The veneer of progress is wearing thin in Myanmar. A year ago, the President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, promised to release all prisoners of conscience. Earlier this year, to mark Myanmar’s Independence Day, the President ordered the release of thousands of prisoners. Now one year on from the promise to release all prisoners of conscience, the promise remains unfulfilled. Even more troubling is the fact that the government is arresting more prisoners of conscience.
In the past couple of weeks, Viet Nam has released 3 prominent prisoners of conscience: Nguyen Tien Trung, Vi Duc Hoi and Cu Huy Ha Vu.
The release of the 3 prisoners seems, at first glance, to be a step in the right direction for human rights. But, is this Viet Nam playing the old “shell game?”
I had no time to myself – I worked long hours from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. with no rest day. My employers didn’t allow me to leave the house without someone accompanying me. When it was bed time, I had to wait for everyone to sleep because I slept in the family bathroom.
This 30-year-old woman from Tulungagung told Amnesty International her story in 2012.
In an extensive new report, filled with heartbreaking testimony about exploitative recruitment, physical and sexual violence, lack of food, excessive hours and restrictions on religious practices, Amnesty International examines the experiences of Indonesian domestic migrant workers trafficked to Hong Kong.
I worry about Indonesia. I worry that the democratic progress of the past few years is just slip slidin’ away. While Egypt and Turkey’s passionate and public debates on reform reach the front pages of our newspapers, Indonesia appears calm to the world. But, it looks like the government is worried.
Particularly alarming is a new law on Mass Organizations, passed on July 2, 2013. Suddenly, organizations operating in Indonesia are limited to eight purposes including maintaining the value of religion and belief in God; preserving the norms, values, morals, ethics and culture; and establishing, maintaining and strengthening the unity of the nation. Foreign organizations are required to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and must operate under new rules that include not disrupting the “stability and oneness” of Indonesia.
Imagine a mob of 500 people with sickles and stones descending on your neighborhood, setting fire to houses, and driving you away from your jobs and community. This occurred in August 2012 in East Java, Indonesia, leaving one member of a Shi’a community dead and injuring dozens. At this time 168 people, including 51 children, are living in a temporary shelter. In the last two weeks, they have been denied clean drinking water and food supplies.
Some of the villagers had previously been harassed by local government officials who told them to convert to Sunni Islam if they wanted to return to their homes. Now, after eight months, the Sampang district administration has agreed to the demands from anti-Shi’a groups to forcibly evict the Shi’a community from their shelter in a sports complex and remove them from Madura Island in East Java.
April 19, 2013 marks the 52nd birthday, of indigenous people’s activist James Balao. James is just one of at least 200 to have disappeared in the Philippines over the past decade. James has not been seen or heard from since he disappeared from his hometown on September 17, 2008 when he was taken by armed men, claiming to be law enforcers.
James is a part of the Igorot ethnic group, an indigenous minority from the Cordillera region in the northern Philippines. He is a founding member of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA), a grassroots organization advocating for the rights of indigenous people. The military has vilified the CPA as a communist organization, and labeled James a communist.
The CPA feels James may have disappeared as a result of the government’s anti-terrorism measures (Operation Plan Bantay Laya or Freedom Watch), which has unfairly targeted legitimate organizations that resulted to a series of extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances throughout the country.
In February 2013, 40-year old poet and Amnesty International activist Ericson Acosta has more reason to celebrate other than his freedom from his unjust detention. A few days after the Philippine Justice Department decided to drop the trumped-up charges against him, Ericson witnessed the awarding of a silver medal to his only son, 10-year old Emmanuel, who won in a division-wide Math competition in Pasig City, Metro Manila.
Arrested by military troops in February 2011, Acosta was interrogated for 44 hours on 2 hours sleep and threatened with death. He was then charged with being a member of the once banned Communist Party and later, with the illegal possession of explosives. In August 2011, Amnesty International called for the release of Acosta as a Prisoner of Conscience. In his statement after being released, Acosta thanked his supporters, including Amnesty International, and called for the release of the rest of political prisoners in the Philippines.
Imagine sitting down in a theater to watch the latest blockbuster, only to be asked to stand up before the film starts. So revered is the King in Thailand that movie-goers must stand while the royal anthem plays prior to every movie screening there, as a reel pays homage to the king.
Playing on this reverence to the king is the lèse majesté law,enacted in the country’s criminal code. Article 112 states that “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished (with) imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” The law is also used as a means to suppress freedom of speech in Thailand. Since the coup and military ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, authorities are using lèse majesté to prosecute an increasing number of anti-government activists.
I sit at my desk and write about human rights with ease, yet in Viet Nam, blogging can land you in prison. Last week, Vietnamese authorities convicted 14 activists for plotting to overthrow the government under article 79 of the criminal code. The sentences range from three to thirteen years. The activists were all linked to the US-based, pro-democracy group Viet Tan, which the Vietnamese government labels a terrorist organization. Five of the sentenced activists are bloggers who wrote about freedom of expression. Before the start of the trial, one of the bloggers, Dang Xuan Dieu, said, “I have done nothing contrary to my conscience” and that in punishing him, the government was “trampling on the eternal good morals of the Vietnamese nation.”
The defendants were all charged after attending a Viet Tan training course held in Bangkok in 2011. Viet Tan led a resistance movement in the 1980s, but has more recently called for democracy and peaceful change in Viet Nam. A spokesperson for the Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that none of the activists were alleged to have used violence.
Plus ça change (plus c’est la même chose). For those who were lulled into believing that the government of Myanmar is new and improved, and that reforms are taking place with unsurpassed speed, the rearrest of former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience U Gambira is a much-needed wake-up call. The human rights situation in that country is still precarious, and we need to be vigilant lest they slip back into their old ways.
Ashin Gambira (aka Nyi Nyi Lwin) was arrested on December 1, 2012 – his third arrest since his ”release” in January. Under the general prisoner amnesty, prisoners’ sentences were merely suspended, rather than expunged. That means the time that remained on U Gambira’s original sentence of 63 years when he was released in January would be added back if he is convicted of these new charges.