The Human Rights Watch (HRW) annual report released Thursday says Southeast Asia was marked by a deterioration in human rights, with special concerns over Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia.
The rights report pointed to a tightening grip on media and communications by governments through cybercrime laws, sedition and further limits on freedom of speech.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said there were increasing signs of state suppression and censorship affecting the online community.
“Governments are increasingly threatening the rights of people to say what they want on-line and to form groups to stand up for their rights,” Robertson said in an email to VOA.
He said many of Southeast Asia’s “repressive governments” see the internet as a threat that should be contained.
The report also accused the governments of Thailand and Vietnam of moving to crack down on online reporting and media in the past year.
Human Rights Watch says the Thai military government, which came to power in 2014, has “continued to censor discussion related to human rights, democracy, the monarchy and the junta’s performance."
The rights report said the military had “increased repression and failed to restore democratic rule in 2016,” with ongoing bans on political activity and public gatherings, criminal prosecutions, the censoring of the media with “hundreds of arbitrary arrests” and civilians held in military detention.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha says the government has a roadmap to 2018 elections under the country’s new constitution.
But HRW’s Adams said, “Rather than leading the country back to democratic rule, the junta has increasingly persecuted critics and dissenters, banned peaceful protests, censored the media and suppressed speech in the press and online.”
The report said Prayut had failed to keep pledges made to the U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Council to “respect human rights and restore democratic rule.”
“Thailand’s human rights crisis has worsened over the year as the military junta tightened its grip on power and led the country deeper into dictatorship,” Adams said in a statement.
But government analysts told VOA on background that while the concerns were “quite legitimate,” progress had been achieved “on many fronts,” including curbs on human trafficking.
The U.S. State Department last year upgraded Thailand on its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report to Tier 2 from Tier 3 following a major crackdown and reform on the Thai fishing industry.
“To say Thailand is moving deeper into the abyss, I think many Thais do not agree with that,” the analyst said. He added the political roadmap remained on course and talks with political parties were “ongoing.”
In Vietnam, the report noted “rights bloggers and activists” facing “constant police intimidation and harassment” subject to “incommunicado detention and imprisoned for exercising their basic rights."
Rights activists had hoped a new leadership from the 2016 Communist Party Congress would see an easing in repression. But Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said these hopes were “dashed.”
In 2016, at least 19 people, including prominent bloggers, were sentenced to lengthy jail terms, as well as “frequent assaults against rights bloggers and campaigners by anonymous men, with apparent state sanction and impunity.”
In Cambodia, the killing in July of political commentator Kem Ley increased fears for political activists and opposition party members.
The report said Kem Ley’s murder came amid “a significant escalation on political ground by the government of Hun Sen to target the opposition, human rights workers, social activists and public intellectuals based on political views towards the government" ahead of local and national elections in 2017 and 2018.
Other areas of concern included attacks on land activists protecting land grabbing policies, labor activists, and attacks on human rights organizations and public intellectuals.
Rising violence in Myanmar pointed to continued “rampant and systematic human rights violations,” in particular against Muslim minorities – especially the 1.2 million ethnic Rohingya in western Rakhine state.
As many as 65,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee into Bangladesh since violence escalated after an October 9 attack on three government border outposts that left nine police officers dead. This has been followed by a military sweep of the area, leading to allegations of abuses and torture against the local Rohingya communities.
Human Rights Watch says the government of Aung San Suu Kyi faces “deep-rooted challenges,” including constitutional empowerment of the military, repressive legislation, weak rule of law and a corrupt judiciary.
The report says so far, the government has “not capitalized on its initial momentum in guiding the country toward substantive reform or the creation of democratic institutions.”
In the Philippines, Human Rights Watch’s Phelim Kine said the war on drugs policy of President Rodrigo Duterte had “steamrolled human rights protections and elevated unlawful killings of criminal suspects to a cornerstone of government policy.”
The war on drugs had so far claimed the lives of 2,000 suspected “drug pushers and users," and a further 3,658 killings linked to “unknown vigilantes.”