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Is resistance futile? Learning from recent efforts to resist Asia’s digital authoritarians

Reflecting on events from the first half of 2021, IFEX’s Asia and Pacific Editor Mong Palatino explains how recent massive citizen protests and pushback against Asia’s digital authoritarians can provide lessons on what we need to do to support the region's pro-democracy movements and human rights campaigns.

(The article was originally published in IFEX, the global network of organizations that promote and defend freedom of expression.)

Since January 2021, our region has witnessed a phenomenal emergence of massive, broad-based uprisings, as citizens push back against the reversal of democratic reforms in their countries. Governments have responded by suppressing the right to information, imposing harsh restrictions on civic space, and mounting a brutal legal offensive against opposition forces. The pandemic became an excuse to further enforce crackdowns and repressive regulations in countries where democracy is being undermined.

It begs the question: What can local resistance movements across the region learn from each other’s experiences, in order to counter attacks on civil rights and freedom of expression and turn resistance movements into sustained, positive change?

Solidarity and defiance 

The coup by Myanmar’s military regime on 1 February was immediately opposed by a civil disobedience movement led by government employees and health workers. It soon turned into a nationwide movement calling for the restoration of democracy, a movement which continued to gain support even after the junta intensified its use of violence against activists and anti-coup groups. 

Another popular mass campaign was the months-long protest by millions of Indian farmers who were resisting the introduction of laws that would remove subsidies and weaken the agricultural sector. 

In Indonesia, protests were organized across the country against the passage of an omnibus bill that would abolish labor protection. 

A youth-led movement challenged the military-backed government of Thailand and petitioned for reforms in the monarchy. 

In Hong Kong, pro-democracy forces which mobilized two million people in 2019 against extradition law amendments endured the Beijing-backed attempts to destroy the popular resistance. The #MilkTeaAlliance united netizens against Chinese patriotic trolls and subsequently became a platform for democracy movements to coordinate campaigns and build solidarity in East and Southeast Asia. 

These acts of solidarity and defiance raised expectations of a wave of democratic revolutions and reforms; expectations that have not yet been realised. 

Response of governments

The Myanmar junta’s bloody suppression of the anti-coup resistance is an example of a particularly hardline approach – yet these methods have become the default option in regimes led by intolerant leaders during the pandemic. 

Internet access has been severely restricted, and completely blocked during major protest actions. Independent media outlets have been banned, while journalists face prosecution for simply doing their work. 

Colonial-era laws have been used to harass critics. New regulations have been passed to detain activists and file trumped-up cases against elected leaders. Security forces have been on a rampage in recent months, arresting and even killing those suspected of providing information and support to anti-coup activists. 

The situation in India is more or less the same in intent, if less violent in implementation. Aside from Jammu and Kashmir, internet shutdowns are enforced across India whenever authorities deem it appropriate. Laws have been weaponized to target critics. Its Information Technology Rules, which took effect in May, could signal an end to encryption services. 

Since 2020, the arbitrary use of repressive laws has been carried out under the guise of containing the pandemic surge. Journalists have been charged for incitement and publishing disinformation if they posted reports criticizing the government’s pandemic response. Authorities have spread fear by criminalizing dissent, or demonizing it as a threat to public health and safety. 

Activist leaders who rose to prominence in Hong Kong in 2019 and Thailand in 2020 were sentenced this year based on laws designed to curtail freedom of expression. Despite the pandemic, China prioritized the passage of a National Security Law (NSL) which practically ended Hong Kong’s autonomy and press freedom. 

In Thailand, authorities have revived the use of Section 112 of the Criminal Code (the Lèse Majesté or “Anti-Royal Insult” law) to arrest and imprison young activists. 

In other words, governments have been consistent in invoking a pandemic-driven state of emergency to restrict information, legislate draconian laws, prohibit assemblies, and sideline the opposition – all of which are ultimately intended to quell uprisings. Is resistance, then, a futile endeavor? 

What have we learned?

