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Nowhere to run: the cross-border persecution of Asia's human rights defenders

February 22, 2024
topic:Human Rights
tags:#human rights defenders, #freedom of speech, #asylum seekers, #refugees, #Thailand, #Vietnam
located:Laos, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar
by:Hướng Thiện
Thailand, once considered a refuge for activists, is no longer a safe destination. But advocates refuse to be silenced.

In July 2023, Lu Siwei, a prominent human rights lawyer who had escaped from mainland China, was detained by Laotian authorities as he was about to board a flight to Thailand. His plan was to catch a flight from Bangkok to the United States to reunite with his family.

In October, he was found in Sichuan Province, China. 

Hurrah, a Vientiane-based journalist, learnt of the incident, but not through official domestic media. She said that this type of news would not make it to any Laotian outlet - not because of any explicit top-down prohibition order, but rather due to self-censorship among Laos-based journalists and editors who are closely watched by the Lao government. 

"Lao journalists would feel it in their heart that this type of stories are unpublishable on Lao media," said Hurrah, who spoke to FairPlanet on condition of anonymity, citing fear of government reprisals. 

"We cannot openly talk about human rights in Laos," added the journalist, explaining that the May 2023 shooting of Anousa "Jack”"Luangsouphom, a high-profile Lao human rights activist and a vocal critic of the Lao Communist government, was not reported on mainstream domestic media outlets. 

It appears that across Southeast Asia, people no longer feel safe to practise their fundamental rights and advocate for justice for others, as physical and digital attacks against human rights activists have been on the rise. But leaving their home country does not guarantee safety for many human rights defenders either. 

Reported cases of transnational repression and cross-border violence perpetrated by states to silence dissenters have been on the rise, while few mechanisms are in place to support them. 

Absent regional mechanisms

According to a 2022 report by Freedom House, a US based human rights organisation, transnational repression of human rights defenders in Southeast Asia has been increasing. This includes a wide array of tactics such as direct attacks, long distance threats, mobility controls and manipulation or collusion with host countries. 

Across the region, the report notes, authoritarianism has been gaining steam to varying degrees. Criminal charges are often vaguely and vastly applied to silence critics of governments, the study said.

Furthermore, a 2023 research by Asia Democracy Chronicles has shown that freedom of speech and internet freedom have been shrinking in the region, making it harder for human rights activists to report the truth and protect others and themselves in their home countries.

In addition, the budget for public security has been raised in all countries across the region. In December 2023, Hanoi and Bangkok also ratcheted up security cooperations. 

"Vietnamese agents have a strong presence in Bangkok," said an independent human rights activist based in Vietnam, who asked to remain anonymous for safety concerns.  

The 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, despite referencing refugees, lacks legal binding power and prioritises consultation, consensus and non-interference instead. It also fails to establish mechanisms for the protection of migrants or human rights advocates.

As a host to numerous international and regional human rights organisations, Thailand has become a haven for those escaping turmoil in their home countries. Over the last few decades, tens of thousands from Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and China have fled to Thailand, seeking safety from armed conflicts or political repression. 

However, protection for these individuals in Thailand remains far from guaranteed, as the country is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. 

With its military-backed and monarchy-centric governance, which garners support from and collaborates closely with authoritarian states like China, Vietnam and Cambodia, Thailand has ceased to be a safe refuge, especially for dissidents fleeing from non-democratic regimes.

Since 2020, Wanchaloem Satsaksit, a Thai pro-democracy activist has been reportedly abducted while living in exile in Phnom Penh. Neither the Cambodian nor Thai authorities have probed the disappearance. 

In late 2021, Voeun Veasna and Voeung Samnang, two Cambodian opposition activists  who were seeking asylum in Thailand, were deported by Thai authorities and subsequently jailed on charges of conspiracy for posting a poem critical of Cambodian President Hun Sen.

Despite widespread international calls for protection of exiled activists, Thai government continued to deport activists from the region for reasons that remain undisclosed. 

Vietnamese freelance journalist and blogger Dương Văn Thái has been missing since being abducted near his home in April 2023 in Pathum Thani province, central Thailand. He had sought refuge there four years prior to escape press persecution in Vietnam.

In the same month, Thai authorities also forcibly returned three Burmese refugees, where they were at risk of persecution

In May 2023, Lao activist Bounsuan Kitiyano, a member of a Thailand-based pro-democracy group, was shot while riding a motorcycle alone in a forest in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, where he was living in exile.  

Vietnamese human rights activist Lù A Da, head of the H’mong Human Rights Coalition, seen by the Communist Party of Vietnam as a hostile force, was arrested by the Thai Royal Police at his residence near Bangkok in December 2023. His arrest followed his public denouncement of the Vietnamese government’s alleged systematic suppression of H’mong communities in Vietnam.

