Myanmar’s New Population Control Law a Blow to Women’s Rights and Religious Freedom

As Myanmar’s President recently signed a population control bill, rights groups caution that the new law entrenches already widespread discrimination and risks fueling further violence against religious minorities.

On Saturday President Thein Sein signed off on the law which requires a three year spacing for some women between child births. It was passed by parliamentarians last month despite objections from rights groups who say that the bill will undermine reproductive rights, women’s rights and religious freedom.

Amnesty International warned that the bill could become a blueprint for state population control. The rights organization says that the law plays into fears that minority groups are having more children than the Buddhist majority. An almost complete lack of human rights safeguards means that the bill could even pave the way for state-enforced contraception, abortions or sterilizations.

Calling it ‘’extremely disappointing’’ that President Thein signed this bill into law, Amnesty spokesperson Olof Blomqvist told me that  Amnesty was also concerned that the last version that Amnesty International reviewed contained no safeguards or protection against potential discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnicity or religion. Blomqvist also cautioned that this law could show a trend toward population control similar to that in China: ‘’At worst, this law could become a blueprint for state population control – but one targeting minority groups in particular. It appears to play into stereotypes that certain minority groups are having more children than the Buddhist majority. Family planning is to be encouraged, but should never be imposed by the state.’’

A legal review by Amnesty of the The Population Control Healthcare Bill – ostensibly aimed at improving living standards among poor communities – found that it lacks human rights safeguards. The bill establishes a 36-month “birth spacing” interval for women between child births, though it is unclear whether or how women who violate the law would be punished. The lack of essential safeguards to protect women who have children more frequently potentially creates an environment that could lead to forced reproductive control methods.

Amnesty said that the new law is another blow to women who already face already multiple types of discrimination and human rights abuses in Myanmar, which is a patriarchal society. ‘’Just one example is how women continue to bear the brunt of violations by the Myanmar Army in the armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas. Amnesty International continues to receive reports of rape and other forms of sexual violence that are almost never investigated. Thankfully, women human rights advocates are very outspoken in Myanmar. Despite the numerous insults – and even death threats – they have received for taking position against hard-line Buddhist groups, they continue to courageously work against gender based discrimination,’’ Blomqvist commented.

United to End Genocide called the President’s actions ‘’troubling’’ and said this law is the latest in a long history of policies of persecution aimed at the minority Rohingya and other Muslims in Burma. ‘’The extremist nationalist Buddhist monks behind the bill, the so-called Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, are the same that have been stoking violence against Muslims and have been clear that this bill is meant to target Muslims as well,’’ Daniel Sullivan, Director of Policy and Government Relations at End Genocide commented.

He added that what is even more disturbing is that Burma’s President signed the bill just as the number two diplomat at the U.S. State Department (US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken) visited Burma, a major slap in the face of the Obama administration that appears to have gone without reaction.

‘’The persecution of the Rohingya is a root cause of the recent crisis at sea and the continued discovery of over 100 mass graves in trafficking camps in Malaysia and Thailand. Addressing those atrocities requires addressing the conditions in Burma that are causing so many to risk their lives at sea and at the hands of human traffickers. Signing a bill that adds further discrimination against the Rohingya does just the opposite,’’ Sullivan said.

In March, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director Richard Bennett advised against passing the law: “If these drafts become law, they would not only give the state free rein to further discriminate against women and minorities, but could also ignite further ethnic violence.”

These laws play into harmful stereotypes about women and minorities, in particular Muslims, which are often propagated by extremist nationalist groups. The laws come during a disturbing rise in ethnic and religious tensions, as well as ongoing systematic discrimination against women, in Myanmar. In this context, where minority groups – and in particular the Rohingya – face severe discrimination in law, policy and practice, the draft laws could be interpreted to target women and specific communities identified on a discriminatory basis.

In the wake of the on-going Rohingya refugee crisis, this development is seen by human rights activists as a smokescreen and say that the Myanmar government is avoiding the root cause of discrimination entrenched in law: ‘’There is a reason why so many thousands of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar are desperate enough to risk their lives on dangerous boat journeys to escape the conditions they face at home. The Rohingya have suffered decades of institutionalised discrimination where they are denied citizenship. Waves of violence between Muslims and Buddhist dating back to 2012 has left tens of thousands of mainly Rohingya displaced in Rakhine state, where they live in camps in squalid conditions. Myanmar’s authorities must do everything they can to address the root causes of this crisis and improve the situation facing the Rohingya in Myanmar – not potentially further entrench discrimination by passing laws such as the Population Control Health Care Bill,’’ Blomqvist said.

Amnesty also said that the bill does not comply with international human rights law and standards, including Myanmar’s legal obligations as a state party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

‘’Myanmar is entering a crucial year with elections in November. The country is facing a range of serious political and economic issues – ranging from widespread poverty to questions over the progress of political reforms that were introduced in 2011. The proposed “protecting race and religion” laws are a distraction from these serious issues – they should never have been tabled in the first place and must be scrapped. Myanmar’s authorities should work for reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups and address the range of pressing issues facing the country – not play into hatred and fear, and seek to cement already widespread discrimination,’’ Bennett said.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Threats to Internet Freedom in Cambodia

Venerable Sovath is internationally known as the multi-media monk and his efforts voice human rights abuses in Cambodia. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Venerable Sovath is internationally known as the multi-media monk and his efforts voice human rights abuses in Cambodia. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Since coming to power, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has controlled and censored traditional media outlets. Government controlled broadcast licenses have systematically been denied to independent broadcasters while journalists have been threatened, prosecuted, jailed, and in some cases murdered for crossing invisible lines of what can and cannot be publicly discussed.

LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights,  releases its report Going Offline? The Threat to Cambodia’s Newfound Internet Freedoms, describing the vital importance of the Internet for freedom of expression in Cambodia and the imminent threat that this last bastion for independent voices now faces.

Over the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a boom in web connectivity—a development which has transformed the country’s information environment. In 2010 just 320,000 Cambodians had access to the internet; by the end of 2013 that number had climbed more than tenfold to 3.8 million—nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Driven by the increasing availability of cheap web-enabled smartphones and extensive mobile networks, young Cambodians—mostly in urban areas— have embraced social media networks like Facebook and YouTube. There are now approximately 1.76 million Cambodians on Facebook, with an estimated 1,100 new users joining every day.

As a result, web-based social media networks have been taken up enthusiastically by bloggers, monks, community activists, and opposition politicians to circumvent government media controls and disseminate information about important issues such as land-grabs, police violence, impunity, corruption and deforestation, to name but a few.

ReportAccording to LICADHO, this new found space for free expression is under attack. The government has created the Cyber War Team (CWT) to monitor and collect information from Facebook and other websites in order to “protect the government’s stance and prestige.” The government has visited the headquarters of Cambodian telecoms firms and ISPs to examine their network equipment and will reportedly begin installing surveillance equipment. Such reports are especially troubling given recent vaguely worded telecommunications deals between Cambodia and China, a country that appears ambivalent at best with respect to internet freedom.

“Freedom of expression is a right that many Cambodians have never truly experienced,” said Am Sam Ath, Technical Coordinator for LICADHO. “It comes as no surprise that as soon as Cambodians found a way to have their voices heard, the government has begun a comprehensive effort to once again silence them.”

Because of its late and sudden emergence, the Internet is one of the few spaces left for free expression in Cambodia. Since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has maintained a tight grip on the traditional print and broadcast media. Journalists have been killed, threatened, and sued for crossing invisible lines. Independent and opposition-aligned media outlets have been co-opted and forced into closure.

Government broadcast licenses have been denied to independent broadcasters and the political opposition, except for one recent notable exception which arose out of secretive political negotiations that have also resulted in the passage of two highly controversial election laws. A window of free expression was opened with the arrival of the United Nations (UN) mission of the early 1990s, but was slowly forced closed during the two decades that followed.

While internet penetration in Cambodia remains low by regional standards, the spread of smartphones and digital technologies has given many Cambodians better access to information than ever before. The web, relatively free from government control, has become an essential tool for through which citizens can share information on the social and political issues that affect their lives.

LICADHO says that in the past two years, the government has contrived an expanded arsenal of legal tools and embryonic surveillance schemes that seem almost tailor-made to target the expression of dissenting opinions on the internet.

In addition, there are two draft laws that, if passed, would allow the Cambodian government to control the content of what Cambodians post online in addition to the very architecture of the Internet itself.

The draft Cybercrime Law would create a new National Anti-Cybercrime Committee (NACC), chaired by the Prime Minister, with expansive powers to search and seize communication equipment. The law would also authorize the government with broad discretion to arrest online users for creating or sharing content that is deemed to violate numerous vaguely worded provisions.

If enacted, the law would extend the government’s authority over not only content posted on the internet but also over the internet services providers. The law will authorize the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications with the power to order any telecoms operator to transfer control of its system to the ministry in order to “maintain national interest, security, stability, or public order.” Further provisions would outlaw the installation of telecoms equipment that might “affect public order or national safety and security.” The vague clauses could potentially encompass any telephone call or email that is viewed as hostile by the government.

“The draft Cybercrime Law and Law on Telecommunications are a clear attempt by the CPP to establish complete control over Cambodia’s Internet,” said LICADHO Director, Naly Pilorge. “The extreme discretion that Cambodian government would wield under these laws could and likely will be used to suppress virtually any form of critical online content.”

If passed, the draft Cybercrime Law and draft Law on Telecommunications would give the government the power to control not just what appears on citizen’s computers and smartphones, but also the very structures which deliver the information in the first place. As with the traditional media, there would be no need to prosecute every instance of critical speech, just enough to plant the seed of doubt and fear in the minds of Facebook users, bloggers, and community activists. In this climate, freedom of expression on the internet would be held subject to a range of capricious controls. In short, it would cease to exist in any meaningful way. Internet access is spreading to more and more of the Cambodian population. But for the freedom to speak openly online, time is running out.

LICADHO urges the National Assembly to reject any legislation that seeks to impose severe restriction on fundamental rights to freedom of expression.

LICADHO also calls upon international donors and the international community at large to recognize and acknowledge that a vital space for freedom of expression in Cambodia is under serious threat, and this space needs to be promoted and protected in better ways.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rescue Needed for Thousands of Rohingya Fleeing the Threat of Genocide on Boats in Southeast Asia

Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State in Burma recently arrived in Malaysia via human traffickers. April 2, 2015. Photo courtesy United to End Genocide.

Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State in Burma recently arrived in Malaysia via human traffickers. April 2, 2015. Photo courtesy United to End Genocide.

As an estimated 8,000-20,000 Rohingya are adrift at sea, United to End Genocide, a U.S. based human rights advocacy group, calls on the Obama administration to take immediate action to help rescue them. Thousands of Rohingya are floating in the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia fleeing horrific conditions in western Burma. The group also called for the imposition of sanctions on the government of Burma if it continues its relentless persecution of the Rohingya – the root cause of the crisis.

Rohingya have been taking to the sea in unprecedented numbers. An estimated 25,000 have fled with at least 300 deaths in the first quarter of 2015 alone according to the UN refugee agency. ‘’The discovery of mass graves in Thai jungle camps and the abandoning of ships full of desperate refugees has opened a whole new level of risk that the world can no longer ignore,’’ said Daniel Sullivan, Director of Policy and Government Relations at United to End Genocide.

