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 20, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at China’s response to Tibetans’ land protests, the Myanmar junta’s plan to study elections in neighboring Cambodia, another rape case exacerbating Nepal’s record of sexual crimes against women and girls, and the “swap mart” that allows Southeast Asian governments to trade each other’s critics.

Tibet
Justice for land-deprived Tibetans
Tibetan authorities have used a recent protest against land grabbing in China's Tibet Autonomous Region to force political education sessions onto villagers in Markham Country in Chamdo, a city in the eastern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), according to a Radio Free Asia (RFA) report citing two sources familiar with the situation.

The RFA report, published on May 16, cites one anonymous source who said that county officials misled higher-ranking officials in Chamdo and in Tibet’s capital Lhasa by branding Tibetan residents’ demonstration as an act of “political opposition” and not as a response to losing their land to Chinese authorities.

“[They] have used that as an excuse to organize a series of political education sessions in the area,” the source told RFA.

In early April, 25 Tibetan families from Taktsa village in Markham County discovered their land had been sold illegally by county officials to businessmen last year when new owners arrived to clear what had been originally their land.

Despite threats of imprisonment if charged with non-compliance with the government’s instructions, they rejected Chinese authorities’ belated offer of 3,000 yuan (US$415) per individual, saying the amount was too low for their wrested pasture land worth about 5 million yuan (US$553,227).

Four Tibetans who protested the land seizure were arrested on April 10 and beaten in detention before being released on April 16.

Since then, Tibetan families who railed against losing their land have been subjected to mandatory political education sessions, barred from filing a case against Chamdo city authorities, and indirectly warned against speaking about their protest with outsiders.

This latest crackdown tracks with Chinese authorities’ systemic repression of Tibetans’ fundamental rights, including their land rights, and the former’s routine use of force to quash peaceful mass demonstrations. In the past, authorities had also repeatedly seized Tibetans' lands and forced families to resettle without just compensation.

In 2019, nine Tibetans were sentenced to three to seven years in prison for creating an informal organization advocating for the return of community land forcibly taken by authorities.

For protesting against the government’s confiscation of their land to build factories that eventually closed, the court accused residents of having "maliciously accused the government’s land acquisition work and normal construction operations" and gathering public support to disturb social order.
Photo: Tibetans have been forced to attend political education sessions after they protested the illegal and secret sale of their lands. (Photo: Shutterstock / Hailin Chen)
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Cambodia/Myanmar
From one rights violator to another
The Myanmar junta has bared one of its most ludicrous plans to date: to seek guidance on holding free and fair elections from Cambodia, a country previously ruled by the world's longest-serving prime minister, Hun Sen, for over four decades, and whose party still retains absolute political control.

Following an amendment to one of Myanmar’s political parties laws, the plan is now for the junta to send envoys to Cambodia ostensibly to learn how its electoral body conducts transparent and peaceful elections.

The junta government has repeatedly vowed to restore democracy in Myanmar after it deposed the previously elected government in a 2021 coup, reversing a decade of democratic reforms. Yet it has also ignored international outcry against its human rights violations against civilians and continued to carry out acts tantamount to crimes against humanity, such as mass killings, arbitrary arrests, and indiscriminate airstrikes, among others.

Cambodia hardly sets an example for the region as its last election in 2023 had all but guaranteed a win for Hun Sen's son, Hun Manet, after the main opposition party was banned from running. With no one to beat, Hun Manet clinched a landslide victory in a political exercise that observers believe was a matter of pushing through with a long-prepared transfer of power.

Mu Sochua, an exiled former minister and member of an opposition party banned by Cambodian authorities in 2017, described Manet’s ascension to power in a BBC article as not even a “sham election” but a “selection… to make sure that his party will select his son as the next prime minister of Cambodia, to continue the dynasty of the Hun family."

Through the years, Cambodia has crushed its opposition through a series of repressive measures, including dissolving the main opposition party and arresting and intimidating opposition leaders.

But perhaps what is most relevant to the junta – which will be looking to draw lessons on longevity as it seeks to entrench its political power and will – is Cambodia’s history of manipulating the electoral process.

In Cambodia’s past polls, observers noted blatant voter intimidation and vote-buying, as well as efforts to block out independent monitors. This made Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, flag the credibility of Cambodia's National Election Committee ahead of the 2023 elections, calling it a “toothless and incompetent” body for failing to address election irregularities.
Photo: Voters line up on election day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which is notorious for conducting rubber-stamp elections. (Photo: Shutterstock / Simon Roughneen)
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Nepal
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The cost of police inaction
A female Grade 12 student in Nepal was recently shot by her former teacher after she refused to withdraw a two-year-old rape complaint against him – an incident that tracks with Nepal's growing record of grim sexual crimes against women and children and the price victims pay for speaking out.

