Geographies in Depth

Why is East Asia silencing free speech?

"Red Shirt" demonstrators gather for a rally to celebrate Malaysia Day and to counter a massive protest held over two days last month that called for Prime Minister Najib Razak's resignation over a graft scandal, in Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur September 16, 2015. The Malaysian government warned the Malay organisers of a mass rally getting underway in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to avoid racial slurs and slogans that could raise tensions in the multi-ethnic Southeast Asian nation.

Silenced and sentenced ... from Malaysia to Vietnam, state repression is shrinking civil space Image: REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Salil Shetty
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum on ASEAN

Patnaree Chankij is a 40-year-old maid who lives in Thailand and happens to be the mother of a pro-democracy activist. Her son has been campaigning peacefully against Thailand’s repressive military government, which seized power in a coup two years ago.

Last month, Patnaree Chankij was arrested and could face up to 15 years in prison. Her crime? Typing a reply to a private message on Facebook. We do not know what the sender of the original message wrote, but it was plainly a source of much annoyance for Thailand’s military rulers. All Paternee Chankij wrote in reply was two characters: “Ja.” Or, “yeah”.

Across South-East Asia, civic space is shrinking. Crackdowns on people peacefully exercising their freedoms of assembly and expression have become alarmingly common across the region. Scarcely does a week slip by without someone being arrested under draconian laws designed to criminalize dissent.

Free and without fear

Deterred from the streets, many activists and dissenters have retreated to the internet. The online world was once a place where people could express themselves freely and without fear. Now, with invasive surveillance regimes in place and a proliferation of new laws that govern online offences, there are few places left for people to gather, speak or write as they wish.

This was the case in Vietnam, where for the past few weeks, peaceful protests have been taking place in response to an ecological disaster. Ordinary people took to the streets to demand accountability after vast stocks of fish were devastated by pollution, which they believe came from a local factory. The authorities have tried to shroud the episode in silence.

The protests marked the first real challenge for the new Communist Party, which came to power this year. Far from breaking with the country’s authoritarian past, the new leadership has resorted to old methods. On 18 May, as many as 300 people were arrested in Ho Chi Minh City, and many people were put under intense surveillance. Several of them were held for days. Many were beaten during in captivity; some were detained at a shelter for homeless people, where at least two of them were tortured, Amnesty has learned.

From protest to persecution

It has taken some time for the details of this crackdown to reach the outside world. On the eve of President Barack Obama’s visit to the nation, when the glare of global attention shone briefly on the country, the Vietnamese authorities imposed a ban on Facebook and Instagram, to prevent messages and images from reaching people both inside and outside the country.

To elude arrest, civil-society activists in the region have resorted to innovative methods. Earlier this year, a series of protests, collectively called “Black Monday”, erupted in Cambodia. The authorities responded with a swift crackdown, detaining several people. Forced back into their homes, the protesters began taking selfies of themselves dressed in black. In some places, it seems, civic space has shrunk to the extent that the only viable way for people to express opposition is in silence.

In Malaysia last year, Khalid Ismath, a student activist, used a Facebook post to denounce the police for abuse of power. As if to prove his point, the police swiftly arrested him. He is now currently awaiting trial for three sedition charges – each of which could earn him three years in jail and a hefty fine.

Human rights activists, artists, lawyers, peaceful campaigners – and people like Patnaree Chankij and Khalid Ismath – are part of the hope and future of the ASEAN region. They deserve to be given respect and the space to express themselves peacefully, whenever and however they choose.

South-East Asia’s leaders must guarantee freedom of expression and assembly for all people, releasing immediately and unconditionally anyone arrested solely for peaceful dissent. I fear for where the region is heading if they do not.

More from Salil Shetty

Watch Amnesty's Secretary General talking about human rights violations in this Facebook Live video, filmed at the World Economic Forum's ASEAN meeting in Kuala Lumpur.


The World Economic Forum on ASEAN is taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 1 to 2 June.

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