27 April 2016
Tibetan Monk

Asia's appalling human rights

Most Asian economies have achieved stunning economic growth and poverty reduction. But progress in human rights is lagging way behind, writes John West.

The fractures in Asia's development are perhaps the most evident in the disconnect between its stunning economic development and poverty reduction, and its appalling human rights. There are of course the notorious cases of China and Vietnam. But in virtually all countries, including in advanced economies like Malaysia, Thailand, and even in democratic India, Asia’s human rights track record is wanting. And most shamefully, a couple of years ago, Japan copped a big scolding from the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

China’s appalling human rights

Chinese citizens are vastly more prosperous than in the past, and they do enjoy a wider array of freedoms. But they still live under an authoritarian state that represses their human rights as an instrument to maintain its grip on power. In particular, freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion are heavily curtailed -- in sharp contrast, for example, to the much poorer Philippines where, despite its governance shortcomings, citizens enjoy a much greater range of human rights.

Political scientists imagine that authoritarian regimes will soften their approach to human rights in tandem with the emergence of a middle class. But this has not been the case in China. Under President Xi Jinping, China has only ramped up its repression of human rights. Indeed, as China’s economy and society have become more sophisticated, so have the instruments of human rights abuse and repression.

Chinese leaders now explicitly reject the universality of human rights, which they consider to be "foreign infiltration". And the government has launched a tough crackdown on lawyers, activists, journalists, and non-governmental organizations which are involved in human rights, including women's rights, and ethnic issues. People have been harassed, intimidated, detained, arrested and imprisoned. A number of non-governmental organizations have been shut down. And family members of human rights defenders, including those who have left for other countries, are often harassed by authorities, and are subject to restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Torture and other ill-treatment remain widespread during detention and interrogation in China. Detainees with deteriorating health are routinely denied access to medical treatment. Forced confessions on the television have also become the order of the day for many alleged crimes, including by foreigners. While they lack any credibility, they serve to heighten the atmosphere of fear.

President Xi's anti-corruption campaign, as laudable as it may seem, continues to violate the right to a fair trial, while anti-corruption activists in the New Citizens Movement are still languishing in jail. The Chinese government continues to censor information it considers politically unacceptable on the Internet and other media, and punish those (including journalists) whose writings it objects to. People have been punished for “spreading rumours” about the 2015 stock market meltdown, and the Tianjin chemical explosion.

Freedom of religion continues to be under threat as the Chinese authorities pursue their campaign against Christianity by removing crosses from churches and demolishing some churches in Zhejiang Province, the heartland of Chinese Christianity (some 1200 crosses have reportedly been torn down). Some leaders and defenders of churches have been detained and arrested. Members of "evil cults" like the Falun Gong and Buddhist sect Huazang Dharma suffer from discrimination and punishment. And as evidence of Beijing’s paranoia, the Education Minister also told universities to ban teaching materials that promote "Western values" (even though all the Communist Party elite send their children to US and other Western universities).

Tibet, and Xinjiang (home to 10 million Uighers) continue to suffer from discrimination, repression, human rights abuses and restrictions on personal movement. There have been at least 143 self-immolations by Tibetans since February 2009 in protest against Beijing’s repressive policies. Beijing has been encroaching on Hong Kong's freedoms, as it has been interfering in the territory's politics, such as in the context of the “Umbrella Revolution” movement and the burgeoning independence movement.

Beijing has also apparently been behind the abduction to China of five Hong Kong booksellers, who were purveying material it deemed objectionable. It has successfully pressured other countries to return people to China, such as when Thailand forcibly repatriated 109 Uighur men to China, and when Kenya recently sent some alleged Taiwanese criminals to China. And in April 2016, following pressure from the Chinese government, the Indian government rescinded the visa of Dolkun Isa, leader of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress. Isa was to attend a conference in Dharamsala, the Indian Himalayan city that is home to the Tibetan government in exile, where he would have met the Dalai Lama.

China’s noxious attitude towards human rights is also evident at the UN Human Rights Council, as the pressure group Human Rights Watch has argued, where “China continues to act as a spoiler, blocking greater scrutiny of human rights situations in other countries, including Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Ukraine”.

But what is perhaps most disheartening about China’s human rights situation is the relative silence on the matter by Western governments.

Vietnam following in China's footsteps

Vietnam’s trajectory is often compared with China’s. And it certainly is similar in that rapid economic growth driven by exports and foreign investment has resulted in the virtual elimination of extreme poverty, based on the World Bank poverty line of $1.90 a day.

But Vietnam is also similar to China in that human rights are not improving either. In the words of Human Rights Watch, Vietnam’s human rights are “dismal”. Freedom of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion are greatly restricted. The media and the judiciary, as well as political and religious institutions, are under state control. The government has been cracking down on independent writers, bloggers, and rights activists seen as threatening to the ruling Communist Party. Farmers lose land to development projects without adequate compensation.

Religious activities deemed contrary to the “national interest”, public order” or “national great unity” are banned, as Human Rights Watch has observed. And members of ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands are subject to intimidation, forced renunciation of faith, arbitrary arrests, and mistreatment in custody for their religious “evil ways” and politically “autonomous thoughts”.

Malaysia and Thailand, Asia’s two great disappointments

Malaysia and Thailand are perhaps Asia’s two greatest disappointments. Both have enjoyed great economic growth, achieved middle income status, and virtually eliminated extreme poverty. But both are now mired in middle income traps and political crises, with human rights sadly deteriorating.

