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Environmental defenders face high risks

The region remains a dangerous place to be involved in activism around land or environmental rights, with a huge range of actors – from states and companies to local vested-interest groups – targeting individuals.

The establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) – which aim to attract foreign investment, and are subject to specific laws – restricts dissent around the aggressive ‘development agenda’ of many countries in the region. These zones are subject to forced evictions and tighter restrictions on expression, as well as more backlash against them for obstructing the financial interests of their countries.

In Vietnam (4th quartile), a new SEZ law would have allowed foreign investors to hold a lease on land for significantly longer than the national limit. Protests led to implementation of the law being postponed.[1] Demonstrators – more than 100 of whom were arrested – also expressed concerns that the SEZs would allow China to exploit national resources.[2]

In 2018, Vietnam handed the harshest sentence ever given to a citizen for peaceful advocacy to blogger and environmental activist, Lê Đình Lượng, sentencing him to 20 years in jail for activities ‘aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’ under Article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code. Lê Đình Lượng wrote about social issues on Facebook, and had criticised steel company Formosa for causing a major marine environmental disaster. He had also signed a petition against bauxite mining in the Central Highlands.[3]

There were some releases, notably environmental activist ‘Mother Mushroom’ – though she was immediately exiled to the USA with her family. She had been serving a 10-year sentence for reporting on deaths in police custody and a toxic spill that affected fishermen.[4]

The Philippines (3rd quartile) killed fewer environmental HRDs in 2018 than in 2017, but the environment remains hostile due to President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s development agenda, which aims to attract local and foreign investors – particularly extractive industries. Of the 27 mining sites ordered to close in 2016 for environmental violations, 23 were ordered to reopen in August 2018.[5]

Since Duterte took the presidency in 2016, his aggressive development agenda and ‘war on drugs’ has seen the country’s expression environment deteriorate rapidly; it is among the XpA’s biggest Decliners over the last three years, with its most significant drops being under the Protection and Transparency themes over the same time period.

The military released a list of institutions supposedly linked to a plot to oust President Duterte in early October 2018, and numerous HRDs were arrested on trumped-up charges. Others were accused of being members of the Communist Party and New People’s Army – organisations the government deems terrorist.

President Duterte has also been openly misogynistic and sexist, targeting female activists with his rhetoric: ‘We will not kill you… We will just shoot you in the vagina’.[6]

In Cambodia (4th quartile) land-rights activists, including Tep Vanny, were finally released in October, but Hun Vannak and Dem Kundy – members of the group ‘Mother Nature’ – were sentenced to over a year’s imprisonment for filming suspected illegal sand-export activity, though the sentence was suspended.[7]


[1] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at

[2] Global Voices, Vietnam’s New Cybersecurity Law Could Further Undermine Free Speech and Disrupt Businesses, 25 June 2018, available at

[3] Reporters without Borders, Vietnamese Blogger Gets 20-Year Jail Sentence, 16 August 2018, available at

[4] Reporters without Borders, Vietnam’s Mother Mushroom is Freed, Leaves for United States, 17 October 2018, available at

[5] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at

[6] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at

[7] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at