This article is the fifth in a 10-part series collectively themed “Fostering Democracy Movements,” an Asia Democracy Network special 10th anniversary report produced by the Asia Democracy Chronicles. The release of this series is also in commemoration of Human Rights Day on December 10, 2023. The entire report can be downloaded here.
y the time Vietnamese vlogger Duong Van Thai went missing last April, he had been in Thailand for about four years and had already been granted refugee status by the U.N. Refugee Agency office in Bangkok. His family was left in agony over his disappearance until July, when relatives received a letter from Vietnamese authorities confirming his arrest.
In an article about his abduction and arrest, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that Thai was in the custody of the Vietnamese state and had been charged with “creating ‘propaganda against the state’ in violation of Article 117 of the Penal Code.”
As a content creator on YouTube, Thai had delved into topics such as political corruption within the Vietnamese administration. He fled his homeland in 2019, fearing persecution and believing that his U.N. refugee status would keep him safe in Bangkok. Then again, he may have heard of RFA blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who disappeared while he was in the Thai capital to seek asylum and later resurfaced in the custody of Vietnamese authorities across the border. Nhat is now serving a 10-year sentence ostensibly for land fraud.
The cases of Thai and Nhat are not outliers, however. In the same month that Thai went missing in Bangkok, journalist Nguyễn Lân Thắng received a six-year prison sentence for sharing online interviews, adding to Vietnam’s growing list of convictions relating to digital footprints. Indeed, there have been others, like Pham Doan Trang and Pham Chi Dung, who wound up behind bars because of their social media posts.
The increasingly discouraging state of digital liberties amid rapid digitalization, though, is not seen in Vietnam alone. Indeed, the meteoric rise of social media and digital spaces in Asia, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, has opened a new arena of struggle for activists and authoritarians alike. These newfound pockets of resistance, however, also come with growing caveats for democracy.
Transforming work – and more
The past decade has witnessed an explosion of digital spaces, which have become increasingly critical in the everyday lives of people in Asia. More than half the population of the region is now online, and in 13 countries, nearly three-quarters of the population has access to the internet.
|Graph 1: Internet penetration in most parts of Asia has grown through the years.
This digitalization permeated across the region more forcefully amid the 2020 pandemic lockdowns. Today, the digital economy in cities is transforming commerce, transport, food, finance, travel, and media, to name a few.
But while platform companies such as Grab, Amazon, Uber, and Lazada have introduced new jobs in the region, there is a growing consensus that the “gig economy” is contributing to the precarity of workers and threatens to further informalize labor. Platform workers in countries such as India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Indonesia are often paid less than the mandated minimum wage and have no access to mandatory benefits or social security. In recent years, Lalamove and Grab drivers in Thailand have gone on strike, demanding a stop to unfair deductions and the newly announced changes in fees.
The strikes have been successful in forcing platform companies to negotiate and address workers’ demands. Since 2022, the protests and mass actions of platform workers have been spreading like wildfire in South Korea, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Myanmar, China, and Indonesia.
Amazon warehouse workers in Japan have also joined thousands of their colleagues in over 40 countries worldwide, including those in Europe as well as the United States, India, and Australia, in the “Make Amazon Pay” campaign. Digitalization has introduced more ways for transnational companies to circumvent labor laws, but workers are also finding new ways to organize beyond borders.
While the ubiquity of social giants Facebook, WhatsApp, and X carry with them a myth of a “free and open” internet, that has hardly been the case in Asia. According to the 2021 Freedom on the Net report, citing available data, only Japan and Taiwan had “free” internet in Asia by late 2020.
|Graph 2: The state of internet freedom in the region falls under one of three categories: not free, partly free, and free.
In fact, as more people go online, Asian governments in countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Vietnam have increasingly encroached on their citizens’ rights to privacy and access to a free and open internet – emulating China’s notorious Great Firewall.
In response to the growing influence of digital spaces on civic action, often incorrectly citing the Arab Spring as a precursor, countries like Vietnam, Laos, and Singapore have implemented laws and policies to curtail freedom of expression online.
Since 2012, governments in countries such as Vietnam, India, and the Philippines have routinely threatened to shut down the internet and social networks like Facebook and Google to force these and other online platforms into censorship compliance.