Malaysia’s respect for human rights has been “plummeting”, in the words of Human Rights Watch, as the crackdown on human rights defenders, activists, political opposition figures, and journalists intensifies. And yet, Malaysian citizens have every reason to protest against the government. A government-owned investment fund, 1Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB), whose board of advisors is chaired by Prime Minister Najib, has been severely tainted by a scandal involving allegations of massive corruption. At the time of writing, this affair has only been getting more and more murky.

In February 2015, the Malaysian Federal Court upheld the conviction and five-year sentence of Anwar Ibrahim, a leading opposition figure, on sodomy charges. This “politically motivated prosecution and jailing” (in the words of the US State Department) is widely perceived as merely an attempt to weaken Malaysia’s political opposition, at a time when the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is progressively losing its grip on power. In October 2015, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Anwar was being arbitrarily detained and demanded his immediate release and reinstatement of his political rights.

And in November 2015, the Malaysian government announced plans to cut its funding to Suhakam, the national human rights commission, by 50%, in what is widely seen as retaliation for the commission’s independent reporting.

Thailand has never been a paragon of virtue when it comes to human rights. But things took a giant turn for the worse in May 2014, following a military coup. Thailand is now governed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and led by Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha. The NCPO-imposed interim constitution grants immunity to coup leaders and their subordinates for any pre- or post-coup actions ordered by the NCPO, regardless of the legality of the action. Despite promises to hold elections and return to civilian rule, the National Reform Council rejected a draft constitution in September 2015, extending the junta’s rule until at least 2017.

Thailand is now in the grip of deepening authoritarianism. Freedom of assembly, expression, association and the press are under assault. The numbers of people harassed, prosecuted, imprisoned and arbitrarily detained has escalated sharply. The lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) law is now subject to increasingly harsh and arbitrary enforcement. Abuses by government security forces and local defense volunteers continue in the Malay-Muslim insurgency in the southern border most provinces. The military government has granted itself sweeping power to curb “acts deemed harmful to national peace and stability”.

Thailand is a country with a history of coups. But this time seems to be different, with no immediate and obvious path back to democracy and respect for human rights. The junta seems to be positioning itself to handle any possible instability arising from the eventual passing of Bhumibol Adulyadej, and the likely complicated succession. But this is only adding deeper scars to Thailand’s already fractured society.

Democratic India’s lousy human rights

Indians are proud of having the world’s largest democracy, an active civil society, vibrant media, and independent judiciary. But in many respects human rights are simply lousy in India, and they are not getting any better under the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Muslims and Christians have been under attack from extreme right-wing Hindus, and the government has doing very little in their defense. Indeed, leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have made inflammatory remarks against minorities. Many artists, writers and scientists have returned national honours in protest at the climate of growing intolerance. Minorities like Dalits and tribal groups are also subject to discrimination and violence.

Violence against women, especially rape and murder, continues to run at epidemic proportions. But stigma and discrimination from police officials and authorities contine to deter women from reporting sexual violence.

Freedom of expression by civil society groups and the media who criticize the government has been under threat from authorities. Human rights defenders face arbitrary arrests and detentions. And the government has imposed restrictions on foreign funding of domestic civil society organizations.

A May 2015 report by the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions noted that “impunity remains a serious problem”. While the US State Department considered one of the most significant human rights problems to be “police and security force abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape”.

Japan’s shame

Extreme politeness, courtesy and kindness are the face of Japan that most visitors see and appreciate so much. But there are other sides of Japan which are dark and sinister. This includes many shameful acts and practices which were highlighted by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) in 2014.

For example, there is "widespread racist discourse against members of minority groups, such as Koreans, Chinese or Burakumin, inciting hatred and discrimination against them". Foreign trainees and technical interns are the subject of "a large number of reports of sexual abuse, labour-related deaths and conditions that could amount to forced labour". And "a large number of persons with mental disabilities are subject to involuntary hospitalization”.

It is of course true that obnoxious behaviour exists in all countries. But it is the role of the state to legislate against such behaviour, and to enforce that legislation. The state should promote attitudes of tolerance, respect and openness. It should not be complicit in abuses of human rights. Unfortunately, the HRC notes that the Japanese government has "not made any progress to establish a consolidated national human rights institution".

The HRC had stern comments to make about one of the great tragedies of modern times, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. This is now widely regarded as a man-made disaster, not a natural disaster, as a Japanese parliamentary commission argued convincingly. The HRC is concerned that former residents have no choice but to return to highly contaminated areas because of “the high threshold of exposure level” that the government set in Fukushima, as well as the decision to cancel some of the evacuation areas.

The Committee also expresses serious concern about the Japanese government's contradictory position regarding the sexual slavery practices against “comfort women” by the Japanese military during wartime, as well as a lack of effective remedies available to them as victims of past human rights violations.

As Asia’s most mature democracy, and a country sitting in the midst of great economic and political power transitions, Japan should not treat the HRC’s report lightly. Its traditional approach of stonewalling is no longer viable. The HRC noted that many of its previous recommendations have not been implemented.

Concluding comments

This overview of human rights in some of Asia’s most successful countries paints a depressing picture, and highlights how unbalanced Asia’s human development has been. And yet, an even more gloomy picture would emerge if this survey had included some of Asia’s human rights’ worst cases, like North Korea, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which have not enjoyed as much economic success.


- Amnesty International Report 2015/16: the state of the world's human rights

- Human Rights Watch. Annual Report 2016.

- US Department of State: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015.

- United Nations Human Rights Committee Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Japan. July 23, 2014.

Tags: asia, human rights

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