Report: Southeast Asian parliamentarians face threats of reprisals, harassment

Parliamentarians across Southeast Asia, especially those from Myanmar, suffered from rights violations in 2023, report says.
Jason Gutierrez
Report: Southeast Asian parliamentarians face threats of reprisals, harassment Leila de Lima, a former Philippine senator, waves to the crowd outside the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court in Manila after walking out of police custody on bail, Nov. 13, 2023.
Jose Monsieur Santos/BenarNews

Lawmakers in Southeast Asia face threats of reprisals, harassment and other human rights violations, according to a new study that highlights the Burmese junta’s crackdown against opposition MPs and the years-long detention of a senator in the Philippines.

Myanmar continues to be the “worst country” when it comes to jailing parliamentarians, with 74 members MPs – almost entirely from the deposed National League of Democracy – behind bars while others were on the run from the country’s military rulers, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), an NGO, said in their report released in Manila on Thursday.  

This clearly showed “the political nature of the arrests” since the NLD convincingly won elections in 2020, said the report, Parliamentarians at Risk.

“Many of the ousted parliamentarians are continuing their work in hiding, either inside Myanmar or abroad, because if found by the military they are at risk of detention, torture and even death,” said the 48-page report, which examined rights violations against parliamentarians across Southeast Asia last year. “Some have seen their family members harassed and their properties seized by the military.”

The junta in Myanmar, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, ousted NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in a coup in February of 2021. A few months later, a mass arson attack by junta forces on Thantlang in northwestern Myanmar left about 250 people dead and drove tens of thousands into neighboring India, rights advocates have said.

The APHR report stressed that parliamentarians are under threat because they speak and act on behalf of their constituents.

“Today, our collective voice will send a clear message that an attack against one parliamentarian is an attack against the democratic institution itself,” said Mercy Barends, a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives and the current APHR chairperson.

“We stand in solidarity with them, ensuring that the voices of those who are silenced are not forgotten, and calling for an end to the violations of their human rights and fundamental freedoms,” she said.

Founded in 2013, APHR comprises current and former parliamentarians from the 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) who work to promote human rights and democracy across the region. 

‘Under attack’

“Democracy in Southeast Asia continues to be under attack,” the report said. “[I]n many countries in Southeast Asia – most notably in Myanmar but also elsewhere parliamentarians and ex-parliamentarians continue to be subject to multiple forms of human rights violations.”

One of the more prominent Southeast Asian lawmakers who has been subjected to harassment was Leila de Lima, a former Philippine senator and a staunch critic of ex-President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war that killed thousands.

Duterte’s government incarcerated her for nearly seven years until November 2023, ironically, on charges that she had profited from drug trafficking when she served as the Philippine justice secretary.

The courts threw out two of the three drug charges against her after witnesses for the prosecution recanted their statements. De Lima was granted bail in the remaining drug-related charge, but is awaiting her court date for that.

During a press conference for the report’s release in Manila, de Lima said there were many cases similar to hers, and this reflects “a worrying trend of authoritarianism where opposition figures are silenced, dissenting voices are stilled, and ultimately fundamental freedoms are quashed.”

PH-ASEAN-parliamentarians 1.jpg
Former National League of Democracy lawmaker Phyo Zayar Thaw, pictured on Aug. 24, 2015, was executed by the Burmese junta in July 2022. His execution, along with a fellow icon of the local democracy movement and two other activists, marked the first judicial executions in the country in decades. [Ye Aung Thu/AFP]

Parliamentarians from other countries such as Cambodia and Thailand are also facing threats, de Lima noted, even as there were some positive cases around the region, including hers. 

In Cambodia last year, the report said, the polls last year were a “farce” that allowed long-term leader Hun Sen to stay in power. And in the runup to the polls there, the regime launched “relentless attacks” against human rights defenders and oppositionists.

In neighboring Thailand, the Move Forward Party was prevented from forming a government by senators appointed by the country’s military, despite winning the highest number of votes in the May 2023 elections, APHR reported.

“Despite two elections in the region – in Thailand and Cambodia – neither of the countries where they took place saw the ballot box used as a place for the genuine will of the people to be fulfilled,” the reports said. “In fact, in both instances anti-democratic actors used the votes to effectively strengthen their hold on power.” 

In Malaysia, harassment against opposition lawmakers continues, including threats of being charged using draconian laws such as the Sedition Act, according to APHR’s findings. That law has been previously used to stifle dissent and those convicted face imprisonment of three to seven years.

“We can no longer ignore the stark reality that the space for dissent is shrinking in many parts of the world,” de Lima said. “Authoritarian regimes tighten their grip in an attempt to consolidate power, eroding the foundations of democracy.”

“All we want is the ability to continue doing our jobs as lawmakers and representatives of our constituents. We do not fight for ourselves, we fight for human rights for all, for democracy,” she said.


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