First and foremost: The rise of massive democracy movements despite the scare tactics of authoritarian regimes should be considered a victory in itself. The fact that they have also managed to withstand all-out attacks waged by state forces in the past year is another notable achievement, and one that indicates their deep roots and broad support. 

Their experiences, their gains and their losses, are also a fertile area for learning. Based on our monitoring of the region, what lessons can we draw that may prove useful in strengthening efforts to secure the right to information, enable and protect civic space, and improve safety and justice – the three thematic pillars of the IFEX network’s Strategic Plan? 

Legislating reform 

We know that authoritarian regimes rely on a set of laws and regulations that contain provisions that undermine freedom of expression. New measures were passed during the pandemic to further broaden the scope of restrictions. As long as these laws remain in effect, authorities can deploy them against activists, critics, opposition figures, netizens, and journalists. 

Aside from NSL in Hong Kong and Section 112 in Thailand, the most controversial and draconian laws in the region include Myanmar’s section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, Vietnam’s criminal code (article 117) punishing those who post anti-state propaganda, Malaysia’s Section 233 (1)(a) of the Communications and Multimedia Act, Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act, and Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Parliaments and courts can be asked to review and repeal these laws, some of which might actually prove to be unconstitutional.

After the defeat of Malaysia’s ruling party in 2018, the new government made a pledge to reform such laws. At the height of the student-led protests in 2020, Thai authorities refrained from actively using the Lèse Majesté law. These examples show why it is crucial to sustain political pressure in pushing for legislative reforms. A strong political movement, backed by direct citizen action, can muster enough power to effect change in governance.

It is essential to also be proactive: building a broad consensus to advance new laws and policies that strengthen and promote digital rights and media freedom, instead of simply opposing measures presented by policymakers who may be working on the assumption that policing the internet is the only way the rights of netizens need to be protected.

Keeping information accessible, open, and secure 

Again and again we have seen government policies and actions that seek to prevent their own citizens from sharing and exchanging information – information which they equate with facilitating incitement and destabilization. 

India, for example, leads the world in internet shutdowns, and these are often enforced based on vague and spurious grounds. Internet disruption orders were even issued during the pandemic, depriving citizens of vital health information. When India experienced a COVID-19 surge this year, authorities compelled tech companies to block social media accounts that they accused of spreading disinformation. Twitter refused – which angered the government. 

The pandemic was again cited by the government to censor the internet and some apps like TikTok, which they accused of promoting illegal content. But, unsurprisingly, the blacklisted accounts included those owned by activists, journalists, and political groups known for criticizing the government’s pandemic response. 

Meanwhile, Facebook and WhatsApp are contesting the new digital rules, which they claim would violate user privacy. 

Another way authorities are controlling the narrative is by dominating the media. In Myanmar, only state-owned newspapers are left operating after the coup. In Hong Kong, raids and arrests forced the closure of Apple Daily, an independent newspaper owned by media mogul Jimmy Lai, who was arrested and sentenced for his role in the 2019 protests. The editorial independence of public broadcaster RTHK is also slowly being eroded. In Pakistan, even prominent media personalities have been suspended for criticizing the military.

Support that is both united and broad-based is needed to effectively call out internet shutdowns, improve internet access, demand tech companies not be complicit in enabling digital dictatorships, and support a free and independent media. 

Every time internet shutdown orders are issued by the Indian government, civil society organisations like IFEX member SFLC.in have made good use of the Supreme Court ruling which affirms internet access as a right. 

Civil society groups should continue to engage Silicon Valley tech companies about their role in preventing digital authoritarians from using the internet as an instrument of control and oppression. Specifically, tech companies should ensure the safety and privacy of citizens who rely on digital technologies for advocating democratic reforms. 

As disinformation continues to plague the internet, journalists provide verified information that helps improve discourse. Instead of internet shut-downs, supporting a robust and independent media, bolstered by fact-checking projects, can combat disinformation. 

