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South East Asia’s pandemic politics and human rights: Trends and lessons


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Laws brought in to protect health must not disregard the fundamental rights of citizens, Khoo Ying Hooi writes.

A day does not go by without news of human rights violations in the South East Asia region, as it is constantly confronted with state repression of human rights in many forms such as the intimidation and arrests of political dissidents and activists and the infringement of freedom of expression in countries like Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia.

The indexes from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 democracy Index, the Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 press freedom index and the Civicus’ State of Civil Society Report 2020, related to civic space on issues such as freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and freedom of expression, have generally shown that the response to and the management of Covid-19 across South East Asia has varied, and it does not correlate directly to how democratic or how open a country is.

Those indexes are in line with all the available information on the countries I was able to gather: almost all countries in this region experience governments that are increasingly assertive in showing authoritarian governance.

In South East Asia, which already does not have a good record on democracy and human rights, as the health crisis continues to escalate and countries go into different variations of a lockdown approach, the concern is that it is affording regimes with authoritarian tendencies the opportunity to further suppress political dissent and consolidate their power.

In Cambodia, for instance, the draft public order law (Amnesty International, 2020) has triggered debate as it contains broad and arbitrary provisions, which violate international human rights law and Cambodia’s own constitution. As raised by Amnesty International, this proposed law enables the Cambodian government to expand its arbitrary control over the lives of Cambodians. It also criminalises groups such as the poor. With livelihoods affected by Covid-19, if this law is approved, it has the potential to severely affect their right to an adequate standard of living.

The anxiety and fear that these special powers might continue and subsequently become a permanent feature in the months and years to come in South East Asia is real. How leaders and their citizens are interacting with one another during the coronavirus crisis could also provide some clues to the future exercise of power.

Looking into the approaches adopted by several South East Asian countries, it also raises the question of the weaponisation of Covid-19. If we examine issues such as assembly, disinformation, press freedom, expression, access to information, militarisation, movement and surveillance, as raised by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law’s Covid-19 civic freedom tracker, the question of how democracy can deliver has become one of the leading challenges of our time.

The problem is, in many countries, democratic institutions in place are often hollow, weak and ineffective. In this commentary, I explore the trends and lessons learned from Covid-19 in South East Asia with a focus on politics and human rights.


Before Covid-19 emerged early this year, the South East Asian region was already characterised (UN, 2020) by high levels of inequality, low levels of social protection and a regression in strong institutions.

How does the Covid-19 response affect politics, including democracy and human rights, in South East Asia? This needs to be examined together with the question: how will Covid-19 affect politics in the region? Here are six trends I summarise.

1. The first trend is the lack of regional solidarity and the inward-looking approach of South East Asian countries.

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As we can see, individual South East Asian states rely more on their national responses than the responses by Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) or the UN.

The pandemic poses a significant threat to South East Asia and the relevancy of Asean (Kipgen and Ansal, 2020) as it finds itself faced with the unprecedented task of addressing the health and socioeconomic costs of Covid-19. Millions are expected to lose their jobs, and for a region with a large informal sector and where social protection is not evenly developed, the costs on livelihood will be high.

2. The second trend is the authoritarian approach adopted by most countries in South East Asia.

As of now (Asean Briefing, 2020), the region has crossed the 376,000-case mark with the Philippines topping the highest total of cases at more than 160,000 with active cases close to 50,000.

With an ongoing pandemic, many in the Philippines were enraged that Duterte’s government prioritised passing an anti-terror law (Capatides, 2020) than prioritising the health of the people. Earlier in April 2020, 14 senators (The Star, 2020) called for Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to resign over the nation’s Covid-19 crisis response.

In Malaysia, in the earlier phases of containing the Covid-19, those who violated the movement control order were treated like criminals (Malaysiakini, 2020): they were put in close proximity with other detainees during remand, then brought to court to be charged while handcuffed with other offenders.

As the Malaysian government put in place the mandatory face mask policy (Malay Mail, 2020) in public places, concerns were also raised about the RM1,000 fine imposed on offenders, as some have argued that the approach by the government is more of punishment, rather than educating the public. Moreover, it puts the burden especially on the lower-income group. At the same time, the fine that is relatively high compared to many other countries and may open up opportunities for corruption for enforcers.

In Myanmar (Human Rights Watch, 2020), people including children have been sentenced to between one month and one year in prison since late March 2020 for violating movement control orders.

As mentioned earlier, the region as a whole suffers from a lack of civil liberties such as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of information. Many governments are adopting securitisation (Aaron, 2020) to address the crisis and simultaneously cracking down on critics of the crisis response.

Covid-19 has been a political opportunity for many governments. While securitisation is required, the problem occurs when governments do not exercise restraint.

3. The third trend is the militarisation approach that has a linkage to the securitisation approach, adopted by several South East Asian countries such as Indonesia (Laksamana and Taufika, 2020) and the Philippines.

The UN has raised concern over some countries’ repressive measures in the implementation of their lockdown approaches, including the Philippines (UN, 2020), citing it as a “highly militarised response”.

Duterte is also quoted (Capatides, 2020) as saying, “I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military, as well as village officials, if there is any trouble, or occasions where there’s violence and your lives are in danger, shoot them dead.” He added in a mix of Filipino and English in the televised address, “Do not intimidate the government. Do not challenge the government. You will lose.”

