Southeast Asia on the Black Lives Matter protests: How they covered it

Photo: Leonhard Lenz / CC0

George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last week sparked widespread protests against racial injustice. Citizens of Southeast Asia were among those in support.


George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis on May 25 led to an unprecedented reaction across the world as millions of people supported the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in mass protests.

In Southeast Asia, where some minority groups face persecution and where—in some places—police brutality is not uncommon, citizens supported the protests. Due to coronavirus restrictions, many did so virtually, while others used social media to lend their voice to the cause. Here’s how the media covered the region’s response.

Voices in the region got behind the black American movement

Writing for The South China Morning Post, Kimberly Lim and Tatwshny Sukamaran detailed how the protests had forced Southeast Asians to look inwards and think about their own experiences with prejudice. They highlighted Indians dying in custody in Malaysia, discrimination against Papuans in Indonesia and the notion of Chinese privilege in Singapore.

They quoted ex-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who said, “Though the historical context was different, there is a lesson here for all countries.” He added that Singapore has to “continually work towards an inclusive society where everyone will emerge stronger with our house intact”.

Writing in the Lifestyle Asia magazine, Beatrice Bowers urged Singaporeans to stand with those seeking justice for Floyd and the many others who suffered like him. “Being Singaporean does not make us exempt from aiding the Black Lives Matter cause,” she urged. “This is not up for debate at a time where silence is compliance with the aggressor.”

A social media storm in Malaysia

As the movement grew, those with a significant social media following used their influence to call out injustice, but some celebrities got their messaging wrong.

Samantha Katie James, the 2017 Miss Universe Malaysia winner, caused a storm with her comments on Instagram where she claimed victims “chose to be born as coloured (people) in America.” The Malay Mail reported later in the week that in a follow-up post she had apologised for her comments.

The Star focused on posts by prominent business leaders with more considered messages, including banking executive Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, who reflected that the unrest was an opportunity to debate whether it is time for change in Malaysia. “Our nationhood—what it means to be Malaysian and how our government, economy and society work—needs recalibration,” he wrote.

In Indonesia, writers brought Papuan rights into focus

Sheany Yasuko reflected in Coconuts that, “Voices of the oppressed are being amplified and in some cases also brought up to highlight the country’s own racism problem, which in itself are complex owing to diverse ethnicities in Indonesia, but is arguably most apparent in how it undervalues the lives of Papuans.”

Budi Sutrisno picked up on the same theme with a piece in The Jakarta Post which included #PapuanLivesMatter in its headline. He highlighted examples of discrimination Papuans have faced in Indonesia, closing with a message from Amnesty International to free 51 prisoners of conscience. “They do not deserve to be in jail because they did not commit any crimes. Justice must be upheld,” the organisation said.

Different reactions in Cambodia and the Philippines

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had a different take on the protests, asking why Human Rights Watch had not condemned US President Donald Trump’s heavy-handed attempts to suppress the demonstrations. The Phnom Penh Post quoted him asking: “Where are Brad Adams and Human Rights Watch? Where are they now? Why haven’t we heard its cries for human rights?”

“When Cambodia curbs demonstrations, they say Cambodia violates human rights. But when other countries clamp down on demonstrations, they say it’s a measure to safeguard social order. Why is it extremely different?”

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, people took to the streets, doing their best to observe social distancing guidelines, to protest President Rodrigo Duterte’s proposed new anti-terror law. The law appears to threaten civil liberties and freedom of speech, but they also took the opportunity to support the BLM movement.

As Barnaby Lo, writing for CBS News explained, “At one point during the march, Filipino protesters ‘took a knee’ to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the wider pushback against police brutality.” In the country in which an estimated 27,000 people have died as a result of Duterte’s war on drugs, it seemed appropriate, inevitable and necessary.

Klarize Medenilla wrote in The Asian Journal that some Filipinos can struggle to empathise with victims due to long-ingrained cultural habits—“internalised colourism” as she put it. She spoke to Filipina American teacher Lauren Mendoza, who recalled the analogy that when one-third of the German population (the Nazis) persecuted another one-third (the Jews), the other third did nothing.

“It’s important that we as Filipinos and Asians not be the one-third of people who are just watching,” she said. Her words need not apply to just Filipinos or Asians. She could be speaking for the whole world.

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