Laos, for nearly a decade now, has had an internet decree that prohibits online criticism of government policies and the ruling party. The law punishes web users found spreading “false” information aimed at discrediting the government. It also requires online users to use their real names when setting up social media accounts.
The Laotian Internet Decree is part of a broader pattern of internet restrictions in the country. The government controls all media outlets and has banned several international news websites, including BBC, CNN, and The New York Times. It also restricts access to social media platforms like Facebook and X, and blocks websites that it deems to be a threat to national security.
|Graph 3: Claiming half of the pie, violation of privacy is the biggest obstacle to internet freedom in Asia.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s Protection Against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), passed in 2019, has been used to silence dissent and restrict freedom of expression both online and offline, including against prominent artists like Seelan Palay.
In recent years, however, media organizations have become increasingly the focus of new legislation purportedly controlling “fake news” and “security dangers.” Governments in Vietnam, India, and Indonesia routinely target journalists while those in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Myanmar have shut down independent media outfits.
State disinformation and historical revisionism
Ironically, research suggests that digitalization – especially with the emergence of artificial intelligence – has enabled authoritarian governments to ramp up surveillance and target the opposition. This, while reinforcing their autocratic narratives.
|Graph 4: The foregoing shows the top regional barriers to a free and open internet based on the number of Asian countries experiencing them.
This is reflected in the most pressing challenges to internet freedom in the region. For the vast majority of Asians, the internet is still unsafe, unregulated, biased against certain groups notably human rights defenders, and overly restrictive.
Cambodia’s Hun Sen government, for example, wielded its laws to jail and slap its critics with hefty fines. In 2020, a pandemic-era law gave then Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration the power to control both legacy and social media and restrict information that may provoke “unrest,” as well as undertake unlimited telecommunications surveillance.
Hun Sen, who has since yielded to his son Hun Manet to take over the premiership, used the term “fake news” to crack down on dissent. This points to the heart of the “disinformation problem” plaguing Asia’s democracies. Studies suggest that the outsized power of the state translates to an outsized ability to create ubiquitous and impactful narratives.
This assertion applies to business entities as well. Facebook’s role, for example, in enabling the attempted genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar by disproportionately amplifying hateful speech has been well-documented.
In India and Bangladesh, disinformation campaigns, including those sponsored by the government, have been linked to instances of mob violence against religious and ethnic minorities.
In the Philippines, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. ran on a platform of rewriting one of the darkest periods of the country’s history, the rule of his father, the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos. The digital onslaught continues even with Marcos Jr. already in power. Billions of pesos have been poured into mushrooming Facebook pages and groups, YouTube channels, and TikTok videos dedicated to rehabilitating the image of the Marcos family, facilitated by Cambridge Analytica, which was also a major figure in the 2016 U.S. presidential bid of Donald Trump.
Reclaiming digital spaces
At the same time, however, these platforms have proven to be a significant factor in the surge of activism in Asia. Young activists, in particular, have been adept at using the internet as a catalyst for social change, blending “hashtag activism” with enduring offline protests.
Notably, even before the huge Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar youth protests, viral posts and videos had engaged and mobilized young people in Bangladesh and Vietnam to hold powers to account.
In Bangladesh, the massive road safety protests in 2019 were sparked by the tragic death of two students who were killed by a speeding bus. The news spread quickly via social media, and the capital city of Dhaka witnessed students flooding the streets. Following the Awami government’s excessive violence against the protesters, the issue has morphed from road safety into pro-democracy, with calls for democratic rights.
In Vietnam, digital spaces have played a crucial role in asserting democratic rights within an autocratic regime. In 2018, for instance, activists opposing the demolition of a housing complex to construct a luxury shopping mall were poised to mount a series of peaceful demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City. The demonstrators, however, were met with violent dispersals and arrests. Despite the government’s attempts to censor online information, what became known as the “Dancing Plums” protests managed to reach a global audience via the Net and spark international discussions about human rights in Vietnam.
These unrelenting challenges highlight the need to advance, codify, and expand digital rights as a critical component of safeguarding civil and political rights in the region. ◉