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In countries where military actors have a history of human rights violations, the militarisation of Covid-19 accompanies, either direct military rule or periodic military intervention, all of which can bring lasting political repercussions. This is worrying as most Asean member states have authoritarian or partially democratic governments.

4. The fourth trend is the limitation in governance capacity

Covid-19 has revealed the weak governance (The Edge, 2020) in South East Asian countries and Asean itself.

States have basic obligations to provide security, education, public health, and a legal system to their electorates. For instance, in the Philippines, the pandemic exacerbates the inequitable public health system (Naguit, 2020) in a densely populated country with existing widespread socioeconomic disparities.

As we debate about democracy versus authoritarianism, the discourse on the importance of good governance is clearly missing in this region. What we can see is that governments were unable to cope with the pandemic with existing institutions and authorities and aimed for extended power.

But these emergency powers, in some cases such as in Thailand (Pashuk, 2020), were used to go after dissenting voices.

In Indonesia, the hashtag “Indonesia?? Terserah!!” (“Indonesia?? It is up to you!!”) (The Star, 2020) is a signal of frustration with the government’s poor response to Covid-19.

5. Fifth, the pandemic has exposed the glaring inequities in economic distribution around the region.

This reveals that the problem of human rights in the region is not mainly civil and political rights. Economic, social and cultural rights have also been neglected.

The pandemic response further reinforces existing inequalities from healthcare to technology faced by vulnerable populations, particularly informal workers, migrant workers, people with disabilities and refugee communities.

Covid-19 is a stark reminder that South East Asia’s economic growth has been distributed inequitably. In Singapore and Malaysia, the blame quickly fell on migrant workers.

In Malaysia, the civil society groups have made the hashtag, “MigranJugaManusia” (Menon, 2020), which translates to Migrants Are Humans Too, to highlight the plight of migrant workers.

While Singapore (Ratcliffe, 2020) was initially lauded as one of the best country examples in managing Covid-19, the crisis has shone a spotlight on how it treats marginalised migrants when the second outbreak involving mostly migrant workers went out of control.

6. The sixth trend is technology with a focus on contact-tracing apps. The question raised is, is it a boon or a bane?

While technology plays an important role in the midst of the current crisis to protect the rights to health, life and security, Covid-19 forces countries, despite their political systems, to face confrontation between protecting individual rights and collective right to health.

Under the name of managing the pandemic, there have been debates (Data Protection Excellence Network, 2020) about how contact-tracing apps can be an intrusion of the right to privacy if it is implemented without adequate oversight.

For instance in Vietnam, its contact-tracing app named Bluezone (Shepherdson, 2020) does not have a specific privacy notice or statement, and this might cause issues about individual privacy.

Lessons and moving forward

Based on the six trends as identified in the above section, this commentary offers two lessons learned and ways to move forward.

1. First is the discourse of human rights and power relations

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In the South East Asian region, it is significant that the conception of human rights has been constantly challenged, and it has somehow sustained particular forms of power, especially coming from the top. This explains how both concepts are thus playing a highly ambivalent role.

Facing the challenges of restricted policies in place that potentially constrain the full function of human rights, it is important that a full account of human rights should include such considerations.

There is a vibrant discussion within the human rights community around the need for new narratives that build public support for human rights, as the concept of human rights is under attack with the rise of authoritarian populism (Jayasuriya, 2020) in the region.

For instance, the ‘powerful’, in the South East Asian case often referring to the state, can use their disproportionate power both to threaten the human rights of others and to constraint the attempts to secure their control.

As we move forward, taking into consideration the lessons from Covid-19, attempts to build public support require a deeper recognition of the power relations that shape people’s perceptions.

2. The second point is the role of non-state actors, particularly human rights actors

In the South East Asian region, human rights actors are often seen as ‘enemies’ rather than strategic allies of the state.

Having said that, the impact of human rights actors is context-dependent, that is, it depends upon the political, economic, and social context. As the Civicus State of Civil Society Report 2020 shows, essential civic and democratic freedoms were already tightly restricted prior to the pandemic.

The challenge for human rights actors is how it can counter government policies that might hurt the poorest together with heightened authoritarianism. The battle is on ways to avoid this and instead put forward alternative plans for recovery that can, among others, expand rights and make economies fairer with a redistribution policy in place.


It is undeniable that Covid-19 has been devastating (Searight, 2020) for South East Asia’s economy. Covid-19 teaches us that the correlation between the economy and the perception of democracy cannot be ignored, as there is no direct causal analysis between the two.

The perception of democracy can be low while experiencing high economic growth. People who are dissatisfied with their governments’ approaches during Covid-19 could include those who want a more liberal approach and those who want more autocratic responses. This has certainly posed a huge challenge for pro-democracy and human rights groups in the future.

At this point, any generalisation on the model of crisis management in any particular system of government is premature.

Still, regardless of whether there is conclusive evidence, the danger is there: if we fail to handle the crisis, people in the South East Asian region may look toward a system outside of democracy. The extent depends on how long the pandemic lasts and its level of impacts on economies and societies.

There is no doubt overt how public health is more important than the economy. But the irony is that some governments that have said this did not, in fact, put healthcare as their priority before the pandemic.

The global pandemic means that governments must take steps to safeguard the right to health of those they serve. Laws brought in to protect health must not disregard the fundamental rights of citizens.

Source: blogs.lse.ac.uk

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