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Repression Increased in Asia in 2023, Human Rights Watch Says

FILE - Thai prominent human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa talks to the media on the arrival at the Criminal court to hear his first verdict in his trial, Sept. 26, 2023. He was convicted of insulting the monarchy and sentenced to four years in prison.
FILE - Thai prominent human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa talks to the media on the arrival at the Criminal court to hear his first verdict in his trial, Sept. 26, 2023. He was convicted of insulting the monarchy and sentenced to four years in prison.

Governments across Asia grew more repressive last year, emboldened by Western countries eager to curry favor with allies that might help check China’s rise and taking increasingly brazen steps to silence their critics abroad, Human Rights Watch says in a new report.

In its World Report 2024, launched Thursday morning in New York, the advocacy group takes stock of the human rights situation in more than 100 countries around the globe over the past year, including much of Asia.

“In 2023 we are seeing a steady slide towards authoritarianism across Asia,” Elaine Pearson, the group’s Asia director, told VOA.

“Repression has intensified from Afghanistan to Vietnam. Ruling governments in places like Thailand or Cambodia held elections in 2023, yet found ways to manipulate the process to get the result they want by disqualifying or outright eliminating opposition parties or candidates, and by hollowing out the institutions that provide a check on abuse of power. Human rights defenders are under attack in many countries; they are being silenced, harassed, arrested and in some cases even threatened or killed,” she added.

Human Rights Watch places part of the blame on established liberal democracies in the West and Asia. It says more and more of them are putting short-term trade and security interests ahead of long-term relationships built on human rights in the name of competing with China and its growing influence across the region.

“It’s about seeing that certain governments represent emerging economic markets but also recognizing the risks that are posed by having economies too closely linked to China,” Pearson said.

“And so what we’re seeing is that governments are turning to India, Vietnam, Southeast Asia and really trying to shore up trade deals ... and in doing so they’re not insisting on the same sorts of human rights protections they are insisting on in other places,” she added.

Pearson cited the “red carpet” treatment Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. received at the White House last year with “barely a word about the serious human rights concerns in both of those countries.” She also noted U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip September trip to Vietnam, which Pearson described as a repressive one-party state, where the two countries raised their relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

She said Australia, Japan, South Korea and the European Union have been practicing the same sort of “transactional diplomacy” as well.

Besides overlooking past and present rights abuses, Human Rights Watch argues that it emboldens repressive governments to keep up their abuses and even amplify them.

More and more, it says, that means pursuing their critics beyond their borders.

China has been accused of hounding its overseas dissidents for some time. Last year, the U.S. Justice Department indicted 40 Chinese police officers for allegedly harassing Chinese dissidents living in the United States. China also persuaded neighboring Laos to repatriate a human rights lawyer in 2023 and issued arrest warrants for eight activists and former legislators who had fled Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s fledgling pro-democracy movement.

More of a surprise was India’s own alleged forays abroad last year.

In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justine Trudeau alleged that Indian government agents likely played some part in the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader and Canadian citizen three months earlier in Canada.

“India has a long history of security forces being implicated in extrajudicial killings in the country, and there has been longstanding impunity for that. But seeing this happen actually on Canadian soil, where the Canadian government is alleging that the person who killed a Sikh leader was in fact connected to the Indian government, this represents a clear uptick,” Pearson said.

India dismissed the claim as “absurd,” but the case was lent some weight when, in November, U.S. authorities indicted a man over a failed plot with an Indian government official to assassinate another Sikh activist in the United States.

In addition to Afghanistan, China and India, Human Rights Watch says conditions also took an especially sharp downturn last year in Myanmar, where the military seized power in 2021 and has been battling a tenacious armed resistance.

The United Nations says thousands of civilians have been killed and more than 2 million displaced since the coup. In September, U.N. investigators accused the junta of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that both were on the rise.

“The situation in Myanmar is getting worse and worse. It’s quite clear that there are daily commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the military junta. They are using the air force to bomb civilians, and this has intensified over the course of the years,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told VOA.

Robertson also cited North Korea, where he said the regime is still using COVID-19 restrictions to “claw back” power from local communities that had started taking modest steps to wean themselves off of total state control – such as shopping at private markets -- before the pandemic.

In Bangladesh, the government arrested thousands of opposition party supporters in several violent months leading up to national elections on January 7, which saw the ruling Awami League alliance secure a fourth consecutive term.

In the country’s far east, Human Rights Watch says conditions also continued to deteriorate drastically in refugee camps housing some 1 million ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar, amid rising gang violence and repeated cuts to already meager food rations. In Myanmar itself, the junta allegedly blocked aid to Rohingya communities in Rakhine state devastated by a 2023 cyclone.

“So the situation for the Rohingya has really gotten worse both inside Rakhine state as well as in the camps,” Robertson said.

Despite its dour review for most of Asia, Human Rights Watch did note some signs of progress last year for the region’s mostly marginalized LGBTQ people. Nepal’s Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage for the first time, and Japan passed a law protecting LGBTQ people from “unfair discrimination,” while a law on marriage equality in Thailand took a major step toward approval as well.

Pearson also highlighted the release of some human rights defenders, including former Philippines senator and activist Leila de Lima after six years in detention on “bogus” drug charges.

“It shows that where there is sustained international pressure on specific cases, it can have a positive result,” she said. “Sometimes it seems very difficult, but I think the lesson in that is to keep up the pressure and to ensure that the pressure is coming from democratic governments in the region as well as governments outside the region.”