“Immediate action is needed to rescue thousands of Rohingya before the Andaman Sea becomes a floating mass grave,” said former U.S. Congressman Tom Andrews, President of United to End Genocide, who recently returned from Burma and Malaysia, where he met with families of Rohingya who had travelled by boat from Burma.

Sullivan and Andrews traveled to Malaysia where they met with several recently arrived Rohingya families.

Sullivan also visited the IDP camps in Rakhine State in March 2014 after which United to END GENOCIDE released the report Marching to Genocide in Burma.

The main finding from both of these trips, Sullivan said, ‘’was that nowhere in the world are there more known precursors to genocide than in Burma today. In terms of the Rohingya refugees we met with in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia last month, several had only arrived days before, including one woman who still bore a black eye from being sexually assaulted. From our conversations with the recently arrived refugees, aid workers helping in Malaysia, and other regional experts it is clear that the Rohingya are faced with a horrible choice between risking their lives at sea in the hands of dangerous human traffickers or staying in Burma to face the highest risk of genocide in the world.’’

United to End Genocide urges three immediate steps to be taken by the United States to stem the growing crisis:

  • Demand that the government of Indonesia stop towing boats full of innocent men, women and children out to sea.
  • Help launch an immediate search and rescue operation that fully utilizes all available U.S. resources to save imperiled lives. There is no time to lose – every hour counts!
  • Address the source of this crisis – the systematic government abuse and persecution of the Rohingya.

Andrews called the Obama administration’s response to this crisis, calling on Thailand and Malaysia to enforce human trafficking laws, ‘’has been wholly inadequate and counterproductive by ignoring the root cause of the problem – the persecution of the Rohingya at the hands of the government of Burma.’’

Pressure on the government of Burma has been lifted even as it increases its persecution and attacks on the Rohingya. The government has repeatedly denied the Rohingya citizenship, restricted their ability to work, attend school, have access to health care, get married or even have children. It has also been complicit in violent attacks against Rohingya villages.

Andrews says the Obama Administration has an immediate opportunity to send a clear message to the government of Burma and that the government of Burma should be warned that its failure to adequately address the Rohingya crisis will lead to the imposition of sanctions.

The Obama administration should also support the call of Members of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) for coordinated action that addresses the root causes of the crises in Burma while providing security for asylum seekers fleeing persecution and conflict.

United to End Genocide urge ASEAN leaders to recognize the Rohingya crisis as an ASEAN crisis and put pressure on the government of Burma to end its policies of persecution, including reforming the 1982 citizenship law that denies Rohingya equal access to full citizenship. ASEAN should further conduct an independent investigation of conditions and risks of increased violence and displacement in Burma and associated risks to ASEAN, including greater refugee flows. In terms of protection, ASEAN countries should grant prima facie refugee status to Rohingya and provide the UN refugee agency with unfettered access to asylum seekers, the organization says.

Sullivan also said that Thailand and Malaysia have turned a blind eye on the trafficking of Rohingya for ‘’far too long, allowing officials to be complicit in profiting from trafficking networks.’’ He said that these countries have also failed to protect asylum seekers and denied refugee status.

Under international pressure Thai authorities have begun to crack down and arrest human traffickers and corrupt officials, but have failed to adequately respond to the crisis as traffickers have abandoned ships full of desperate refugees. Sullivan says that ASEAN countries, including Thailand and Malaysia, should allow the United Nations to conduct refugee status determination screenings of Rohingya and other asylum seekers and abide by international standards by ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention. ‘’But ultimately, the root of the problem lies in western Burma. As long as the government of Burma continues its policies of persecution Rohingya refugees will continue to seek escape,’’ he added.

Some 140,000 Rohingya remain displaced within Burma and over 100,000 have risked their lives at sea in recent years. More than 25,000 have fled in the first quarter of 2015 alone according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Unless the policies of hate end in Burma, the crisis will only escalate. ‘’We must act now to save those stranded at sea and take the steps needed to protect the Rohingya at home,” Andrews said.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

U.S. Congressional Delegation Visits Prominent Dissident in Vietnam

The US delegation outside Thanh Minh Zen Monastery - From left to right: Rep. Tom Emmer, Rep. Matt Salmon, Venerable Thich Quang Do and Rep. Alan Lowenthal. Photo courtesy IBIB.

The US delegation outside Thanh Minh Zen Monastery. From left to right: Rep. Tom Emmer, Rep. Matt Salmon, Venerable Thich Quang Do and Rep. Alan Lowenthal. Photo courtesy IBIB.

Members of the U.S. Congress visited Thich Quang Do, prominent dissident and Patriarch of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) on Monday at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery inHo Chi Minh City where he has been held under house arrest without charge since 2003.

Thich Quang Do, 87, who has spent the past three decades in internal exile, prison and house arrest for his advocacy of religious freedom, democracy and human rights, welcomed their visit and told the delegation: “For someone like me who has spent so many years in detention, your visit has a very deep significance. It not only comforts me to know that I am not forgotten, but it also sends a very strong message to the Vietnamese authorities. They have kept me under house arrest, isolated and deprived of all basic freedoms, in the aim of silencing my voice. Your visit here today tells them clearly that they have failed”.

The 11-member delegation was led by Congressman Matt Salmon (Republican), Chairman of the Asia Pacific Sub-Committee of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives (HFAC), Congressman Tom Emmer (Republican) and Congressman Alan Lowenthal (Democrat). They were accompanied by Charles Sellers, Political Section Chief of the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City and a number of staff and assistants.

