Election Restrictions in Burma Threaten Democratic Process

Burma’s electoral commission must immediately stop threatening and intimidating the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Human Rights Watch said Thursday. The electoral commission should also drop proposals that would set limits on future election campaigning, and President Thein Sein and the Burmese government should publicly reject such proposals.

On May 22nd 2014, the Union Electoral Commission (UEC) warned the NLD and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, that she had made illegal and unconstitutional comments at a rally in Mandalay on May 18th by saying the military should not be afraid of constitutional change in support of democratic reform. The commission announced that such statements could jeopardize the re-registration of the NLD ahead of bi-elections scheduled for late 2014 for 19 seats in the national parliament and 12 in states and regions, as well as in nationwide elections at the end of 2015. The party replied on June 2nd that Suu Kyi’s statements were in line with the constitution and political party laws.

“It’s truly scandalous that the electoral commission is threatening a political party for violating a regulation that doesn’t exist,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s even worse that the threat is about a political speech on the future direction of the country.”

The National League for Democracy and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society began a joint campaign in recent weeks to amend Burma’s 2008 constitution, which was passed in a sham referendum. In particular they are seeking to amend article 436, which grants the military effective veto power over constitutional amendments, and article 59(f), which bars elected members of parliament from the presidency if they have relatives with foreign citizenship. The discriminatory provision is aimed at disqualifying Suu Kyi, whose two sons have British citizenship.

The electoral commission should immediately stop intimidating opposition parties and threatening free expression in Burma, Human Rights Watch said.

The electoral commission’s chair, the former army general Tin Aye, has made numerous remarks in recent months that demonstrate a pro-military bias. In April, he defended the constitutional provision guaranteeing 25 percent of parliamentary seats to serving military officers, claiming the quota was needed to avert any future coup. He also promised that the 2015 elections would be free and fair, but would be conducted in “disciplined democracy style,” using rhetoric closely associated with past Burmese military governments.

“How President Thein Sein and the Burmese government respond to the proposals for arbitrary limits on campaigning and to reasonable demands for constitutional reform will tell the world whether they are interested in free and fair elections or are trying to rig the process,” Adams said. “Future elections will not have an ounce of credibility if anti-democratic rules put opposition parties at a disadvantage.”

In April, the electoral commission released a series of draft regulations that would seriously inhibit the conduct of campaigns and place restrictions on the rights to freedom of speech and movement. These proposals include prohibiting party leaders or members from canvassing in constituencies outside their home district, in a clear attempt to stop Suu Kyi from campaigning across the country.

The commission has also proposed requiring parties to provide local election commission officials with details in advance of proposed speaking venues, rally and march routes, and lists of planned participants.

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Challenging Dictators One Street At A Time

A group of bipartisan U.S. Members of Congress say that the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington should be renamed after jailed Nobel laureate and Chinese dissident Dr. Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese government responded to the request calling it disrespectful and provocative.” Thirteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray, formally asking the city to rename the section of International Place NW that runs in front of the Chinese Embassy after Liu, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, as a way to highlight Liu’s unjust imprisonment and send a symbolic and strong message that the United States is committed to advocating for the protection of basic human rights worldwide.

In a letter to the mayor and the D.C. City Council, the members wrote that a precedent already exists, pointing to the renaming of the street in front of the Soviet Embassy Sakharov Plaza in the 1980s after prominent anti-Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

The empty chair with a diploma and medal that should have been awarded to Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (portrait L) at the Oslo City Hall, Dec. 10, 2010. AFP Photo.

The empty chair with a diploma and medal that should have been awarded to Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (portrait L) at the Oslo City Hall, Dec. 10, 2010.
AFP Photo.

Fifty-eight year old Liu was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison for authoring Charter 08, a petition urging an end to one-party rule. He was previously involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests calling for democratic reform during which Chinese troops stormed the square  in the center of Beijing,  firing indiscriminately and killing and arresting thousands of pro-democracy protesters. In the weeks before, nearly a million Chinese joined together to call for the resignations of Chinese Communist Party leaders; they held daily vigils, and marched and chanted peacefully. In response, units of the Chinese military shot and killed untold numbers of unarmed civilians, many of whom were not connected to the protests in Beijing and other cities on June 3rd and 4th.

“By renaming the street in front of the Chinese Embassy after Dr. Liu, we would send a clear and powerful message that the United States remains vigilant and resolute in its commitment to safeguard human rights around the globe,” the group wrote. “The timing is auspicious for such a move with the Tiananmen anniversary fast approaching. This modest effort would undoubtedly give hope to the Chinese people who continue to yearn for basic human rights and representative democracy and would remind their oppressors that they are in fact on the wrong side of history.”

On the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown this week, I spoke with David Keyes, Executive Director of New York-based Advancing Human Rights, about his hard work to make ”Liu Xiaobo Plaza” a reality.

RFA: How did you come up with this idea?

Sakharov Plaza in Washington DC. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Sakharov Plaza in Washington DC. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

David Keyes: A few months ago, Garry Kasparov and I were talking over lunch about our favorite subject: how to pressure dictatorships. He reminded me that in 1984 the US Congress renamed the street in front of the Soviet embassy “No. 1. Andrei Sakharov Plaza,” after the most famous Soviet scientist and human rights advocate. Every time the Soviets walked out of their embassy, they were confronted with the brutality of their regime.

