Press release

Southeast Asia: Obama must speak for those who are silenced on his visit

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17 Nov 2012



President Obama must use his historic trip to Southeast Asia to speak for those who are systematically silenced in the region. The President must push for serious reform in Burma, Thailand and Cambodia to protect free speech, freedom of information and freedom of assembly. ARTICLE 19 has written to the President outlining a series of concerns that urgently need attention to ensure that national leaders respect, protect and promote fundamental human rights, which are being routinely violated in all three countries.

“This is a truly historic moment which presents a unique opportunity to push for real change across Southeast Asia. President Obama carries with him the hopes of people in the region, who live in the shadows of states seeking to muzzle legitimate criticism. The weight of that responsibility should rest heavy on his shoulders during this visit, and he must make efforts to ensure that the fundamental human right to freedom of expression is not only respected but given cast iron protections from those seeking to censor and silence” said Agnes Callamard, ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director.

This is the first time that a U.S. President has visited either Burma or Cambodia. A great many people in those countries have expressed a sense of optimism about his trip, but that is not without apprehension. ARTICLE 10 is aware that 8 people have been arrested in Cambodia for painting S.O.S. messages to their rooftops (picture available) calling on the President to help them escape forced eviction. Reports suggest that similar arrests may follow.

“We have received worrying reports that the authorities in Cambodia are preparing to crush peaceful protests of those who are looking to use the President’s visit to raise serious concerns on matters of great public importance. Any such attempt to restrict peaceful protest would be a gross violation of international human rights standards; the very standards the President must champion on this visit. He must not silently stand by if violations to freedom of expression are made in the name of his visit,” added Callamard.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the President to raise the following concerns, as an absolute minimum:

Burma: Reforms to grant greater freedom of expression are partial, piecemeal and poor. Those who rush to herald a new democratic dawn in Burma must take extreme caution: media legislation remains restrictive; a new draft media law is being developed in secret, and without open discussion with those who will be affected; and permission still has to be sought for peaceful assemblies. Censorship of criticism remains widespread in the country. It is estimated that around 300 political prisoners continue to languish in detention.

Cambodia: 2012 has seen a surge in the use of extreme violence to suppress free expression. The use of riot police or hired security guards with automatic weapons has become a widespread practice for dealing with those who seek to stage peaceful protests. Journalists and human rights workers are being threatened, attacked and murdered. Environmentalist Chut Wutty was shot and killed in April, and Hang Serei Oudom, a journalist was found murdered in the back of his car in September; both sought to report illegal logging. Large communities, including the Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Keila communities, continue to be forced out of their homes in a devastating manner, without adequate notice or information about how and where to seek suitable relocation.

Thailand: Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Thai constitution, but comes under sustained attack from day to day. Thailand has one of the most draconian lèse-majesté laws in the world, which makes it illegal to ‘defame, insult or threaten the King and his family.’ This law is routinely used to restrict not only criticism of the monarchy but to punish political criticism. Earlier this year Amphon Tangnoppaku, also known as ‘Uncle SMS’ died in prison after serving only three months of a 20-year sentence for sending four text messages deemed to insult the Queen. This was the harshest sentence ever handed down under the lèse-majesté law. The regressive Computer Crime Act 2007, often used in conjunction with the lèse-majesté laws, has severely undermined the right of people to share information online and violates international standards on freedom of expression. It is estimated that by the end of 2011, 690 new URLs were being blocked every day.

Regional Declaration on Human Rights: Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations  (ASEAN) are currently in the process of finalising the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. The current draft Declaration, which is to be reviewed and may even be approved at the 21st ASEAN Summit in Cambodia, contradicts the very principle that human rights are universal, and threatens to make these rights contingent upon “national and regional contexts”. As it stands, the Declaration is anything but a human rights instrument, and would leave hard-fought civil liberties vulnerable; this move would dangerously allow for the legitimate discrimination of vulnerable groups, in particular women, LGBTI people and minorities.

ARTICLE 19 urges the President to take the spirit of freedom of expression with him on his visit to Southeast Asia and to press for states to abide by international standards which protect this fundamental right.