According to a report by The Kathmandu Post on May 17, Erika Gajmer was ambushed by the teacher who allegedly violated her two years ago when she was 15 years old. She survived the shooting but sustained shrapnel injuries.

Before this, the victim's sister said that the teacher had repeatedly contacted and threatened to kill their family if she didn't withdraw her complaint against him. Even after being issued a warrant of arrest, the teacher has remained at large, presumably due to his connections in politics and the police, human rights activist Jhanak Ghimire was quoted in the report as saying.

This comes six years after Nepal was shaken by a rape and murder incident involving 13-year-old girl Nirmala Panta. Law enforcement authorities attempted to suppress the case while framing an innocent man as the killer. An investigation later found that 18 police officers were directly involved in evidence tampering.

These two incidents underscore the concerns long raised by rights groups about Nepali law enforcers’ slow and ineffective response to sexual violence crimes. Nitu Gartaula, undersecretary at the National Human Rights Commission, said in 2023 that the police often dismiss sexual violence complaints from women and children and refuse to register their complaints.

Besides the persistence of patriarchal norms in Nepal, part of what aggravates the problem are authorities’ frequent attempts to pressure victims into agreeing to an out-of-court settlement or “reconciliation” with the perpetrator, even in sexual assault crimes.

A 2020 analysis by TRIAL International and Kathmandu-based Human Rights and Justice Centre found that cops were often part of arranging the settlements, thus “directly fueling impunity and jeopardizing the well-being of the victim.”

Nepal, alongside other countries in South Asia, has a high rate of sexual violence.

A 2021 report by Equality Now, an advocacy group for women and girls, said rape laws in six South Asian countries, namely Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Maldives  "effectively deny justice to survivors of sexual violence due to protection gaps."
Photo: The photo shows police on standby in Nepal, where misconduct and negligence by law enforcement authorities have made justice elusive for rape victims. (Photo: Shutterstock / CEW)
Global/Regional
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Using refugees & dissidents as bargaining chips
Repressive governments in Southeast Asia, as well as China, have increasingly been able to target dissidents living in exile abroad with the help of Thai authorities facilitating their deportation, according to a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.

In a report published May 16, HRW details how the governments of China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam entered into “swap mart” arrangements with Thai authorities “in which foreign dissidents are effectively traded for critics of the Thai government living abroad.” Those deported were often already applying for refugee status and protection and/or awaiting resettlement in third countries.

The practice, which became increasingly frequent after the Thai army staged a coup in 2014, violates the international principle of non-refoulement, or the prohibition of returning people to a country where they will likely face persecution.

Besides increased surveillance and harassment, this collaboration in the region to silence each other’s critics has also exacerbated physical attacks, arrests, forced returns, and enforced disappearances.

HRW earlier flagged the global practice of “transnational repression” in February and cited China, Cambodia and Thailand as examples, with their exiled critics often extradited through formal bilateral agreements or the use of political or financial influence.

A 2023 analysis by the Council of Foreign Relations noted that Southeast Asia has become a hotbed of cross-border repression due to the majority of governments being authoritarian. It noted that “whatever taboo existed against extraterritorial renditions and executions in other places around the world never really existed in mainland Southeast Asia.”

One example cited in HRW’s most recent report involved the November 2015 arrests of Chinese democracy activists Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping, who had been living in Thailand with a refugee status. Just before their scheduled resettlement to Canada, despite formal notifications and direct interventions by the Canadian Embassy, they were detained and eventually deported to China, where they were immediately arrested.

In exchange, Thai activists seeking refuge in neighboring countries also faced repression, with several dissidents who left after the 2014 coup disappeared in Cambodia and Laos, and two found dead in the Mekong river, which forms the border between Thailand and Laos.

Francesca Lessa, an associate professor in International Relations at University College London, told the Associated Press that this practice is similar to how autocratic leaders in Latin America made agreements to work together to eliminate each other’s political opponents in the late 1970s to 1980s
Photo: Thailand shares a border with several Asian countries, including Myanmar, and is believed to have ramped up its deportation of foreign dissidents to curry favor with authoritarian governments. (Photo: Shutterstock / thailand_becausewecan)
May 20, 2024
May 20, 2024

In this week’s edition, we look at China’s response to Tibetans’ land protests, the Myanmar junta’s plan to study elections in neighboring Cambodia, another rape case exacerbating Nepal’s record of sexual crimes against women and girls, and the “swap mart” that allows Southeast Asian governments to trade each other’s critics.

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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