The free world showed that they would not forget the human cost of Soviet tyranny. They raised the name of one of the greatest Soviet human rights advocates ever and in doing so applied real pressure on the regime. It was part of a comprehensive strategy of raising the names of dissidents.

I thought that was brilliant and wanted to recreate that experience today with dictatorships around the world.  I wanted people in free societies to know the names of those brave dissidents imprisoned for nothing more than speaking out. I think it’s important for dictatorships to know that we have not forgotten about their political prisoners. It is critical that human rights advocates on the front lines fighting tyranny know that they are not alone — that we care about them and support them.

Dictatorships always try to silence critics and make them feel isolated.  It is our duty to push back and support democratic dissidents–rhetorically, politically, morally and symbolically.

RFA: How did these efforts in Congress come to fruition and what did it take to make it happen?

David Keyes: Last November, Kasparov and I co-authored an op-ed about the idea in The Wall Street Journal.  There was also a feature in The Daily Beast about Magnitksy Plaza, named after Sergei Magnitsky who died tragically in Russian prison after exposing Putin’s corruption.

But the idea got its biggest push on January 16th, when Natan Sharansky asked me to accompany him to Congress. During testimony before the Lantos Human Rights Commission, Sharansky said:

Advancing Human Rights Executive Director David Keyes. Photo courtesy David Keyes.

Advancing Human Rights Executive Director David Keyes. Photo courtesy David Keyes.

“Here is also present my friend, David Keyes, who is running the organization Advancing Human rights. I think, among other things, they came up with a great idea. In the past, there was a square in Washington in front of the Soviet embassy which was called ‘Sakharov Plaza.’ So each time they had to write something at the Soviet embassy, they had to mention Sakharov.  Why not do it in front the Iranian embassy–in front of every embassy of every dictatorship in the world? To name the streets in America and other free countries of the world. And that will be the best reminder that the world cares, that the world remembers. And that we will not permit…[dissidents to] disappear.”

Congressman Frank Wolf, co-chairman of the Commission, responded: “That was really powerful…if we can get a list of five embassies, we can have [Nabil] Rajab Square in front of the Bahraini embassy and we’ll do it in front of the Chinese embassy.  We’ll ask the DC city council to do this.  But that’s a great idea and we will do it and get those letters off.”

Sharansky spent nine years in Soviet prison and he credits pressure from the free world for securing his release. So this issue is very close to his heart. Many of the members of Congress present that day campaigned for his release back in the 80s. So for him to come before them and say they had a new opportunity today to stand up for democratic dissidents and apply real pressure was really moving. In a sense, it was the closing of a circle.

RFA: What has been the reaction from China?

David Keyes: The Chinese government responded by furiously denouncing our idea. They said it was disrespectful and provocative.

RFA: What do you say to that?

David Keyes: Well I think it’s disrespectful to jail people for advocating democracy.  I think it’s provocative to impose dictatorships on over a billion people.

I expected the Chinese government to react as they did because individual dissidents often symbolize much more than themselves. This is a struggle over the future of China. Will the Chinese government allow dissent and debate or will it continue to brutally repress lawyers, activists, journalists and bloggers?  Will China become a democracy or continue to impose dictatorship on so many people?

The fact that the Chinese government was so irked means that our idea is on the right track.

RFA: What are your thoughts on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown?

David Keyes: Tiananmen is also a symbol– of hopes and dreams quashed by the Chinese government. The fact that China continues to censor online material about the events of decades ago shows how much they fear open discourse. Tiananmen is a bellwether.  When the Chinese government no longer fears the truth about those events, then real progress will have been made.

RFA: When can we expect to see a street sign for Liu Xiaobo Plaza? 

David Keyes: Fourteen Republicans and Democrats signed the letter about Liu Xiaobo. It’s not everyday that conservative Republicans like Frank Wolf and liberal Democrats like Minority leader Nancy Pelosi agree.  But they came together in a display of real bi-partisanship. In the name of human rights, veteran members joined with the youngest member of the House, Patrick Murphy. They all deserve credit.

On Friday, the mayor’s office and the DC City Council said that given the importance of the signatories, they are seriously considering the proposal. I hope one day in the not too distant future to stand in front of the Chinese embassy along with human rights activists, Chinese dissidents and all who care about a free China to unveil “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.”

RFA: How do you hope this will bring renewed attention to the plight of Liu Xiaobo and the human rights situation in China?

David Keyes: I think in a sense this initiative has already put a lot of light on Liu Xiaobo and China’s gross violations of human rights. Within hours of the Congressional letter, Liu Xiaobo’s name was written up in [many international] newspapers.

The Chinese government was forced to respond. They blasted the members of Congress and called Xiaobo a criminal. Imagine that. What kind of society criminalizes dissent and throws a Noble Prize winner behind bars for more than a decade? Liu Xiaobo should be celebrated as a hero, not a criminal.

The more press we can garner for dissidents languishing in prison, the better. The more we know the names of political prisoners, the better. The more pressure dictatorships feel, the better. The more we can open closed societies, the better.

I believe strongly that we can only trust states as much as those states trust their own people. How much does China trust it’s people if it does not even allow them to read about Tiananmen? How much does it trust their people when the government imprison bloggers, lawyers and journalists? So how can we trust China as a state on the international stage?

There is a tendency of some to say, well, we need China economically so forget the human rights file. But only free societies have lasting stability. Only open societies can be trusted in the long term. Democracies pursue peace far more than dictatorships because their decisions are not made by a handful of un-elected and unaccountable people.