Commenting on U.S.-Vietnam relations, which were normalized just 20 years ago, Thich Quang Do noted that 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War these relations remained complex. “They hold great opportunities but also many challenges,” he said. However, the UBCV Patriarch expressed his firm belief that “this is a crucial moment in our two countries’ relationship, one where the United States can truly make a difference.’’

“Asia is a central focus of U.S. foreign policy. As Vietnam seeks to play a greater role on the regional and international stage, it needs the support of the United States and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to boost its slowing economy. The Communist leadership hopes it can do this without making political reforms – they claim they are “building democracy within the one-Party state.” But this policy of economic liberalization without political reforms is disastrous, resulting in alarming social inequalities and wealth disparity. Without democracy, pluralism and human rights, we can never build a just, safe and peaceful society for Vietnam.

“I believe that the United States has real leverage to help put Vietnam on the path of reform. By maintaining human rights as a cornerstone of U.S. engagement, you can impress upon the Vietnamese leadership that they cannot enjoy full economic relationships whilst suppressing their citizens’ basic rights,” he told the delegation.

The Buddhist Patriarch stressed the importance of religious freedom in Vietnam, not only as a basic human right, but also as “the key to democratization in Vietnam”. He said that ‘’Religious freedom is the key to democratization in Vietnam.” He applauded the report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last week, and their recommendation that Vietnam be designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” by the United States for egregious violations of religious freedom.

USCIRF found in their report that ‘’The Vietnamese government continues to control all religious activities through law and administrative oversight, restrict severely independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority, including independent Buddhists, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Catholics, and Protestants. This occurs despite some improvements in the area of religious freedom, such as generally wider space for some religious communities to practice their faiths. Notably, the government requires religious organizations and congregations to register with a state-sanctioned entity in order to be considered legal. Individuals remain imprisoned for religious activity or religious freedom advocacy.’’ USCIRF has recommended that Vietnam be named a CPC every year since 2001.

Thich Quang Do commented that “I believe that United States’ support for religious freedom in Vietnam in general, and for Buddhism in particular, can have a deep and lasting impact in our region. In this era of global terrorism, where religious extremism is at the core of so many conflicts, the presence of a peaceful, tolerant philosophy such as Buddhism can contribute immensely to maintaining stability and harmony in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Thich Quang Do introduced the delegation to Le Cong Cau, leader of the UBCV-affiliated Budddhist Youth Movement and UBCV Secretary-general, who had come from Hue to join the meeting. Le Cong Cau gave a brief overview of three phases of government repression against the UBCV over the past 40 years.

Beginning in 1975 with a brutal suppression campaign against the UBCV and the detention and murder of many UBCV leaders, Vietnam then sought to bring Buddhism under state control by setting up the State-sponsored “Vietnam Buddhist Sangha” in 1981 to supplant the UBCV. The third and current phase of repression, explained Le Cong Cau, entails a more subtle and sophisticated policy of infiltrating the UBCV in order to “divide to rule” and isolating UBCV leaders, whilst using Police intimidation to create a pervasive climate of fear, threatening Buddhists with losing their jobs or having their children expelled from school if they follow the UBCV.

The U.S. delegation asked Le Cong Cau for the UBCV’s opinion on the draft “Law on Belief and Religion” currently circulated by the Government Board of Religious Affairs to canvass the opinion of religious groups. He replied: “This new draft law brings no improvements. The Vietnamese authorities are hostile to religions. They recognize that religion abd belief are inevitable components of the people’s psyche, but they are afraid that religious movements could challenge the Communist Party’s authority. The current regime will never allow true religious freedom in Vietnam.”

Congressman Alan Lowenthal told Thich Quang Do that he represented the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, that of Little Saigon, California. He said he was very moved to meet the UBCV Patriarch, whom he said was internationally renowned for his role in the movement for human rights and freedom in Vietnam. Congressman Lowenthal promised to inform public opinion about the situation of Thich Quang Do and the movement for freedom and democracy in Vietnam.

Thich Quang Do handed the U.S. delegation an 8-page Memorandum entitled “40 years of Repression against the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vietnam Police Harass Independent Journalist on Vietnam War Anniversary

Independent Journalist Pham Chi Dung in an undated photo. Photo courtesy RSF.

Independent Journalist Pham Chi Dung in an undated photo. Photo courtesy RSF.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) demands that Vietnamese police stop harassing independent journalist Pham Chi Dung and his family, whose Ho Chi Minh City home was surrounded Thursday by police officers. The Vietnamese authorities have gone out of their way to gag independent journalists and bloggers today, as the Communist Party celebrates the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and its victory over the United States. One by one, citizen-journalists and bloggers have been placed under close surveillance, subjected to intimidation and beatings according to RSF.

President of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN), which was founded last year and is supported by Reporters Without Borders, Dung promotes media freedom and constantly criticizes the party’s control of the media, in which he used to work.

Last year, the authorities confiscated his passport to prevent him from travelling to Geneva to participate in a UN Human Rights Council conference. “By illegally preventing me from travelling, the behavior of the authorities constitutes living proof of how the State of Vietnam tramples on the human rights defended by the UN Human Rights Council,” Dung’s letter says.

House arrest measures have been reinforced and independent reporters are being prevented from covering today’s celebrations and demonstrations. Dung, who is on the RSF list of “information heroes,” has released the text of a letter he has written to local Communist Party secretary Le Thanh Hai and Ho Chin Minh City police chief Nguyen Chi Thanh complaining about the harassment and restrictions on free movement to which he has been subjected for months.

