Democracy Digest
Democracy Digest
A bite-sized weekly wrap-up of developments
across the region through a human rights and democratic lens
Democracy Digest

May 13, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at attempts by Japan to appease abductees’ heartbroken families, a pivotal Philippine Supreme Court decision that defines the dangers of red-tagging in the Philippines, the continued systemic persecution of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, and the horrifying torture of Rohingya women on a boat.

Japan
Bringing back hope through dialogue
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has promised to step up his government’s efforts to bring back Japanese abductees snatched away to North Korea decades ago by attempting to hold a dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Speaking at a rally organized by the victims' relatives on May 11 in Tokyo, Kishida acknowledged that the return of Japanese abductees was an urgent humanitarian matter but tempered expectations by saying that leaders must “first form a relationship that allows for frank discussions.”

Kim Yo-jong, the sister of the North Korean leader and one of the dictatorship’s key spokespersons, already rebuffed Japan’s request for a summit in March to resolve the abduction issue and made it clear that it would only engage with Japan if it was ready to "make a new start" without "being obsessed by the past."

Kim Yo-jong said Japan was “clinging to the unattainable issues which can never be settled and have nothing to be settled” — reflecting North Korea’s insistence that its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s has already been settled.

North Korean agents abducted Japanese citizens as part of the country’s expansion of its spy program under Kim Jong-il, then-head of intelligence services. The kidnapped Japanese were made to teach Japanese language and behavior to North Korean spies, while some had their identities stolen so agents could infiltrate other countries.

Bilateral talks between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2002 were instrumental in getting North Korea to admit to abducting 13 Japanese citizens, five of whom were later allowed to return to Japan. The fates of the eight others remain uncertain, with North Korea being suspected of lying when it said they had died.

Japan's forensic analysis of the remains handed by North Korea, which claimed they belonged to one of the deceased, showed they belonged to someone else.

Since then, Japan has used trade sanctions to pressure North Korea into returning the remaining abductees. It temporarily lifted some of these sanctions in 2014 after North Korea reopened its investigation into the issue, but extended sanctions when North Korea did not  produce the desired results.
Photo: Japan, along with South Korea, struggles to settle the issue of the abduction of its citizens by its recalcitrant neighbor, North Korea. (Photo: Shutterstock / Libin Jose)
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Philippines
Putting a leash on red-taggers
The Philippine Supreme Court has ruled that red-tagging or red-baiting – the act of linking activists or critics to communist rebel groups, or accusing them of supporting the country’s communist insurgency – is a threat to the life, liberty, and security of the intended victims.

This landmark decision is expected to help human rights groups challenge the government’s de facto policy of red-tagging dissenters to cow them into silence, which violates their fundamental rights such as freedom of speech.

In its ruling announced on May 8, the Supreme Court cited the concerns raised by human rights bodies, like the U.N. Human Rights Council, about how red-tagging has been used to harass or intimidate civilians perceived to be sympathetic to or members of leftist groups.

"Being associated with communists or terrorists makes the red-tagged person a target of vigilantes, paramilitary groups, or even State agents,” the Supreme Court said.

For decades, rights advocates, including former U.N. special rapporteur Philip Alston, have sounded the alarm against red-tagging. Alston himself published a report in 2007 flagging the military and the police’s practice of “vilification, labeling, or guilt by association” of certain groups as part of their counterinsurgency operations.

Philippine government officials have often defended themselves against red-tagging accusations by denying the practice even exists, with the controversial National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict saying in 2022 that the term was coined by groups with links to the Communist Party of the Philippines to protect themselves.

The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling finally gives victims of red-tagging the legal framework to hold red-taggers accountable. More victims may be able to successfully file writs of amparo (protection), as well as writs of habeas data (access to information).

The Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights said the high court’s ruling acknowledges “the real and immediate dangers” faced by those red-tagged and hopes it will set a “strong legal precedent” against this pernicious state practice against perceived dissidents.

Prior to the historic ruling, victims struggled to mount legal challenges against red-tagging in the absence of a law dedicated to this crime. But other legislation such as the Anti-Terrorism Act may be invoked to protect their rights.

Some activists have filed civil cases for damages based on violations of their personal rights, while others have lodged administrative cases against erring authorities. None of these have resulted in a favorable decision yet.
Photo: Militant and progressive groups, many of whom have been red-tagged by Philippine law enforcement and security personnel, hold a protest during President Rodrigo Duterte's State of the Nation Address on July 22, 2019. (Photo: Shutterstock / Marlou Bon-ao)
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Sri Lanka
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Endless ordeal of Tamil minority
Sri Lanka's security forces abducted and tortured ethnic Tamil men and women well after the end of the country's 26-year civil war, according to a new report by the London-based International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), echoing findings by other human rights groups that Tamils continue to be targeted as roots of the conflict remain unaddressed.

Published on May 9, the ITJP report documented 123 cases of Tamils who reported severe abuses by Sri Lankan authorities between 2015 and 2022, including beatings, burnings, suffocation, and sexual assault.

The Tamil people, who make up around 11 percent of the population and who mostly live in northern and eastern provinces, are descended from the Indian Tamils brought by British people into the country to work in plantations as indentured labor.

Their slave-like conditions triggered a decades-long separatist conflict that saw significant casualties on both sides, with estimates ranging from 80,000 to 100,000 deaths. Since the conflict ended in 2009, the Sri Lankan government has been denying abuses committed by its security forces and has even appointed officials who committed rights violations during the war into office.

Sri Lankan authorities have also refused to help locate thousands of Tamils who went missing during the civil war, the numbers of whom continue to be disputed by the government. While human rights group Amnesty International estimates them to be about 60,000 to 100,000, the government's Office on Missing Persons, set up in 2017, said it had ​received just 14,965 reports ​of disappearances from 1981 onwards.

As a result, since 2017, relatives of the disappeared have routinely taken to the streets to urge the government to find their missing loved ones. They have since been harassed and subjected to house visits, phone calls from government agents, and government surveillance during protests.

Intelligence agents have also resorted to harassing Tamil families’ neighbors to dissolve their support networks and weaken their resolve, according to a 2022 report by the Adayaalam Centre for Policy and Research (ACPR).

The report said the women interviewed by the APCR, who used to occupy leadership positions in associations of the families of the disappeared, believe this practice is intended to “scare the neighbors into sharing more information, to send a message to families that they are being closely watched, and/or to undermine families’ relationships with their communities.”
Photo: Violations of the rights of Sri Lanka’s Tamil people by security forces persist to this day – or decades since the end of the country’s 26-year civil war. (Photo: Shutterstock / Bumble Dee)
Global/Regional
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Gruesome end for fleeing Rohingya
Rohingya refugees who had fled Bangladesh and their homeland Myanmar in hopes of escaping violence and terror were subjected to the same horrors on a boat manned by a crew that later purposely sank the vessel.

A May 8 report by the Associated Press (AP) based on interviews with eight surviving passengers detailed the ordeal of Rohingya women who were raped by the crew of the Indonesian boat carrying them. The horrifying scene that followed saw the boat captain carrying out his threat to capsize the boat, killing dozens.

At least five Rohingya women, including one 12-year-old, were sexually abused by the captain and five of his six crew members. The captain threatened to sink the boat if the women did not accept his requests.

The relentless abuse of Rohingya refugees took place days before the boat capsized off the coast of the northern province of Aceh in Indonesia in March this year. At least 67 were killed, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In 2017, a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing drove thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar. Hundreds have died fleeing by sea to neighboring countries.

Everywhere they go, Rohingya women have few options for escape. During attacks on villages, Myanmar security forces engaged in widespread and brutal rape of Rohingya women. In makeshift camps in Bangladesh, police forces have also been raping or sexually harassing women, and threatening those who aim to file complaints with even more violence.

Even reaching neighboring countries like Malaysia and Thailand offers little solace as they are often smuggled into these countries and inhumanely treated due to their undocumented status. For instance, in February, over a hundred Rohingya refugees broke out of a detention center in Malaysia after a riot, causing one to be killed by a car. In 2022, human rights group Human Rights Watch called out the Thai government for its de-facto policy of detaining Rohingya refugees.

Nonprofit Refugees International has appealed to “international donors to increase funding for the Rohingya response and urges regional countries to step up their Rohingya protection efforts” by working together to provide “search and rescue, safe disembarkation, and access to paths toward asylum.”
Photo: A boat of Rohingya refugees is left stranded in the waters off Aceh, Indonesia, where dozens of them died in March 2024 after their boat capsized. (Photo: Shutterstock / Muhammad Alfian_24)
May 13, 2024
May 13, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at attempts by Japan to appease abductees’ heartbroken families, a pivotal Philippine Supreme Court decision that defines the dangers of red-tagging in the Philippines, the continued systemic persecution of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, and the horrifying torture of Rohingya women on a boat.