Andrei Sakharov’s ethical credo was “In the end, the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic choice.” Today, pressuring dictatorships and raising the names of democratic dissidents remains the moral and pragmatic choice.

RFA: Russia and China are two of the biggest dictatorships in the world. What’s up next for you to apply pressure?

David Keyes: This idea doesn’t apply to China alone.  A few months ago in New York, I had a heated exchange with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamed Zarif.  I asked him when famed student leader Majid Tavakoli would be freed. Zarif said he didn’t know who Tavakoli was. Iran’s UN ambassador also told me he hadn’t heard of him.  It is our job to make sure that no Iranian diplomat can ever again claim that they don’t know their own political prisoners. One way to do that is to change the street address in front of every Iranian embassy to the name of an imprisoned dissident.  Interestingly, the only human rights advocate I mentioned that Iran’s UN ambassador admitted to having heard about was Nasrin Sotoudeh.  He said this was because her name was all over the media.

Shortly after my confrontation with the Iranian foreign minister there was an uproar from Iranians.  Zarif’s Facebook page was filled with Iranians asking him why on Earth he hadn’t heard of one of their most famous political prisoners.  Within days, Tavakoli was released temporarily from prison on furlough. This experience showed yet again that even the most repressive states care about their PR and are susceptible to pressure.

Former Soviet leader Gorbachev said he released Natan Sharansky after nine years in Soviet prison because it wasn’t worth the international price they were paying.  The same was true for a brief moment regarding Iran and Tavakoli. How many of these moments can we recreate?  I suspect many, many more.

It is a real pity that all anyone talks about today is the type of weapons Iran is developing. The problem isn’t the type of weapon, but the type of regime.  The Iranian government hangs poets, kills opposition, tortures bloggers and jails student leaders.  The more we can pressure the Iranian regime on human rights, the safer it will be for everyone.

So next up is “Majid Tavakoli Plaza.”  I want to ensure that no matter where an Iranian diplomat goes, he is confronted with the faces and names of activists whose his government jails merely for speaking out.  Tavakoli has been in prison for years for advocating freedom.  He is young and doesn’t deserve to be in prison.  There are hundreds and even thousands more like him currently languishing in jail.

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Cambodian Workers and Activists Freed With Suspended Sentences

Freed activists and supporters celebrate in Phnom Penh on May 30th 2014. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Freed activists and supporters celebrate in Phnom Penh on May 30th 2014. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Civil society organizations in Cambodia are applauding the decision this morning of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to suspend the sentences of 23 men and two minors arrested during the mass protests by garment workers, thereby releasing the remaining 22 detainees. They are, however, extremely disappointed over the convictions of all 25 and the heavy fines imposed on some of them, following what was to all independent observers a deeply flawed trial process.

On May 30th 2014, Phnom Penh’s Municipal Court of First Instance imposed suspended sentences on 23 human rights defenders and protesters, including human rights defenders Vorn Pao, Chan Putisak, and Theng Savoeun. The sentences relate to the individuals’ participation in demonstrations held on January 2nd and 3rd 2014 demanding the right to decent work and fair wages, and they all deny the accusations.

Two of the 25 were arrested during violent clashes between security forces, workers and members of the public which put an end to a march by SL garment factory workers in November last year. The remaining 23 were arrested in early January during a lethal clampdown by mixed security forces to bring to an end a period of mass protest by garment workers and pro-opposition party supporters. The 22 who had remained in prison were released just after 11:00 Friday morning and marched back to Phnom Penh together with around 500 of their supporters. They will now be reunited with their families.

Those who had not been released on bail spent more than 140 days in detention in CC3 and CC1 prisons. Their highly contested trials took place at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court over five non-consecutive days in April and May.

“While we welcome the court’s decision to release the 22, we have not seen justice here today,” said Heng Samorn, General Secretary of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA). “They were all still convicted following trials which in fact confirmed the near total lack of evidence against them. The circumstances of the arrests and the fact that the trials were all held at the same time indicate that these cases were wholly political in nature. The aim was not to seek justice but rather to try and bring an end to popular protest and make people afraid to take to the streets to claim their rights.”

Vorn Pao is president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA). Chan Putisak is a labor rights defender. Theng Savoeun is a member of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC). Vorn Pao and Chan Puthisak were sentenced to four and half years’ imprisonment and Theng Savoeurn to four years by Judge Keo Mony for “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” under Article 218 of the Penal Code, although they were cleared of charges of “intentional damage with aggravating circumstances” under Article 414. The sentences of other members of the group (a number of which were issued by Judge Leang Samnath) range between one and four and a half years’ imprisonment, and were all suspended. All 23 will be released soon.

In early January 2014, strikes across Cambodia by garment factory workers, monks, victims of forced evictions and supporters of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party outside the Yak Jin and Canadia factories were quelled by Cambodian security forces. Since their arrest the 23 were repeatedly denied their rights to a fair trial as enshrined in international and Cambodian law.

They were held incommunicado by the authorities for five days, without access to lawyers, medical care or their families, and 21 of the 23 were repeatedly denied bail. The authorities revealed on January 7th 2014 that they were being held at Correctional Center 3 in Kampong Cham province. No independent investigation into the use of excessive force by state security forces has taken place.

The events surrounding the arrests of the 25 involved the use of wholly disproportionate force by state authorities against civilians which resulted in at least five deaths and numerous injuries, the organizations say. Almost all attempts by the defendants’ lawyers to introduce evidence of this violence during the trials were quickly suppressed by the judges and prosecutors.