“We call on the Vietnamese police to immediately end its targeted acts of intimidation, which are completely illegal,” said Benjamin Ismail, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “We also call on the international community to condemn these practices and to bring individual economic sanctions to bear against those within the Communist Party who are responsible for this persecution.”

Those persecuted include Trinh Anh Tuan, a blogger known by the pseudonym of Gio Lang Thang. A few days ago, he was badly beaten by three individuals in civilian dress and had to be hospitalized. He identified his assailants as police officers who were part of the group that had been posted outside his home for months.

The blogger Pham Minh Hoang was also roughed up last November by the plainclothes policemen assigned to watch his home. When the French consul rushed to the scene after being alerted by Hoang, he was attacked by the same individuals.

Freedom of information is steadily worsening in Vietnam, which is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Final “Free the 19″ Detainees Released By Cambodian Supreme Court on Bail

Ly Seav Minh, who gave up her scholarship to support her family through a land dispute. She faces up to two years in prison. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Ly Seav Minh, who gave up her scholarship to support her family through a land dispute. She faces up to two years in prison. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

The last of the “Free the 19’’ detainees was released on bail this morning in Cambodia following a decision by the Supreme Court. Ly Seav Minh spent more than five months in pre-trial detention at Prey Sar’s CC2 prison after she was arrested on November 18th 2014. She is charged with violence against the possessor of immoveable property and a potential two years in prison and $6,250 in fines.

Ly Seav Minh is the last of the Free the 19 activists to be released from Prey Sar’s CC1 and CC2 prisons. The cases against all those released remain open.

According to LICADHO, Ly Seav Minh and her family are involved in a long-running land dispute with the municipality and well-connected tycoon Khun Sear Import Export Company, to which the municipality sold their land in 2010.

Ly Seav Minh is a resident of the Toul Kork district of Phnom Penh. She was arrested on November 18, 2014 when visiting her father, Ly Srea Kheng, at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court following his arrest earlier that same day. Whilst Ly Seav Minh remains in prison, her father was released from pre-trial detention on December 4th 2014.

In 2010, the politically connected Khun Sear claimed ownership of the land on which the Ly family has lived for some 30 years. The family has been fighting eviction ever since and has accused company representatives on numerous occasions of making threats and attacks against them, including, destroying their property, beating them, attempted arson, throwing snakes into their house and poisoning their animals. The charges against the father and daughter relate to events on April 29th 2013 but the company did not file the complaint until September 5th 2014.

On April 13th, eight more of the Free the 19 activists were released from detention in Prey Sar’s CC1 prison. Three defrocked monks – Venerable Seung Hai, Venerable Khith Vannak, and Venerable Sang Kosal – and five Cambodia National Rescue Party members and supporters – Meach Sovannara, Sum Puthy, Tep Narin, Ke Khim, and Ouk Pich Samnang – were released on bail. All eight were arrested between September and November 2014 and face a variety of charges.

Ten Boeung Kak land rights activists who were granted a royal pardon on April 11th after having spent five months in prison for the offence of obstructing public traffic.

LICADHO has condemned these imprisonments and ‘’the continued abuse of the judicial system by the ruling party and well-connected individuals.’’

Of the 19 arrests, 16 occurred within a period of four days, from November 10th to November 13th. Eleven of the 16 were charged, tried, and convicted just one day after their arrest. Each received the maximum possible sentence. The rushed nature of these proceedings denied lawyers the opportunity to prepare a defence, violating the right the accused to receive a fair trial.

“These latest arrests and convictions demonstrate that the country’s judiciary is still wholly in the control of the government. Anyone who upsets the ruling party or who stands in the way of those with power and money is at risk of ending up in prison. It’s a sad reminder of how far this government really has to go to fully respect human rights”, said LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge said on International Human Rights Day.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

North Korea, Vietnam, China, Myanmar Among World’s Most Censored Countries

Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group, speaks as political activists hold placards during a demonstration in support of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, shot dead in Myanmar while in military custody in October 2014, protest his killing in Yangon. AP Photo/Khin Maung Win.

Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group, speaks as political activists hold placards during a demonstration in support of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, shot dead in Myanmar while in military custody in October 2014, protest his killing in Yangon. AP Photo/Khin Maung Win.

The Committee to Protect Journalists released its list of the 10 Most Censored Countries in advance of the publication of the latest Attacks on the Press report, forthcoming on April 27th. North Korea, Vietnam, China and Myanmar are among the world’s worst places for press freedom. These repressive nations threaten jail terms, Internet restrictions and other tactics to censor the press.

The list is based on research into the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access.

Imprisonment is the most effective form of intimidation and harassment used against journalists according to CPJ research. Seven of the 10 most censored countries-Eritrea, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China, and Myanmar-are also among the top 10 worst jailers of journalists worldwide, according to CPJ’s annual prison census.

More than half of the journalists imprisoned globally are charged with anti-state crimes, including in China, the world’s worst jailer and the eighth most censored country. Of the 44 journalists imprisoned-the largest figure for China since CPJ began its annual census in 1990-29 were held on anti-state charges. Other countries that use the charge to crush critical voices include Saudi Arabia (third most censored), where the ruling monarchy, not satisfied with silencing domestic dissent, teamed up with other governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council to ensure that criticism of leadership in any member state is dealt with severely.

According to CPJ, 9.7 percent of north Korea’s population has cell phones, a number that excludes access to phones smuggled in from China. In place of the global Internet, to which only a select few powerful individuals have access, some schools and other institutions have access to a tightly controlled intranet. And despite the arrival of an Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang in 2012, the state has such a tight grip on the news agenda that newsreel was re-edited to remove Kim Jong Un’s disgraced uncle from the archives after his execution.

