Authoritarianism on the rise in ASEAN during COVID-19

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (right). Photo: PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO / Public domain

Governments in Southeast Asia are using the threat of the coronavirus to consolidate power and impose draconian policies.

By Zachary Frye                                             

As governments around the world implement tough containment policies to reduce the rate of public infection—undoubtedly for good reason—some in ASEAN are adopting policies that take things too far, strengthening the hand of undemocratic regimes.

Although all countries in the region are implementing special measures in the face of pandemic, especially quarantines and travel restrictions, some are taking steps that directly impact human rights.

In Cambodia, for example, a bill was recently passed to hand over sweeping emergency powers to the government during times of crisis, in what Human Rights Watch characterized as a “recipe for dictatorship.” The bill allows for severe restrictions on civil liberties, including the ability to restrict freedom of assembly and limits on the press.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened the use of martial law if citizens fail to adhere to social distancing rules, harkening back to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos from 1972 to 1981.

In early April, Duterte told the public that he even ordered police and security personnel to shoot people on sight if they were caught disobeying quarantine rules.

“If they become unruly and they fight you and your lives are endangered, shoot them dead! Let’s see. Dead. Instead of causing chaos, I’ll just bury you,” Duterte said.

More recently, Malaysia has barred several boats full of Rohingya refugees from entering the country over concerns that they may carry the coronavirus. Instead of taking them in and following quarantine precautions, Malaysian sailors gave them food before pushing them back out to sea.

Some observers worry that the Rohingya refugees will now be barred from entering any country, potentially facing starvation and death. On April 16, authorities off the coast of Bangladesh found at least two dozen Rohingya refugees had died after their boat drifted in the sea for about two months.

According to one refugee who survived, they were denied entry to Malaysia on three separate occasions. All of the survivors, many of whom were starving, were brought back to Myanmar.

Human rights concerns run especially deep in Myanmar

On April 17, the Myanmar government banned gatherings of five or more people, a move that hasn’t been seen in the country since a 25-year ban on gatherings was abolished in 2013.

While many governments have implemented social distancing rules, Myanmar poses a greater risk of overreach. In a country that repeatedly used the law to crush dissent for generations—and which is currently under UN scrutiny for alleged genocide—the ban should not be dismissed outright as a temporary inconvenience.

According to reports, there is no official timetable to lift the regulation. In addition, despite the virus becoming a real public health concern across the region, Myanmar continues to prevent Internet access to swaths of its population in conflict areas.

As for freedom of the press, in late March the government ordered telecom operators to block hundreds of news sites across the country, potentially impacting the availability of information on the virus. According to Telenor, a popular mobile Internet provider in the country, COVID-19 was a part of the motivation for the blocks.

Citizens across the region face a history of abuses

Southeast Asia continues to face the threat of authoritarianism over the long term, though it’s often masked as democracy. Elections in recent years in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, for example, have resulted in governments that continue to commit abuses of power, overreach and suppression.

In Myanmar, ethnic strife and repression continues in border regions despite the election of a former Nobel Peace Prize winner. In Thailand, the military leaders that seized power in 2014 altered the constitution and then won last year’s elections, preserving their power.

In Cambodia, high courts banned the main opposition party, leading to a widely-condemned election in 2018 that gave longstanding Prime Minister Hun Sen yet another term. In the Philippines, journalists and other dissidents suffer threats of violence and extrajudicial killings.

In Laos and Vietnam, one-party communist rule endures, leaving citizens little chance to influence their country’s leadership.

The need for order during a pandemic must be balanced with respect for human rights

Compared to the hardest hit locations around the world, Southeast Asia is managing to stay relatively safe, at least so far. While testing in many places is limited, potentially obscuring a more accurate tally of cases, the region isn’t facing large-scale rates of infection like in the US and Europe.

Many are likely to applaud tough government measures for successfully keeping coronavirus numbers in check. In Vietnam, for instance, fierce tracking of cases and comprehensive quarantine efforts are helping limit the spread of the virus to under 300 confirmed infections and zero deaths.

As a result, the communist nation is receiving considerable domestic and international praise for a virus response that has likely saved hundreds—if not thousands—of lives. Notably, it might be Vietnam’s centralised system of control that is giving the country the upper hand.

Aggressive testing of infected people’s contacts, forced quarantines, the conscription of medical students and retired health personnel have kept infection numbers remarkably low.

“Vietnam is a mobilisation society,” argued Carl Thayer, a regional specialist and professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales Canberra. “It is a one-party state, it has large public security forces—the military and the party itself—and it’s a top-down government that’s good at responding to natural disasters.”

If proper mobilisation of personnel and resources is the key to preventing the further spread of the pandemic, it must be balanced with concerns over basic human rights. Lockdowns and quarantines may be necessary in the short term, but without respect for human beings, especially those suffering, some ASEAN governments risk losing legitimacy over the longer term. While current clampdowns don’t necessarily mean the region will fall further into the abyss of despotism once the threat of COVID-19 passes, citizens in the region should stay vigilant for unnecessary measures after the fog clears.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.