To date, no action has been taken to punish those responsible for the violence, a fact that was noted by Moeun Tola, Head of the Labor Program at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC): “We are extremely happy that these men, who have become a symbol of the struggle of Cambodian workers to receive a minimum wage of $160, will be able to return to their families. However, it remains deeply disappointing that there has still been no justice for the dead and injured and that no attempts have been made to find or bring charges against those responsible.”

The coalition says that today’s convictions follow a trial process that was characterized by a total absence of fair trial rights. In all three cases the judges failed to act with impartiality, often favoring the prosecution in the admission of evidence and the permission to cross-examine witnesses; there was also little evidence of the presumption of innocence or of the prosecution’s burden to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, as the judges and prosecutors focused mainly on the defendants’ presence at the protests and possible inconsistency of testimony rather than on finding evidence that linked them to the charges.

LICADHO Director, Naly Pilorge said “It was clear throughout the trials that there was insufficient evidence even to accuse most of these men let alone convict them. And yet they have now been forced to spend between five and eight months in pre-trial detention, a number of them with serious injuries sustained during their arrests as well as other health issues requiring urgent medical treatment.”

Four of the men, Vorn Pao (President of IDEA), Theng Savoeun (Coordinator of Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community), Chan Puthisak (community leader from Boeung Kak Lake), and Sokun Sambath Piseth (staff member at Center for Labor Rights of Cambodia) all received unexpectedly heavy sentences of between 4 and 4.5 years after the prosecutor put in a late request to the judge during his concluding comments on May 20th that the charges against them be changed to offenses carrying much heavier penalties.

Each of the four men has also been fined a sum of 8 million riels (equivalent to US $2000). Three of the men are prominent activists and campaigners who have taken a lead in land and labor protests in recent years. The fact that their sentences were merely suspended today means that they are at risk of having to serve the remainder of those sentences at a later date if found guilty of other charges.

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Adequate Security Needed Before Refugees Return to Burma

Members of the European Burma Network are deeply concerned that refugees from Burma living in camps in Thailand are being pressured to return to Burma prematurely because of cuts in aid.

The international community, and in particular the European Union, is pursuing policies which could in effect force refugees from Burma back into the country before it is safe for them to return, and without the support they will need. Reforms in Burma, including the peace process, have not progressed to a degree where it is safe for refugees to return, the organization says.

Even where ceasefires have been signed, full codes of conduct for the ceasefires have not been agreed. The Burmese Army is increasing, rather than decreasing, its presence in ethnic states. The network says that human rights violations by the Burmese Army and associated forces, although reduced in some areas, are still taking place. Political dialogue which could lead to a lasting peace has still not begun, and there is little prospect of genuine dialogue starting in the foreseeable future.

Despite these serious problems, many donors have used the reforms in Burma as justification for reducing funding for refugees, despite the fact that the number of refugees has not significantly fallen. This is resulting in cuts in rations, shelter, clothing and other essential services.

In some instances funding has been diverted towards livelihood programs designed to help refugees when they return to Burma. However, these programs are so underfunded they do not come close to providing adequate programs. It is also wrong for funding to be diverted from providing essentials such as food and shelter. Funding for these programs should be additional to, rather than instead of, providing essentials for survival.

Facing reduced rations and other support, many refugees feel that the international community is trying to force them back to Burma against their will, Refugees have even questioned if the cuts are designed to ‘starve us back to Burma’. By using cuts in aid to try to force refugees back to Burma, donors such as the European Union are putting refugees at risk of being subject to human rights abuses, landmines, and living in extreme poverty.

Members of the European Burma Network call on the European Union and other donors to reverse cuts in funding for food, shelter and other essential aid for refugees and internally displaced persons in Burma. They also ask all donors to recognize that reforms in Burma have not yet created a situation where it would be safe for refugees to return to Burma.

Refugees consulted by members of the European Burma Network expressed a desire for action in the following areas to enable them to be able to consider returning to Burma:

  • Refugees are calling for troop withdrawal. Since ceasefires have been signed there has been increased militarization, with significant increases in Burmese Army soldiers in ethnic states. Refugees do not feel that it is safe to return to their homes and villages while they are occupied by the Burmese Army responsible for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity against them. This is not an issue being prioritized by the international community despite their proclaimed support for the peace process.
  • Refugees express concern about landmines in their old villages and farms. Although some limited landmine clearance has taken place, it is very small scale compared to the need.
  • Refugees also want their land back. Many report that their land and even homes have been confiscated by the Army or Government. No efforts are being made to address this issue, and in fact, since reforms began, this problem has got worse.
  • Refugees need much more than livelihood programs to assist their return. Most refugees have lost everything they owned. Their homes have been destroyed, their property and livestock looted or destroyed. They need assistance to rebuild homes, replace tools, seeds and livestock. They want compensation from the Burmese government for property lost or stolen. No efforts are being made to address this issue.
  • Many refugees want to return to their home villages, not be forced into special economic zones as the Burmese government proposes. They don’t want to be cheap labor in factories. No significant pressure is being applied on the government of Burma to ensure it allows refugees to choose where they want to live.
  • Refugees also stressed the need for justice and accountability. They want those who committed the abuses, who were responsible for what happened, to be held accountable. They say they don’t want revenge, only justice. No action is being taken in this regard within Burma. The government of Burma does not even accept widespread human rights abuses have taken place. The international community, including the European Union, is not taking any action relating to past or present violations of international law.