These tactics are mirrored to varying degrees in other heavily censored countries. To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes use a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, threats of journalist imprisonment, and restriction of journalists’ entry into or movements within their countries.

Internet access is highly restricted in countries under Communist Party rule-North Korea, Vietnam, China and Cuba. In countries with advanced technology such as China, Internet restrictions are combined with the threat of imprisonment to ensure that critical voices cannot gain leverage online. Thirty-two of China’s 44 jailed journalists worked online.

Specifically, a look at each of the countries in Asia making the list and the censorship tactics their regimes employ:

North Korea: Article 53 of the country’s constitution calls for freedom of the press, but even with an Associated Press bureau-staffed by North Koreans and located in the Pyongyang headquarters of the state-run Korean Central News Agency-and a small foreign press corps from politically sympathetic countries, access to independent news sources is extremely limited.

Nearly all the content of North Korea’s 12 main newspapers, 20 periodicals, and broadcasters comes from the official Korean Central News Agency, which focuses on the political leadership’s statements and activities. Internet is restricted to the political elite, but some schools and state institutions have access to a tightly controlled intranet called Kwangmyong, according to the AP.

North Koreans looking for independent information have turned to bootlegged foreign TV and radio signals and smuggled foreign DVDs, particularly along the porous border with China. Although cell phones are banned, some citizens have been able in recent years to access news through smuggled phones, which rely on Chinese cell towers.

South Korean newspapers have reported that North Korea in 2013 started manufacturing smartphones that run on a network built by the Egyptian company Orascom and the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corp. Traders in street markets are regularly seen with 3G phones that can support video exchange and texting, according to travelers returning from North Korea.

After Kim Jong Un ordered his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed (around the time of the second anniversary of his father’s death), any mention of Jang was removed from state media archives, including official video from which Jang was carefully edited. Jang was vilified in the media as the “despicable human scum, who was worse than a dog.”

Vietnam: Vietnam’s Communist Party-run government allows no privately held print or broadcast outlets. Under the 1999 Media Law (Article 1, Chapter 1), all media working in Vietnam must serve as “the mouthpiece of Party organizations.” The Central Propaganda Department holds mandatory weekly meetings with local newspaper, radio, and TV editors to hand down directives on which topics should be emphasized or censored in their news coverage. Forbidden topics include the activities of political dissidents and activists; factional divisions inside the Communist Party; human rights issues; and any mention of ethnic differences between the country’s once-divided northern and southern regions.

Independent bloggers who report on sensitive issues have faced persecution through street-level attacks, arbitrary arrests, surveillance, and harsh prison sentences for anti-state charges. Vietnam is one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, with at least 16 behind bars. Authorities widely block access to websites critical of the government, including such popular foreign-hosted blogs as Danlambao, which covers politics, human rights issues, and disputes with China. In September 2013, a new law extended state censorship to social media platforms, making it illegal to post any material, including foreign news articles, deemed to “oppose the state” or “harm national security.”

Authorities have increasingly used Article 258, the anti-state law that vaguely criminalizes “abusing democratic freedoms,” to threaten and prosecute independent bloggers. At least three bloggers have been convicted under the law, which allows for seven-year prison sentences.

China: For more than a decade, China has been among the top three jailers of journalists in the world, a distinction that it is unlikely to lose any time soon. Document 9, a secret white paper dated April 22, 2014, which was widely leaked online and to the international press, included the directive to “combat seven political perils” and reject the concept of “universal values” and the promotion of “the West’s view of media.” Document 9 made it clear that the role of the media is to support the party’s unilateral rule. The paper reasserted the necessity for China’s technological and human censors to be ever more vigilant when keeping watch over the country’s 642 million Internet users-about 22 percent of the world’s online population.

In late November 2014, Xu Xiao, a poetry and arts editor for the Beijing-based business magazine Caixin, was detained on suspicion of “endangering national security.” The Central Propaganda Department warned editors not to report on the investigation into Xu, raising fears that the tactics used to stifle political dissent would broaden to publications looking critically at the arts.

International journalists trying to work in China have faced obstacles, with visas delayed or denied. Although some visa restrictions between the U.S. and China have eased, during a press conference in Beijing with U.S. President Barack Obama in November 2014 Xi argued that international journalists facing visa restrictions had brought the trouble on themselves.

Gao Yu, one of 44 journalists behind bars in China, was detained on charges of illegally providing state secrets abroad, days after details of Document 9 appeared in Mirror Monthly, a Chinese-language political magazine in New York. Gao, 70, confessed on official state broadcaster CCTV, but during her closed trial, on November 21, 2014, she said that the confession was false and made only to prevent her son from being threatened and harassed, her lawyer said. She was handed a seven-year prison sentence in a Beijing court on Friday.

Myanmar: Despite an end to more than four decades of pre-publication censorship in 2012, Myanmar’s media remains tightly controlled. The Printers and Publishers Registration Law, enacted in March 2014, bans news that could be considered insulting to religion, disturbing to the rule of law, or harmful to ethnic unity. Publications must be registered under the law, and those found in violation of its vague provisions risk de-registration.

National security-related laws, including the colonial-era 1923 Official Secrets Act, are used to threaten and imprison journalists who report on sensitive military matters. For example, five journalists with the independent weekly newspaper Unity were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor, reduced on appeal to seven years, for reporting on a secretive military facility allegedly involved in chemical weapons production.

Journalists are regularly barred from reporting from the military side of conflict with ethnic groups. Aung Kyaw Naing, a local freelance reporter who had embedded with rebel forces, was shot dead while in military custody in October 2014 after being apprehended by government troops in a restive area near the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Three journalists and two publishers of the independent newspaper Bi Mon Te Nay were sentenced to two years in prison on charges of defaming the state. Their offense: publishing a false statement made by a political activist group that claimed that pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic group leaders had formed an interim government to replace Thein Sein’s administration.

