This article is the seventh 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.
n Oct. 3, 2021, a government official’s convoy ran over protesters in Lakhimpur Kheri – a Sikh-majority district just eight hours away from Delhi – leaving at least nine dead and 10 injured. The son of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ally and Union Minister for Home Ajay Mishra Teni, Ashish Mishra, allegedly orchestrated the deadly assault in what came to be the height of a year-long farmers rebellion in India against the contoversial Three Farm Laws.
In a historic display of democracy, millions of farmers and allies across 25 states and five union territories mobilized to condemn the escalating attacks and to demand the repeal of Modi’s egregious agricultural policies. While the government relented a few weeks after the Lakhimpur Keri tragedy – shelving the pro-business agri laws for a later time – farmers’ protests continue to hound Modi’s Hindu-majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party.
But India’s farmers are not the only ones standing up in protest in Asia. Across the region, amid persistent threats to democratic rights, activists and citizens alike are pushing back in waves against regressing economic and social rights, closing civic spaces, and autocratic regimes. Along with the Hong Kong protests and Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement, the Indian farmers’ demonstrations signaled the comeback of massive uprisings emblematic of 2019, interrupted only by the COVID-19 pandemic and the heavy-handed lockdowns at its heels.
And what they have been up against has been formidable. In many Asian countries, the pandemic served as a catalyst for autocrats to consolidate and, in some cases, crystallize their rule. At least 338 measures in 35 countries were introduced across the region during this period, with some 91 of these codified as law, policy, or regulation. While many of these have already been revoked, some have stayed, or worse, paved the way for more draconian versions.
|Graph 1: Over the past three years, a greater proportion of protests has involved state intervention in the region’s more autocratic nations. (Calculated from 124,889 protests from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2023)
Rule by law instead of rule of law
Government policies that prohibit “fake news” about the coronavirus have been easily weaponized against perceived government critics in Bangladesh, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Emboldened police resorting to brutality in the Philippines amid the lockdowns (where some violators, for instance, were kept in dog cages) found new backing from the country’s Anti-Terror Law. Hong Kong’s National Security Law weaponized health-related restrictions to crack down on protesters.
By far, though, it was Cambodia that introduced some of the most disproportionately restrictive pandemic regulations in the region. Despite low infection rates, the Hun Sen dictatorship enacted several policies that were unabashedly used to detain at least 80 activists and opposition-party members and supporters in 2021 and eventually throw them in jail.
New laws and policies that restrict civil society funding and operations cropped up in at least eight countries, including Cambodia, the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh. In Thailand, a proposed law targeting civil-society organizations has been pushed back to the drawing board. It became a hot-button issue in Thailand’s May 2023 elections and remains a threat.
Among the most worrisome developments, however, is India’s increasing reliance on its archaic anti-terrorism statute, which has been retrofitted to suppress the growing dissent against the ruling party.
The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), amended and expanded in 2019, grants the government full authority in designating individuals who are “likely to threaten” or “likely to strike terror” as terrorists. Of the 7,050 arrests involving UAPA between 2015 and 2019, activists, journalists, academicians, and Indigenous peoples of Manipur (accounting for 30 percent of the arrests), Uttar Pradesh (19.8 percent), Assam (14.2 percent), Bihar (8 percent), Jharkhand (7.3 percent), and Jammu and Kashmir (7 percent) have been disproportionately targeted. Unsurprisingly, these regions mounted the most protests in the past two years – demanding justice for escalating state-sponsored violence against religious and ethnic minorities.
|Graph 2: Areas mostly inhabited by national minorities in India emerged as protest centers in the last three years. (Geotagged from 44,489 protests that happened between October 2020 to September 2023.)
‘Kill them if they resist’
The act of mounting protests, of course, is not the only way to end up in the crosshairs of the state. Being a target of its bloody drug war is another.
Last July, the International Criminal Court rejected yet another appeal from the Philippine government to shelve the former's probe into the Rodrigo Duterte administration’s “war on drugs” that killed at least 12,000 Filipinos by the second year of his six-year watch. (Official data from the government shows that an estimated 6,252 people were killed as a result of Duterte's six-year anti-drug campaign.)
Duterte’s “kill them if they resist” policy, which translated to rampant state-sponsored extrajudicial killings (EJKs) against the poor, left tens of thousands orphaned under his strongman rule. Despite a recalcitrant Marcos Jr. government in the capital Manila, organized survivors and victims’ relatives are pushing for a conviction and demanding justice from the international court.
|Graph 3: The Philippine state was responsible for two out of every five civilian deaths associated with political causes. (Calculated based on 2,407 civilian deaths between January 2020 and September 2023.
The namesake of his father, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Marcos Jr. has ramped up his rhetoric for protecting human rights. Yet the war against the poor continues under his government. In his first year in office, Marcos Jr. 's record regarding annual EJKs against drug suspects, enforced disappearance of activists, and attacks against farmers and environmental defenders has surpassed Duterte’s.
But the Philippines is far from alone in having escalating state-sponsored violence against its citizens. In fact, it is only one of the six deadliest countries for activists, journalists, and lawyers in Asia that collectively account for 97 percent of civilian deaths attributable to political conflict in the region in the last three years.
Statistics gathered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) indicate that aside from the Philippines that racked up 2,407 civilian deaths between January 2020 and September 2023, civilian blood poured in Myanmar (6,853 killed), India (1,334), Pakistan (1,482), Indonesia (232), and Bangladesh (520) during the same period.
|Graph 4: Proportion of civilian deaths by perpetrators, with Myanmar at the top for state killings and Bangladesh ahead of other countries for militia killings. (Calculated based on 12,838 civilian killings in 6 countries from January 2020 to September 2023.)
Activists and civil society, though, continue to carve pathways for resistance despite such vicious repression and violence.
In Bangladesh, activists are converging with the opposition party to demand justice for the long-standing human rights violations of the ruling Awami League, ahead of the January 2024 general elections. This, despite 8,000 perceived government critics already in jails and at least a hundred incarcerated with each protest.
Sri Lanka’s civil society last July saw the fruits of its lobbying for a new anti-corruption law, codifying the aspirations of the protest movements that ousted then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2022.
|Graph 5: Over the past three years, the most number of protests occurred in India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan, with the governments of the first three countries intervening in those demonstrations more than those of other countries did.
In the Philippines and India, necropolitics redolent of the “Red Scare” of the ‘90s are being deployed to malign activists and justify violence against them. Yet in the face of such a revival of Cold War politics, activists and civil society are closing ranks against “red tagging” in the Philippines and “Naxalbari” in India.
And they are doing so despite the increasingly brazen tactics of those in power.
In the Philippines, for example, a government anti-communist task force organized a press conference last September to present environmental defenders Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro, who were expected to belie rumors that they had been forcibly disappeared by the military. Surrounded by state and military officials, the two 20-something activists instead bravely revealed that they had been abducted and coerced by the military to “surrender” as combatants of the communist New People’s Army. Just minutes later, activist groups and lawmaker Arlene Brosas of the progressive Gabriela Women’s Party were at the press conference venue and demanded the release of the two activists.
Across the region, new alliances for emerging threats on socioeconomic, civil, and political rights, as well as for climate action, to name a few, are being forged within and beyond borders – subverting shrinking spaces.
Amid authoritarian governments consolidating power in the region, activists and civil society are also placing renewed hopes on the youth to carry the banner of democracy and social justice. ◉