The European Union and its members largely approach the peace process by supporting Burmese government mechanisms and from the perspective of the Burmese government. Little support or attention is given to armed ethnic political groups, and almost no attention is paid to community based organizations and victims of human rights abuses by the Burmese Army and government.

Peace and safe refugee return will not happen without the involvement of the communities affected. Their voices must be heard, and their concerns acted upon.

Members of the European Burma Network are calling upon the European Union and its members to start to listen to and address the concerns of conflict affected communities in and from Burma.

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Missing Tibetan Monk Free

Jigme Gyatso in an undated photo, courtesy of RSF.

Jigme Gyatso in an undated photo, courtesy of RSF.

Jigme Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who disappeared nearly two years ago in Tibet, has resurfaced safe and sound in the northern Indian city Dharamsala. There had been no news of Gyatso – who helped Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen to secretly film the documentary Leaving Fear Behind in 2008 – since his arbitrary arrest by the Chinese authorities in September 2012.

“It is wonderful to learn that an information hero who had been missing for nearly two years has resurfaced safely and in relative good health,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. But our delight can only be partial because we are still very concerned about Dhondup Wangchen, who remains in prison. We urge the Chinese authorities to free him and all others whose only crime has been to enable a discriminated people to use its voice.”

No information has so far been made public about how Gyatso escaped or how he spent the past two years. He has announced through the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and the Swiss organization Filming for Tibet that he will provide this information at a news conference at 11 a.m. on Monday May 28th in the Hotel Tibet.

Leaving Fear Behind was screened clandestinely in Beijing as the 2008 Olympic Games got under way. Gyatso was immediately arrested and was sentenced to seven months in prison, during which he was beaten and tortured. Released in October 2008, he was detained arbitrarily again in 2012.

A brave journalist and human rights defender, Dhondup, 38, is a self-taught Tibetan documentary filmmaker who conceived and shot the 25-minute film to portray life in Tibet in advance of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The film is based on 35 hours of footage and 108 interviews that he conducted over five months. The footage includes candid conversations conducted with Tibetans who expressed views on a range of issues, from the Dalai Lama and the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the human rights situation in Tibetan areas.

Dhondup Wangchen in a screenshot from his 2008 film ''Leaving Fear Behind".

Dhondup Wangchen in a screenshot from his 2008 film ”Leaving Fear Behind”.

Shortly after his footage was smuggled overseas to Switzerland, Wangchen disappeared into Chinese detention in March 2008 along with his helper Jigme Gyatso. Knowledge of his whereabouts came only after Jigme, a monk who helped shoot the film, was released from jail. On Mr. Jigme’s release in October 2008, he said that they had both undergone severe interrogations and torture in detention that included electric shock. Jigme has been rearrested since his release.

An edited version of Leaving Fear Behind was shown to foreign journalists in Beijing just days before the Olympic Games in August 2008. Chinese security forces interrupted the screening. In June 2009, Dhondup was charged with “inciting separatism”. He was tried in secret, found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison.  According to Amnesty International he contracted Hepatitis B while in prison for which he has not received any medical treatment, according to Films For Tibet. In January 2010, he was denied appeal.

He begins his film by saying, “I am not an educated man. I have never been to school. However, I would like to say a few things. What I would like to talk about comes from a discussion a few of us had a few months ago. What we were discussing was that before the 2008 Olympic Games are going to be held in China we should gather information about whether Tibetans in Tibet agree with the games and their views on them.” In 2012, he was awarded the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Leaving Fear Behind from Filming for Tibet on Vimeo.

New measures restricting the flow of information have meanwhile just been announced by the authorities in Golog, a prefecture with a mainly Tibetan population in Qinghai province. According to an official document, all of the prefecture’s monks are required to sign an undertaking to support the Communist Party and to demonstrate this support in their behavior.

The document also says that using a telephone or the Internet to send information outside the region is strictly forbidden, as is “listening to external sources of information.” The monks must also undertake not to leave the region during the next four years.

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Lao Government Must Make Tangible Progress to Address Key Human Rights Issues

The European Union (EU) must make the strengthening of bilateral relations with Laos contingent upon the Lao government’s ability to make tangible progress in addressing key human rights issues, say rights groups. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR), made the call in a briefing paper in advance of the 5th Laos-EU Working Group on Human Rights and Governance, which will take place in Brussels Monday.

The organizations claim that the Lao government has repeatedly failed to reform and address serious human rights issues. Widespread corruption, a strangled civil society, foreign investment that contributes to land grabbing, and a dysfunctional judiciary have made substantive and comprehensive reforms based on the full respect of the rule of law and human rights impossible.

“The EU must use all political tools at its disposal to ensure that the Lao government adopts a credible, time-bound, and measurable action plan aimed at addressing key human rights issues. Foremost issues include rampant land grabbing and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.

Despite accepting 115 of the 145 recommendations made by various States at its last United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in May 2010, the Lao government has failed to undertake any tangible efforts to reform or to turn any of the recommendations into concrete actions. Laos has also ignored the voluntary pledges it made during the same UPR session. In addition, the government continues to fail comply with its legal obligations under several human rights treaties it ratified.

The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP) remains the sole party allowed in the country. The ruling PRP suppresses all avenues of dissent, including the media, and all forms of association not approved by the party. Holding peaceful protests against the government or the party remains prohibited.