The list of ten most censored countries is based on CPJ research: countries are measured with the use of a series of benchmarks, including the absence of privately owned or independent media, blocking of websites, restrictions on electronic recording and dissemination, license requirements to conduct journalism, restrictions on journalists’ movements, monitoring of journalists by authorities, jamming of foreign broadcasts and blocking of foreign correspondents.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vietnamese Blogger Me Nam Wins International Human Rights Award

Right to know

Vietnamese Blogger Me Nam participating in the Right to Know campaign. Photo courtesy Me Nam.

Vietnamese Blogger Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh is the winner of the 2015 Civil Rights Defender of the Year award from Civil Rights Defenders, presented to her in Stockholm via Skype on Friday. She was unable to travel to Sweden to accept her award in person due to the travel ban imposed on her by the Vietnamese government.

Quỳnh is the Coordinator for the Vietnamese Bloggers’ Network and well known for her use of social media to speak out against injustices and human rights abuses in Vietnam. Blogging under the pseudonym Me Nam (Mother Mushroom), she has openly criticized the Vietnamese government over human rights abuses and corruption. She began blogging in early 2006 when she paid a visit to a hospital and witnessed many poor people in the hot sun desperately waiting for treatment, but ignored because they lacked money to bribe hospital officials.

Because of her human rights activism for free expression, the right from torture, and arbitrary detention and other universal human rights, she was arrested, detained, interrogated, harassed and beaten up by security police on several occasions.  In 2009, she was taken away at midnight from her home and detained for 10 days while her young child was left home alone.  She was charged under article 258 of the Penal Code: ‘’abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. She lost her job due to security police’s interference.

In spite of these predicaments and continuing hardship, she persists to organize ‘’human rights coffee sessions”, human rights picnics, social meetings with like-minded bloggers and activists to discuss relevant UN human rights conventions, Vietnam’s role and duty to uphold its commitment to the UN Human Rights Council as a member state and to meet with Consulate staff members to raise concerns about fellow bloggers in distress and to advocate for the release of prisoners of conscience.

Civil Rights Defenders says she was chosen as this year’s honoree because “At great personal risk, Me Nam has been right at the forefront of human rights activism in Vietnam. With creativity and openness, she is a source of inspiration as she breaks new ground for freedom of expression and speaks out for those who can’t.”

Her personal motivation for blogging about injustices in Vietnam comes down to a very simple and personal reason, which she sums up in her own words: “I do not want my children to struggle and do what I’m doing now.”

Despite great personal risk, she is always devoted to speak up for those who can’t. She continues to be an activist that the authorities target and remains a force to be reckoned with.

As well as the international recognition that comes with the award, her organization also received a 50,000 Euro ($52,700 USD) award from Civil Rights Defenders.

I interviewed Quỳnh about her work and what the award means to her.

Congratulations! What does the international recognition of your work from this award mean for you?
First of all, this award definitely helps! It’s not just a personal recognition but actually it a protection for me and for the network members. More international recognition means less danger. Secondly, it helps us to remove the government’s “tools” to continue abusing human rights. Those “tools” include the legitimacy of an official member of a great international organization whose integrity was built by the mandate of protecting human rights at all costs. Those “tools” include many laws and decrees such as Article 258 that outright violate all the international conventions about human rights

What is the situation for bloggers like yourself and journalists in Vietnam today?
I was one of the people who was temporarily arrested and charged by the security police with the Article 258, for “abusing my freedom of expression”. Up until now, no one can show me what I did to harm the government or the society by saying what I thought. In Vietnam, the government still uses Article 258 to arrest bloggers and activists. More than that, this Article serves as a rope hung over all bloggers’ heads and creates fear: anyone can be arrested and sentenced to jail.

What are some of the threats that you have faced as a result of your work for human rights?
I could be detained or arrested anytime without [access to a] lawyer. My family is always harassed by police and “stranger” persons. My job can be ended without any warning.

What activities is the Vietamese Bloggers’s Network (VBN) engaged in? How many members do you have and what kinds of work do you do?
The VBN created a big new step in human rights activism in Vietnam. For the first time we conducted a campaign, fighting to pressure the government to abolish Article 258. Through this campaign, Vietnamese activists could work with the international community to protect and promote human rights in Vietnam. Initiating the collaboration and building a long working relationship between Vietnamese activists and international organizations indeed was the true purpose. We could not and should not isolate ourselves and stayed alone in fighting for the universal human rights. And now we are still continuing in that direction.

With the travel ban and after the arrest of [fellow blogger] Anh Ba Sam, fear started to spread quietly among bloggers and activists. In 2014, we launched a new campaign called The Right To Know. We combined the issue about the right to know to gain support from the international community and a “patriotic concern” about the nation political independence to have grass roots support from many people, especially from the communist party members who question the communist party and the government about the Vietnamese-Chinese relationship, particularly the secret signed agreement of the Chengdu conference in 1990.

A lot of ordinary people joined this campaign, posting their picture with the We Want To Know message on Facebook and blogs. We signed a letter and went straight to our parliamentary house with the letter. They closed parliament that day and temporary arrested some of my friends.

The members of the VBN show other people that we all can step out of our fear. We show them Don’t be afraid. We do this step by step and we call for joining together. If the Vietnamese people step out of their fear and joined together, the government will be forced to listen. They would have to answer us.  The “We want to know” campaign was one step in the process of removing fear from people.