May 6, 2024
May 6, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at the staggering extent of incarceration of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region, the Myanmar junta’s latest desperate attempt to expand its force, school closures in Bangladesh amid extreme heat, and the state-led crackdown on media freedoms in Asia.

April 29, 2024
April 29, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at Macao’s objection to a report documenting its rights violations, the arrest of a political activist in Malaysia over a Facebook post, Pakistan’s lackluster response to rights violations, and a new report on the persecution of parliamentarians in Southeast Asia.

April 22, 2024
April 22, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at a new report on China’s “digital authoritarian playbook” exported to Indo-Pacific countries; Singapore’s first leadership change in 20 years; updates about Bhutan’s ethnic Nepali prisoners of conscience; and a call for ASEAN leaders to lead the charge against “waste colonialism.”

April 15, 2024
April 15, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at the disappearing native languages of Taiwan; Singapore’s crackdown on arms exports to Myanmar; a renewed campaign for transitional justice in Nepal; and the challenges of dealing with worsening heat waves in Asia, especially for children.

April 8, 2024
April 8, 2024

This week, we take a look at the first-ever apology of an academic society to Japan’s indigenous Ainu people; the continuing impunity in Laos’ cases of enforced disappearances; the harrowing ordeal of Nepalese migrant workers who are coming back home with chronic kidney disease; and the need to increase health care spending beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

April 1, 2024
April 1, 2024

This week, we look at China’s relentless campaign to Sinicize Tibet; Vietnam’s crackdown on free speech and its continued defense of the use of the death penalty; the establishment of a transgender-friendly mosque in Muslim-majority Bangladesh; and the Belt and Road Initiative’s shortfall in Southeast Asia.

March 25, 2024
March 25, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at Hong Kong’s passage of its homegrown national security law, Malaysia’s withdrawal of a controversial citizenship amendment affecting children, Afghan girls barred from secondary education for the third consecutive year, and dangerous air pollution levels in South Asia.

March 18, 2024
March 18, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at a groundbreaking win for same-sex couples in Japan, moves to dissolve the opposition in Thailand, the looming threat of authoritarian rule in Sri Lanka and a Cambodian opposition leader’s attempts for compromise.

March 11, 2024
March 11, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at the impact of border restrictions in North Korea, the next Indonesian president’s problems with democracy, a drastic mistrial in Pakistan, and Thailand’s unexpected defiance of the Myanmar junta.

March 4, 2024
March 4, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at the plummeting birth rates in South Korea, Vietnam’s clampdown on workers’ rights, Nepal police’s use of force against street vendors and the pushback against China’s attempts to spread authoritarianism in the region.

February 26, 2024
February 26, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at Chinese LGBTQ’s acts of defiance, the dangers of Malaysia’s new media ethics code, employment struggles among Muslim minorities in India, and the possible use of AI tools by hacker groups to disrupt elections in 2024.

February 19, 2024
February 19, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at the arrest of a Tibetan monk over a photo of the Dalai Lama, Myanmar’s mandatory military service for young people, Afghanistan’s collapsing health care system, and the retraction of papers by Chinese researchers over human rights concerns.

February 12, 2024
February 12, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at the illegal use of restraint on women inmates in Japan, Singapore's new law allowing “dangerous” offenders to be kept in prison indefinitely, violence and allegations of vote-rigging in Pakistan, and unrest among exploited North Korean workers in China.

February 5, 2024
February 5, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at Macao’s urgent need to step up its mental health support services amid the rise in suicides, a major setback in the royal insult law reform campaign in Thailand, the public identification of alleged rights violators among civil servants in Nepal, and police abuses against Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

January 29, 2024
January 29, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at the overturned acquittal of a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, Vietnam’s denial of its human rights abuses, Sri Lanka’s new bill regulating online speech and greater international scrutiny of China’s actions in Tibet.

January 22, 2024
January 22, 2024

In this week’s edition we look at the imprisonment of Uyghur journalists in China, the conviction of land rights activists in Cambodia, India’s continued crackdown on non-profit organizations, and an alarming number of children forced into institutionalized care in Central Asia and beyond.

January 15, 2024
January 15, 2024

In this week’s edition we look at the historic win of a pro-independence leader in Taiwan, the use of deepfake technology to bolster Indonesian politicians’ electoral campaigns, the outcome of Bhutan’s fourth-ever free elections, and the transactional diplomacy emboldening rights abuses of governments in Asia.

January 8, 2024
January 8, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at the ramifications of the stabbing of a leading opposition leader in South Korea, another political prisoner dying under the rule of the Myanmar junta, Afghanistan’s worst crackdown on women since returning to power, and the upcoming elections in South Asia.

January 1, 2024
January 1, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at Tibetans forced to commemorate the birth anniversary of People’s Republic of China founder Mao Zedong, Singapore’s review of a contentious HIV disclosure law, a fatal mass demonstration in Nepal, and new victims of the globally notorious Pegasus spyware.

December 18, 2023
December 18, 2023

This week, we look at Macao’s new national security laws, the continued crackdown on dissent in Thailand despite the stunning turnout of the general election in May that inspired hope for political reforms; a new initiative by the Pakistan government to crack down on human traffickers; and the European Union’s imposition of fresh sanctions on members of Myanmar’s junta, including one commander believed to be responsible for deadly airstrikes.

December 25, 2023
December 25, 2023

This week, we look at a major political crisis testing democracy in Japan; Malaysia making a stand against Israel; the breakdown of parliamentary democracy in India; and China’s familiar rebuke against an international body for condemning its actions in Tibet.

December 11, 2023
December 11, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at the ramifications of Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow’s decision to escape to Canada; a Filipino advocate being feted for her lifelong work for children; a commemoration of Afghan women activists on International Human Rights Day; and a new report criticizing the failures of the global war on drugs.

December 4, 2023
December 4, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at China’s expanding influence operations ahead of U.S. elections next year; Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet’s first 100 days in office; the Bangladesh National Party’s boycott of the upcoming 2024 Bangladesh parliamentary elections; and cautious optimism by Asian Indigenous and environmental groups for a newly launched loss and damage funds for climate-vulnerable nations.

November 27, 2023
November 27, 2023

This week, we look at the influx of Rohingya refugees on Aceh, Indonesia's shores; a South Korea court ruling ordering Japan to pay compensation to wartime comfort women; a Pakistani court declaring the jail trial of former Prime Minister Imran Khan illegal; and the impact of corruption on women and girls in the Asia-Pacific.

November 20, 2023
November 20, 2023

This week, we look at abusive conditions endured by Japanese women in prisons; signs of the possible downfall of the Myanmar junta; a Sri Lankan Supreme Court landmark ruling holding the Rajapaksa family responsible for the worst economic crisis that the country has faced; and a sober call to mark World Children’s Day.

November 13, 2023
November 13, 2023

This week’s edition takes a look at North Korea’s bellicose response to a South Korean court overturning a law that criminalized anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets; the degradation of Vietnam’s most recognizable heritage site; Nepal’s ban of Tiktok; and a sobering reality check for the Asia-Pacific region.

November 6, 2023
November 6, 2023

In this week's edition, we look at a renewed push from Washington to expand existing sanctions against Hong Kong officials; the poor conditions facing Afghan refugees fleeing Pakistan ahead of a Nov. 1 deportation order; Manila’s exit from China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative; and the continuing backslide of democracy worldwide for the sixth year in a row.

October 30, 2023
October 30, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at Chinese President Xi Jinping urging women to have more babies; Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s moves to build a political dynasty; election-related violence exploding in Bangladesh; and calls to protect a mountain range that serves as the lifeline of a quarter of the world’s population.

October 23, 2023
October 23, 2023

In this edition, we look at renewed hopes for LGBTQI+ equality in Japan; a possible crime against humanity committed in Myanmar’s Kachin State; a decades-long fight for the disappeared in Sri Lanka; and renewed efforts to improve North Korea’s human rights record.

October 16, 2023
October 16, 2023

This week, we look at G7 chair Japan’s restrained response to the fresh Israeli-Palestinian conflict that broke out in Gaza last week; the removal of a national holiday that marked the Philippines’ transition to democracy; a Bangladeshi court granting bail to two of its most prominent activists; and continued resistance to China and Indonesia’s win at the U.N. Human Rights Council.