Government authorities routinely violate many of the civil liberties incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Religious freedom, guaranteed in the Lao constitution, is severely restricted by draconian regulations. There is no means of appeal against violations of civil rights in Laos.

Lao institutions are unable or unwilling to foster a culture of transparency in decision-making. Despite an accelerated economic opening following Laos’ accession to membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in February 2013, the government still holds its grip on the country’s political space.

FIDH and LMHR also urge the EU to exert more pressure on the Lao government for a thorough and credible investigation aimed at determining the fate or whereabouts of civil society leader and human rights defender Sombath Somphone and other victims of enforced disappearances.

Despite international calls for cooperation and pressure from rights groups, the Lao authorities have continued to maintain that they have nothing to do with the activist’s disappearance more than seventeen months ago. The Lao authorities’ potential involvement in Sombath’s disappearance has been compounded by their failure to conduct thorough investigations and their rejection of external assistance, including to analyze the original CCTV footage of the night he went missing.

FIDH and LMHR call on the EU to prioritize assistance to Laos that supports and protects civil society, human rights defenders, and vulnerable communities, which they say is essential to help Lao civil society to counter and dissipate the growing climate of fear fueled by the disappearance of Sombath.

“The Lao government has repeatedly ignored the numerous calls made by the EU to address the issue of enforced disappearances. It’s time for the EU to step up pressure on Lao authorities and warn them that the failure to properly investigate cases of disappearances and hold the perpetrators accountable will have serious ramifications on bilateral relations,” said LMHR President Vanida Thepsouvanh.

FIDH and LHMR also demand that the EU pay particular attention to land rights issues. Land confiscation and forced evictions related to development and infrastructure projects have already resulted in displacement, environmental degradation, and loss of livelihoods in many areas of the country. Trade and investment agreements that do not address responsible development and corporate accountability will only exacerbate the situation.

FIDH and LMHR maintain that it is critical for the EU and Laos to include human rights safeguards and redress mechanisms for land rights violations among the key elements of future bilateral economic agreements.

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Journalist Still Held In Growing Crackdown Ahead of Tiananmen Anniversary

A plainclothes policeman (L) follows suspected journalists on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 4, 2013. AFP photo.

A plainclothes policeman (L) follows suspected journalists on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 4, 2013. AFP photo.

Amid a growing clampdown on freedom of speech and assembly ahead of the sensitive 25th anniversary of the military crackdown at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, another journalist has gone missing. Journalist and activist Wu Wei, a former Beijing based reporter for the South China Morning Post and reportedly arrested by Beijing police, has not been heard from by family or friends for several days.

Several Hong Kong media outlets reported the arrest, based on messages published on the Weibo social network, then relayed by journalist and blogger Wen Yunchao. No information has been released on why she would have been arrested. According to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the action may stem from her support for the release of human rights advocate Pu Zhiqiang. RSF is demanding an immediate explanation from the Beijing government.

Authorities have also detained six other activists, including lawyers, academics and journalists, who attended a seminar on May 3rd ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, as controls continue to tighten on dissent, free speech and the Internet. The seminar was a gathering of about 20 human rights lawyers, academics, and family members of victims in Beijing.

The attendees called for a public inquiry into the military crackdown on unarmed civilians at Tiananmen Square which left an unknown number dead; estimates ranges from several hundred to several thousand killed as a result of violence. The military intervention ended six weeks of demonstrations and hunger strikes by students who called for democracy and political reform.

The news of Wu’s arrest came just one day after the arrest of Xiang Nanfu, a regular contributor to the Boxun news website. Boxun, which typically focuses on news that would be censored out of China’s tightly controlled official media, on Tuesday rejected the charges against Xiang, saying the human rights situation in China is continuing to deteriorate.

RSF said that the arrest ‘’shows that the authorities are taking a harder line and are reinforcing repressive measures and censorship in the run-up to the commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre.”

A file photo of Chinese journalist Gao Yu speaking at a press conference in Hong Kong. AFP photo.

A file photo of Chinese journalist Gao Yu speaking at a press conference in Hong Kong. AFP photo.

Several days before that came an official announcement that veteran journalist Gao Yu had been placed in criminal detention on charges of leaking state secrets. Gao played an active part during the Tiananmen Square protests, and was detained on June 3rd 1989, as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) moved its tanks into the heart of Beijing, putting an end to calls for greater democracy and rule of law. She has not been heard from for over a week.

“As in the case of Gao Yu, the fact that a committed journalist such as Wu Wei has not been heard from is of the utmost concern,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the press freedom organization’s Asia-Pacific desk. “All the more so because the police are stepping up the pace of kidnap-style arrests as the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square events approaches. In the absence of charges against her, we demand that Wu Wei be released immediately.”

Information concerning the journalist’s arrest had circulated on May 13th on Weibo. But, at her family’s request, word of the detention did not immediately circulate more widely.

“The staging of Gao Yu’s confession is outrageous,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “The Chinese authorities, who constantly flout freedom of information, are trying to set an example by targeting this well-known journalist. We demand Gao’s immediate release and the withdrawal of these charges. Extracting a confession under duress and broadcasting it on state TV constitute a grave violation of fundamental rights. The authorities must end their policy of persecuting those who just do their job by informing their fellow Chinese citizens.”

Pu Zhiqiang, a human rights lawyer known for defending the dissident artist Ai Weiwei and members of the New Citizens Movement, was arrested May 6th on a charge of “causing trouble.”