For 2015, we are now in the early stage of organizing a human rights campaign, named We Are One – about human rights, freedom and democracy for Vietnam. And in this campaign we try to create collaboration between activists inside Vietnam and abroad, you could check it on http://nhanquyen2015.net.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
By blogging I understand and appreciate the power of the Internet and social media. Its power is what changed my life. It empowers me. With the Internet I know that I have a voice and that my voice can be heard. So what I do is share my ideas on social media and by doing that I help to protect and promote freedom of expression. The government doesn’t want us to talk about what they don’t want to hear. But the people, yes, the people do want to hear the people’s song. And my voice can be a part of what people want to hear: the truth. I can raise my voice and act for the changes.

What would you like to say to other people working for freedom of expression and human rights?
Be brave! We not alone in the struggle fighting for and protecting human rights. We fight, sacrifice ourselves, and continue to join our efforts with the international community for the ultimate goal: human rights for all. And who will speak up if we don’t?

You can view Me Nam’s blogs at the following addresses: http://facebook.com/mothermushroom and www.menam0.blogspot.com.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Student Activist Po Po Arrested and Facing Charges in Myanmar

Po Po is seen at the student protest in March in Letpadan. Photo JPaing / The Irrawaddy.

Po Po is seen at the student protest in March in Letpadan. Photo JPaing / The Irrawaddy.

Human rights defender and 20 year old student activist Po Po was arrested at her home in Myanmar on April 8th. Warrants were issued for her arrest, along with fellow student activists Myat Thuya, Nanda Sitt Aung and Kyaw Ko Ko, by a Kamayut Township Judge on March 11th. Student organizations, such as the All Burma Federation of Student Union (ABFSU), of which Po Po is a member, have been heavily involved in protests since November 2014 against the National Education Bill, enacted by Parliament on September 30th 2014.

Student activists and independent experts have been highly critical of the law, which they claim restricts academic freedom. The ABFSU was one of a number of organizations that presented a list of ten demands to the Parliament for an amended statute, which include the adoption of ethnic languages in school curricula and the right to form student and teacher unions. The crackdown on student protesters are part of widespread restrictions on protests in Myanmar recently.

Po Po spent the night of her arrest in a Kamayut Township jail, and has since been remanded to Insein Prison. Nanda Sitt Aung was arrested a few days previously, while Myat Thuya and Kyaw Ko Ko remain free despite the pending warrant.

Po Po was involved in the peaceful student protest in Letpadan on March 10th 2015, but escaped the violent police response to the movement, which resulted in the arrest of approximately 126 students. On that date, students attempting to march from Letpadan, Pegu Division, to Yangon in protest over the education law were beaten and seriously injured by riot police and armed groups. Five days previously, students protesting the same law at the Sule Pagoda in Yangon were also severely beaten and arrested.

Along with Myat Thuya, Nanda Sitt Aung and Kyaw Ko Ko, Po Po led a protest in Yangon demanding the release of all students detained. She is due to be arraigned on Friday, April 10th, along with Nanda Sitt Aung, at the Kamayut Township Courthouse under articles 143, 145, 147 and 505(b) of the Penal Code. The charges against the pair are set to include participation in an unlawful assembly and rioting. The alleged offenses carry penalties of up to three years in prison.

Human rights organization Front Line Defenders expressed its grave concern at the detention of human rights defenders Po Po and Nanda Sitt Aung, which it believes to be solely the result of their human rights work, and the continued suppression of the right to peaceful assembly within Myanmar. The organization urges the authorities to immediately drop all legal proceedings against Po Po, Myat Thuya, Nanda Sitt Aung and Kyaw Ko Ko as it is believed that they are solely motivated by their legitimate and peaceful work in of human rights, and unconditionally release Po Po and Nanda Sitt Aung.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Urging Transparency from Government, Rights Group Releases Results of Land Concession Investigation in Cambodia

An overview of land concessions in Cambodia. Graphic courtesy LICADHO.

An overview of land concessions in Cambodia. Graphic courtesy LICADHO.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) released on Monday its land concession dataset to the public, the culmination of five years of investigation into this sector, and is urging the government to follow suit. LICADHO says the government must publicly disclosing details of all land concessions granted in Cambodia.

Cambodians have the right and need to know who occupies areas next to their homes, LICADHO says. “Large-scale concessions have had a track record of destroying livelihoods and natural resources as well as negatively affecting development projects. If the government is serious about improving its policies on land, it must commit itself to being fully transparent about its dealings,” said LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge.

In May 2012, the Prime Minister signed a directive declaring a moratorium on the granting of new Economic Land Concessions (ELCs). The directive also contained the announcement of a systematic review of ELCs. Such a review can only be carried out properly if the government discloses all of its land dealings to the public.

However, to date the government has not disclosed the full extent of its land giveaway. According to LICADHO, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) has published an oversimplified and incomplete list of companies; the Ministry of Environment (MOE) has done even less, simply releasing the total number of companies involved and the total land area leased. Neither has disclosed the exact location of the over 2.1 million hectares of Cambodian land covered by existing land concessions.

LICADHO also urges the government and its development partners to conduct an open assessment of the general merits of large-scale concessions. Such an assessment would require full declaration by relevant ministries of revenues to the state arising from ELCs.

Due to the government’s lack of transparency, the information LICADHO has collated over five years remains incomplete and may contain some inaccuracies. As such, it is no substitute for full disclosure of the government’s own data.

“We hope the additional information on the allocation of large-scale concessions can help move the debate on this type of development scheme forward and we emphasise the need for more information to be provided by the government,” said LICADHO Technical Coordinator Am Sam Ath. “Cambodia is overdue for an honest assessment of the pros and cons on this matter.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment