Going wrong about rights
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Going wrong about rights

Last year was not just a disappointment in the tough battle to provide protection for human rights. In fact, 2013 and the early days of this year have seen little but setbacks. Asean citizens have watched many of their rights actually erode. In country after country, governments in the area have taken both public and secretive steps that were detrimental to their own people.

A new report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) details the excesses and threats of governments over the past year.

HRW's ''World Report 2014'' is sobering reading. So too is the Freedom in the World assessment published by Freedom House. These two book-length views of today's world have no connection. It is all the more sobering, then, that they have reached such similar conclusions.

"The state of freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2013," was Freedom House's introduction to its report. HRW summed up the struggle for human rights as, ''stopping mass atrocities, majority bullying, and abusive counter-terrorism''.

That is not so say that everything is bleak. Indeed, the sky is not falling — yet. Rather, there is a tendency for governments, most especially Asean governments, to reach for the facile stopgap instead of serious solutions to the many problems.

Take Indonesia, for example. It has been a world-class shining star in democratic development. Yet last year, for no obvious reason and to the detriment of human rights, it passed and began enforcing a new law that restricts all activities by non-governmental organisations.

Of course this country realises that one need not leave Thailand to see and feel abuses. The state of emergency only provided more evidence of an actual government policy to restrict even basic rights such as freedom of speech and to gather to petition the government.

The lese majeste laws were misused and abused more than ever during the past year. And the idea of accountability remained foreign to every government and justice agency — the 2010 killings, the Tak Bai and Krue Se incidents and the infamous killing of 2,500 ''suspects'' in Thaksin Shinawatra's war on drugs, just for example.

But the situation outside Thailand was just as bad, or worse, in 2013. A single country, Malaysia, prevented Asean from adopting even the most basic protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in any Asean document. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said such ''deviant practices are poisoning the minds'' of Muslims. Our southern neighbour also vetoed an effort to mention protection of migrant workers in any Asean human rights document.

The Indochinese countries comprised a rather nasty sub-group of Asean. To use the straightforward but credible judgements of HRW, ''The human rights situation in Vietnam deteriorated significantly in 2013'', accelerating a years-long trend. Cambodia is ''engulfed in a human rights crisis'' sparked by the unconvincing, probably rigged re-election of Prime Minister Hun Sen's political party.

Laos has replaced Myanmar as the most repressive in the region. As a prime example, the government has not even bothered to address the disappearance of development aid worker Sombath Somphone. The internationally known NGO leader was last seen on CCTV footage being abducted and forced into what apparently was a government vehicle. His disappearance is an obvious warning to anyone who might think of challenging the Vientiane regime.

Asean has almost unlimited ambition to grow and develop, beginning next year with the launch of the Asean Economic Community. However, the refusal to address and redress human rights abuses will block such hopes. To win respect and to advance in the world, all Asean members must halt and reverse such abuses.

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