In the run-up to the 25-year anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, arrests of dissidents and censorship operations are on the increase in China. The country is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. China remains one of the most repressive countries in the world towards those who campaign for freedom of information and expression.

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Buddhist Leader Reviles China’s Encroachment into Vietnamese Territorial Waters

Outraged by by China’s recent deployment of a giant oil rig off the coast of central Vietnam, the Venerable Thich Quang Do, Supreme Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), calls on China to cease violations of Vietnamese sovereignty, and urges the Vietnamese government and the Communist Party to embark on a process of democratization to enable its citizens to participate equally in the defense of their homeland.

The UBCV leader and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize nominee sent a message to the International Buddhist Information Bureau from the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery where he is under de facto house arrest. In the declaration, launched on behalf of the UBCV, Thich Quang Do, 86, also appeals to Buddhists in China to demonstrate solidarity with the Vietnamese people by pressing Beijing to “acknowledge that all men are brothers, and to change its expansionist policies for an engagement with Vietnam which is mutually reinforcing, interdependent and based on understanding and mutual respect.”

In early May 2014, China moved a giant deep sea drill ship, the Haiyang 981, from the northwest of Triton Island in the Paracel Islands into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. It has now laid anchor just 120 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast, which Thich Quang Do says is in violation of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.

Scores of Chinese vessels have been deployed to protect the Haiyang 981 including navy warships such as missile-carrying Giang Ho II and high speed 534 patrol ships, and dozens of Chinese military planes are patrolling the skies above. Chinese ships have rammed Vietnamese sea guard vessels, causing extensive injuries and damage.

The leader says that these actions are ‘’a brazen and deliberate violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty, an encroachment on its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, and a withdrawal from the agreement on the conduct of parties in the East Sea signed between China and ASEAN.’’

The UBCV says that the government of Vietnam must adopt resolute measures to protect the nation’s sovereignty, including deploying robust foreign and domestic policy options including: bringing the issue of China’s violations before the United Nations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and asking all nations of ASEAN to demand multilateral discussions to solve East Sea disputes rather than the bilateral discussions demanded by China.

For Thich Quang Do, this is the latest in a series of increasingly brazen violations of Vietnamese sovereignty by its northern neighbor. He was among the first to alert international opinion to the danger of Chinese influence in Vietnam, ranging from the environmental and security threats caused by the influx of thousands of Chinese workers to mine bauxite in the Central highlands in 2007; Hanoi’s 50-year leasing to China of forest regions along the northern Vietnamese borders; the capture and killings of Vietnamese fishermen and Beijing’s establishment of “Sansha City” on a Paracels islet as its administrative and military center in the South China seas in 2012.

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Vietnam “Going Further Down the Road of Repression”

Rights groups are condemning Monday’s arrest of two Vietnamese bloggers and say that Vietnam is going further down the road of repression” in its effects to thwart dissent. Bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy are among an increasing number of peaceful critics charged under article 258 of the penal code covering “abuse of democratic freedoms.” If convicted, Vinh and Thuy face up to seven years in prison.

The pair was arrested in Hanoi for posting articles that allegedly contained “bad content and incorrect information that reduces prestige and trust in state agencies.”During the first three months of 2014, at least six other people have been convicted for the same charge, including bloggers Truong Duy Nhat and Pham Viet Dao, and ethnic minority rights activists Thao Quan Mua, Duong Van Tu, Ly Van Dinh, and Hoang Van Sang.

“The arrest of two more bloggers, just two days after World Press Freedom Day, is a clear signal by the authorities, and shows that Vietnam is going further down the road of repression”, said Reporters Without Borders research chief Lucie Morillon. “Penal code article 258 is often used to silence information providers when they start to irritate the authorities too much. We call for the immediate release of Vinh and Thuy and the 31 other bloggers who are still detained. It is time the government stopped persecuting individuals who use the freedom of expression and information guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Human Rights Watch said the authorities should drop all charges and immediately release them. “Vietnam’s arrests of more bloggers for allegedly abusing ‘democratic freedoms’ is a cynical and chilling move,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Vietnam should immediately drop these bogus charges, and then take the next step by scrapping article 258 and other provisions of the penal code regularly used to punish free expression.”

Vinh, 58, is a former police officer and a Communist Party member who previously worked at the Committee for Vietnamese Overseas. He started an independent news outlet called Sidewalk News Agency, in allusion to the official Vietnam News Agency. He created the Ba Sam website in 2007, initially as a place to post his articles, but it quickly became a broader news platform.

Since becoming well known under the pen name of Anh Ba Sam (Gossiper), he has had to keep changing his blog’s address to circumvent blocking. The subjects he covers include Chinese foreign policy towards Vietnam regarding the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Using the motto “Pha vong no le” (breaking the slavery ring), the main goal of Ba Sam is to bring news from a variety of perspectives to its readers. Ba Sam provides links to news from various sources, including Vietnam state-controlled media as well as individual blogs. It advised readers on how to bypass Vietnam government-installed firewalls to read news published outside of Vietnam. Ba Sam also published critical commentary and Vietnamese translations of overseas articles related to Vietnam’s social and political situation.