October 9, 2023
October 9, 2023

In this edition, we look at the consequences of the ongoing conflict in both Pakistan and Israel; how a Cambodian court denied three activists the chance to receive a prize for their environmental work; and how China's censors worked overtime to scrub the internet of a photograph.

October 2, 2023
October 2, 2023

This week, we look at the rise of anti-Muslim hate speech in India in the first half of the year; a “cult” in the Philippines that was revealed to have been victimizing young girls; the lifting of a ban on anti-Pyongyang propaganda for its unconstitutional restriction on free speech; and how human rights defenders across the world are facing reprisals for working with the U.N.

September 25, 2023
September 25, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at free speech in Southeast Asia, a gender equality quota in India’s house, the lese majeste law in Thailand, and the enduring effects of the Beijing-sponsored National Security Law in Hong Kong.

September 18, 2023
September 18, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at Taiwan’s housing crisis, the ASEAN Air Chiefs Conference in Myanmar, freedom of information in Malaysia, and the questionable appointment practices of Pakistan’s caretaker government.

September 11, 2023
September 11, 2023

This week, we look at domestic worker rights in Macao, potential government complicity in Sri Lanka’s Easter bombings, ramping school surveillance in the Philippines, and China’s continued protest against the release of Fukushima wastewater.

September 4, 2023
September 4, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at the upcoming G20 meeting, South Asia’s rapid descent into surveillance, starvation and secrecy in North Korea, and Hun Sen’s triumphant return to Facebook despite having demonstrably violated its policies.

August 28, 2023
August 28, 2023

In this edition, we will look at mounting anti-Christian violence in India and Pakistan, Hong Kong’s crackdown on artistic expression, the roster of Presidential candidates in Singapore, and the enduring problem of human trafficking in India.

August 21, 2023
August 21, 2023

In this week’s edition, we are looking at Taiwan’s weak cybersecurity, the state of disability equality in Nepal, Cambodia’s pro-business courts, and the challenges that humanitarian workers worldwide endure in the performance of their duties.

August 14, 2023
August 14, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at China’s belligerence in the South China Sea, South Korea’s growing mental health problem, the Myanmar junta’s crimes against humanity, and the imminent implementation of Sharia law in Afghanistan.

August 7, 2023
August 7, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at China’s newest round of internet restrictions, Pakistan kowtowing to the IMF’s demands, the Sedition Act in Malaysia, and the climate injustice drowning large swathes of Asia.

July 31, 2023
July 31, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at youth extremism in Singapore, child sexual exploitation in Taiwan, Sri Lanka’s 40th year commemorations for Black July, and North Korea’s first foreign guest since the pandemic.

July 24, 2023
July 24, 2023

This week, we are looking at Cambodia’s sham elections, growing anti-trans hate in Japan, the royalist barrier stemming Thailand’s progressive wave, and Bangladesh’s worsening economic crisis.

July 17, 2023
July 17, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at the precarious situation in Myanmar, India’s achievements against poverty, Hong Kong’s ongoing crackdown on dissent, and the state of population control across Asia.

July 10, 2023
July 10, 2023

In this edition, we look at domestic violence in South Korea, the deteriorating peace situation in Sri Lanka, Cambodia’s vindictive ban on Meta’s Oversight Board members, and Japan’s plan to dump treated radioactive water from the Fukushima incident into the Pacific Ocean.

July 3, 2023
July 3, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at Laos’s environmental laws, the Philippines’ online casino-related human trafficking problem, Nepal’s recent ruling on same-sex marriage, and China’s new “education initiative” to sway public opinion toward reunification.

June 26, 2023
June 26, 2023

In this edition, we look at the ongoing U.N. Human Rights Council’s regular session, jail overcrowding in the Philippines, the formidable force of conservativism in Hong Kong, and online child sexual abuse in India.

June 19, 2023
June 19, 2023

In this edition, we look at Sri Lanka’s tightening grip on the media, Thailand’s growing tension with the throne, the dire state of migrant workers in Southeast Asia, and Japan’s dark history of eugenics.

June 12, 2023
June 12, 2023

In this week’s edition, we look at North Korea’s spiking suicide rate, Russia-China military drills, Afghanistan’s enduring and ironic dependence on international aid, and Vietnam’s energy crisis.

June 5, 2023
June 5, 2023

In this edition, we look at Pakistan’s tense negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, Indonesia’s crackdown on online speech, and China’s youth unemployment problem and unwillingness to engage in level-headed discussions over security matters in the region.

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