As of December 2023, over 1,000 H’mong asylum seekers reside in Thailand, facing a constant threat of arrest. 

"Intelligence sharing between Vietnam, Laos and Thailand has already existed for quite a while," the Thai activist told FairPlanet under the condition of anonymity, adding that he was not surprised by the increasing transnational repression. 

"Authorities in Malaysia and Thailand have, in recent years, conducted unlawful deportations of Myanmar migrants, failing to apply stringent screening criteria that distinguish between irregular migrants and refugees who genuinely require protection," said Yap Lay Sheng, a Human Rights Defender Associate at Fortify Rights, an award-winning organisation based in Southeast Asia and registered in both the US and Switzerland. the NGO collaborates with advocates in Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar to strengthen their resilience and protection when confronted with various human rights challenges. 

"Sending activists, defectors, and other human rights defenders back to Myanmar puts their lives at risk in a repressive and opaque legal environment, where they may face arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and other human rights violations," Yap told FairPlanet. 

A multi-stakeholder approach is needed to address the migration system in respective countries, Yap added. 

"States must address the shortcomings in their migration systems to facilitate the process for individuals at risk to seek safe refuge, commit to not turning them back at the borders and halt summary deportations of refugees to countries where they have well-founded fears of persecution," said Yap. "Host countries must train law enforcement to support these defenders, refraining from actions that may exacerbate their risks."

Dr Sebastian Moretti,  a senior fellow at the Global Migration Centre of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and author of the 2022 book The Protection of Refugees in Southeast Asia: A Legal Fiction? said that "step-by-step actions" are needed to be taken in case of deportations.

First, he argued, a campaign can be launched to name and shame the countries sending back exiled activists despite a risk of persecution.

Additionally, Dr Moretti suggests the adoption of specific UN human rights mechanisms, like the Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. These entities, he said, should be given access to relevant information to facilitate necessary interventions, including dispatching formal inquiries to governments regarding the whereabouts of specific individuals or condemning breaches of the non-refoulement principle, which forbids governments from deporting individuals back to countries where their lives are in danger, among other actions.

"There is also a risk that the concerned persons are arrested and deported for 'political' reasons, i.e., the country of asylum wants to remain in good terms with the country of origin, but this would lead to a violation of the principle of non-refoulement," said Dr Moretti. 

Subtle repression

Even activists who merely attend events and do not seek refuge in Thailand are at risk of being apprehended. In early January, Thai police detained 10 Cambodian migrant workers and political refugees during a workshop in Bangkok. 

"I do not feel safe when attending activities abroad,"  said a legal activist from Laos, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. They explained that security officers are sent to attend international events to monitor Lao human rights defenders. 

Repression is thus not limited to the activists themselves, but also affects their family members, directly or indirectly. 

In August 2018, along with his fellows, Singaporean historian and founder of Malaysia-based online outlet New Naratif, Thum Ping Tjin, known as PJ Thum, asked Mahathir Mohamad, the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, to take a leading role in promoting democracy in Southeast Asia. This move was met with sharp criticism from the Singaporean government, which strongly objected to his call for a foreign leader to meddle in the nation's internal political affairs.

The Singaporean government did not only raid PJ Thum's office, but attempted to prevent him and his wife from participating in international functions. 

"In 2018, my status at the University of Oxford was suddenly subjected to an internal audit," said Dr Thum, who now lives in the Philippines, in an email to FairPlanet. "I was given to understand that the Singapore government, through its backchannels into the university, requested clarification of my status at the university and put pressure on their collaborators to make inquiries about me.

"Fortunately, the university did not take these demands seriously, and after a perfunctory audit, I was cleared."

In late 2023, his wife, Dr Sol Iglesias, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines, was tapped as a possible panel speaker for a January 2024 event titled 'The Global Research Forum Towards a Public Asian Studies,' which was organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS) (her alma mater).

But Dr Iglesias was suddenly informed that she did not make it to the final list of speakers. While the reasons have not been disclosed, NUS told her that the decision was not predicated on her qualifications. 

"When she was disinvited, Sol was told that her invitation was blocked by 'higher ups' and not given a reason, but the person who invited her believed it was because she was married to me," said Dr Thum. 

NUS has yet to provide Iglesias with further explanations.

Image by Heinrich Böll Stiftung

Article written by:
Hướng Thiện
Laos China Thailand Cambodia Vietnam Myanmar
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“We cannot openly talk about human rights in Laos."
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According to Freedom House, transnational repression of human rights defenders in Southeast Asia has been on the rise.
Embed from Getty Images
"When she was disinvited, Sol was told that her invitation was blocked by 'higher ups' and not given a reason, but the person who invited her believed it was because she was married to me," said Dr Thum Ping Tjin.