Within just a few years, Ba Sam became one of the most important blogs written from inside Vietnam, and saw its readership grow exponentially. It was accessed by tens of thousands of Vietnamese readers daily. Given this incredible success, the Ba Sam blog also suffered numerous online attacks including denial of service attacks and hacking. Vietnam state media criticized the blog by name and the authorities quietly demanded that its founder remove certain news items from the blog. In September 2012, five years after the start of Ba Sam, Nguyen Huu Vinh announced that he would end his direct involvement with the blog in order to avoid “the heated atmosphere” developing, leaving the blog to be run by the blog editor, Ngoc Thu, and other assistants.

On April 10th 2014, due to various online attacks, Ba Sam was temporarily forced to stop posting news. The blog partially resumed on May 5th as a protest against the arrests of Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy. Many other independent bloggers and social groups in Vietnam have already voiced opposition against the arrests.

Civil Society Forum, a blog created in September 2013, was also closed without explanation Monday, a day after it supported a joint appeal to the government to respect freedom of association. The Defend the Defenders website was meanwhile the target of two waves of cyber-attacks several days ago.

Rights groups say that these most recent arrests are the latest in a escalated attempt to silence those critical of the Communist Party-dominated government. “The arrest of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh and his assistant, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, shows that Vietnamese authorities have no intention of easing their campaign to repress online dissent, despite rising international criticism,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative at New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “We call for the unconditional release of all journalists detained in Vietnam.”

“The government should recognize it cannot drag the Vietnamese people by force back into a pre-Internet world where state controlled media was completely dominant,” said Robertson. “The government’s repressive approach will only make people more determined in demanding their rights to freedom of information and expression.”

Vietnam is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. It is also on the Reporters Without Borders list of Enemies of the Internet because of its persecution of bloggers and cyber dissidents.

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Cambodia Must Stop Hindering Union Registration

Workers demonstrate for higher minimum wages in front of the Council of Ministers building in Phnom Penh on Dec. 30, 2013. RFA photo.

Workers demonstrate for higher minimum wages in front of the Council of Ministers building in Phnom Penh on Dec. 30, 2013. RFA photo.

Rights groups say the Cambodian government is limiting registrations of unions, which could harm workers who depend on union protection. Only about one percent of the total workforce is unionized with the vast majority of organized workers found in the garment industry, the country’s top revenue earner. Unions in Cambodia primarily represent workers in individual garment factories, who are typically young women from impoverished families.

Human Rights Watch said Tuesday in a letter to the minister of labor and vocational training that the Labor Ministry should restart the registration of unions and stop unilaterally amending union registration procedures without input from independent unions and other labor rights experts.

“The Cambodian government’s unjustified slowdown of union registrations harms workers who depend on unions to advocate for rights and a decent livelihood,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should make May Day meaningful to workers by resuming union registration and ending unnecessary interference in union activities.”

Independent union federations have raised concerns about a de facto suspension of union registration. This was supported by Labor Ministry data that suggested a dramatic reduction in union registrations in December 2013. Officials could provide no information on new registrations in 2014, but said between 50 and 60 applications were pending. Under Cambodian law, the ability of unions to operate is severely curtailed without official registration.

The Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR)  said that Cambodia’s garment sector “is plagued by widespread disregard for and violations of the right to freedom of association.”

Representatives from the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) told Human Rights Watch that they had at least 13 applications that they were still waiting to submit to the Labor Ministry because ministry officials would not accept the applications. Two of the thirteen  applications related to changes in union leadership of already licensed unions, which they said the ministry refused to accept for processing.

Similarly, a representative from the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU) said that they have at least four union applications pending with the ministry since the November-December 2013 period, and that in several other cases, officials had refused to accept their applications.

The slowdown in union registrations may reflect revisions being made to the regulation on union registration, Prakas 21, Human Rights Watch said. Union representatives told Human Rights Watch that ministry officials were not accepting applications for union registration or union leadership changes while registration procedures were being revised. They said the government has not consulted with federations about changes to the regulation.

On April 17th,  the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) urged the Cambodian government to make public a proposed law aimed at regulating the country’s labor movement, amid concerns that it includes provisions for the suspension of unions and for severely restricting their right to freedom of association.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration has pledged to adopt by the end of the year yet requests from civil society to review the Law on Trade Unions have so far been denied according to CCHR.

“It is evident that the right to freedom of association is heavily stifled in Cambodia, exacerbated further by what CCHR has documented as the increasing suppression of union registration since December 2013 to date–either through denying or delaying new registration, or through threats of license revocation,” CCHR said in a briefing note.

Recent demands made by government regulators on union federation officials suggest that Cambodia’s Labor Ministry is placing unnecessarily burdensome procedures on union registration and leadership changes. Among these are obtaining a certificate from the Ministry of Justice proving that each union representative has no criminal record, which could be a prolonged process.

Proposed union representatives awaiting this certificate are often at risk of retaliation from factory management, independent unions told Human Rights Watch. Further extending the waiting period increases the risk of harassment and possible firings.

Human Rights Watch urged the Labor Ministry to immediately suspend the process of revising Prakas 21 and instead undertake a transparent and thorough examination of problems with union registration in close consultation with independent unions, the International Labour Organization, and labor rights experts. Labor officials should ensure that changes to the regulations facilitate, rather than obstruct union registration, and ensure respect for the right to freedom of association under the Cambodian constitution and international human rights law.

“The government should make the union registration process transparent, fair and quick,” Robertson said. “Adding bureaucratic hurdles that give more time to unscrupulous factory management to retaliate against union representatives would be a serious setback for workers’ rights in Cambodia.”

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