASEAN diplomats in Myanmar on the eve of the summit, Indonesia released a statement that said that ‘the 5PC remains our main reference’. It basically ignored the calls from civil society groups and the wider international community to move beyond the 5PC.
Unfortunately the issue of shrinking civic space was not discussed at the summit, which reveals continued neglect by ASEAN member states and a lack of consensus about the importance of the fact that civic space is deteriorating across the region.
Has there been progress in strengthening the role of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)?
Since its inception, the AICHR has been criticised as nothing more than a front for ASEAN member states to comply with their duty to put human rights on the regional agenda. It is not surprising that ASEAN finds it difficult to promote human rights at the regional level, given that its membership includes several authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies.
Civil society groups have done what we could to strengthen the AICHR, leading to incremental progress in its institutional strength and its relations with civil society. In 2019, FORUM-ASIA and its partners called for a review of the AICHR’s Terms of Reference to make it more independent and give it a protection mandate, among other things. ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to this, but the process hasn’t kicked off. Still, other positive changes happened, such as the inclusion of civil society in various AICHR activities and growing opportunities for the AICHR to meet with civil society in a variety of settings.
For example, recently and for the first time ever, FORUM-ASIA and other CSOs with AICHR consultative status were invited to meet with AICHR representatives at the 37th AICHR Meeting. The question remains whether this practice can be sustained and institutionalised. The AICHR has also recently demonstrated increased engagement with national human rights institutions, its natural national partners. This also needs to be maintained and strengthened.
Additionally, the current AICHR mechanism for handling human rights complaints needs to be assessed for it to become more transparent and responsive to rapidly deteriorating civic space conditions. But because the issue of shrinking civic space has not been met with consensus among AICHR member states, progress has been minimal. However, FORUM-ASIA keeps engaging with the AICHR in the knowledge that it will take years of effort to build a mechanism that lives up to our aspiration of holding states accountable for human rights violations. We are willing to engage in discussions with the AICHR about how to strengthen its complaint mechanism to contribute to enforcing states’ human rights obligations at the national level.
Why hasn’t there been any progress in implementing the 5PC to address the situation in Myanmar?
The 5PC has failed due to the fact that ASEAN has engaged with the military junta – the perpetrator of grave human rights violations with no commitment whatsoever to human rights – rather than with the legitimate representatives of Myanmar’s people, the civilian National Unity Government (NUG).
As of today, the junta has not only failed to implement any of the plan’s provisions but has also increased its brutality against the civilian population. The deadly airstrike conducted in April was a glaring manifestation of the junta’s refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue and cooperation.
Another issue is ASEAN members’ lack of a consistent approach and political will to address the Myanmar crisis. Only a few ASEAN countries openly condemned the junta’s human rights violations, while others, such as Cambodia, the ASEAN chair in 2022, even met with the junta chief and allowed the international community to interpret this approach to the crisis as recognition of the military regime.
Finally, ASEAN’s principle of non-interference has been a major obstacle to effectively addressing the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN has moved away from this principle by becoming more assertive in certain cases, such as on economic and humanitarian cooperation, but this has not been mainstreamed.
How has civil society responded to ASEAN’s failure to address the situation in Myanmar?
Despite numerous challenges, civil society has remained active. It is working to ensure that Myanmar does not fall off the radar or is forgotten as a result of conflicts and emergencies erupting in other parts of the world.
Along with reputable Myanmar CSOs and other regional and international organisations, FORUM-ASIA recently released a position paper calling for a review and reframing of the 5PC. This paper provides five counterpoints of action that ASEAN leaders must immediately take to prove the bloc’s commitment and capability to resolve the Myanmar crisis effectively.
The first point calls for the immediate adoption of an action plan for civilian protection and cessation of violence. The second emphasises the need to convene inclusive and meaningful consultations with legitimate Myanmar stakeholders, including the NUG, its advisory body the National Unity Consultative Council, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – a group of ousted parliamentarians – and ethnic resistance organisations. The third stresses the need to amend the mandate of the ASEAN Special Envoy’s term to three years with authority, independence and resources to take effective action. The fourth calls for the provision of direct support to frontline humanitarian responders in Myanmar and along ethnic borderlands, including Myanmar’s western borders. And the fifth point calls on the Special Envoy to immediately open formal communications and engage with civil society and other key stakeholders from Myanmar’s Spring Revolution.
What should the international community do to push ASEAN to protect human rights and address the situation in Myanmar?
International civil society and the international community must push ASEAN to immediately move away from the 5PC and embrace more robust and tangible actions to stop the military junta’s violence and atrocity crimes. They must refrain from legitimising the junta and must recognise the NUG as the democratically elected government and enter into dialogue with all relevant stakeholders, cut bilateral ties, including economic ties, and impose a full arms embargo on the Myanmar armed forces, and call for suspension of the export and transport of aviation fuel to Myanmar.
They should also work closely with the United Nations, particularly the Security Council and Secretary-General, to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. They should set up a clear mandate for the Special Envoy, grounded in human rights principles, justice and accountability. The role must be full-time, lasting more than a year, and the appointed Special Envoy must engage with all relevant stakeholders, not just the military junta.