The campaign for an independent media includes the protection of journalists who face threats and violence because of their reporting. On this point, Pakistan’s women journalists have banded together to speak out against online violence and state-sponsored trolling. 

Countering the ‘foreign meddling’ spin

Treason charges are often baseless, but they can effectively restrict and even cut off ties that local democracy movements have with global human rights institutions. Governments will rant against even imagined foreign conspiracies, as long as it serves their political survival.

We saw Chinese officials insist that the Hong Kong protests were instigated by Western powers. They have prosecuted democracy leaders for “colluding with foreign forces” under the National Security Law, including those who simply talked to foreign media. Myanmar junta leaders are dancing to the same tune, as they dismiss anti-coup resistance. In Cambodia, opposition politicians have been charged with treason for allegedly cooperating with foreigners in trying to foment a ‘color revolution’. Recently, the Philippine government described the efforts to probe the drug-related killings at the International Criminal Court as ‘politically-motivated’ foreign intervention. 

States need to be reminded that they have international obligations to fulfill. Reminding them about these commitments should not be rejected as foreign intervention. 

Civil society leaders need to continue and amplify their efforts to persuade governments to respect and adhere to UN mechanisms.

I noted above that the ‘Western interference’ rhetoric is less accessible to governments when the actions are people-to-people actions of solidarity. An outstanding example of this is the virtual ‘region hall’ action by Southeast Asia-based people’s organizations which called for an end to the junta rule and the restoration of civilian leadership in Myanmar. Another laudable initiative is the #MilkTeaAlliance, a creative cross-country cooperation of East Asian netizens who are committed to pursuing the path towards a democratic transition in their societies.

Sustained assistance and training amid a legal backlash

The harsh sentencing of Hong Kong and Thai democracy leaders this year marks an intensified legal offensive that may be adopted in other countries. It should alert human rights groups to double down on their efforts to provide legal assistance and training to activists, students, journalists, artists, opposition groups, and communities threatened with state-sponsored attacks. 

The capacities of local groups to extend aid to refugees and ethnic minorities – communities likely to be slapped with trumped-up charges – should be enhanced. 

The mass incarceration of activists in countries like Myanmar also indicates a need to expand the work of groups advocating for the release of prisoners of conscience. 

A major challenge in doing all this is conducting the necessary training and capacity building while adjusting to the pandemic-related lockdown restrictions. COVID-19 forced many community-based groups and NGOs to shift to online advocacy, which requires a continuous reevaluation of the methods they adopt to fulfil their mission.

Modelling better practices

Campaigns against authoritarian regimes have exposed a militarized pandemic response which heightened abuse, while leaving vulnerable communities to fend for themselves. If some governments are callous and incompetent in handling the pandemic, there are opportunities for people’s movements to present a better model of leadership. 

We saw how citizen-led actions provided care, medical service, health information, and relief to under-resources communities. In India, activists and netizens tapped social media to crowdsource lifesaving information on urgent healthcare during the COVID-19 surge. A community pantry movement inspired hope and extended aid to hunger-stricken communities in the Philippines. A community-led #BenderaPutih” (white flag) campaign in Malaysia mobilized the public to help residents needing relief during lockdown.

Initiatives like these recognize the reality of the pandemic and how it has disrupted so many lives. They remind us that campaigns for democratic rights should strive to address the needs of people, especially those who are neglected because of their race, religion, gender, and social status.

Last words…

Since last year, Asia’s impressive democracy protests have taken place against the backdrop of a deadly pandemic. Protesters rightly denounced authoritarian regimes who used the health emergency to consolidate power and legitimize repressive policies. 

The pandemic is not over; it continues to wreak havoc across the world as we enter the second half of 2021. It is an uncertain and gloomy context, and authoritarian regimes remain obstinately focused on clinging to power through impunity and violence. Challenging them are civil society groups, the media, politicians, individual activists, and concerned citizens. 

If the new normal in these countries is to be one founded on the idea of guaranteeing freedom of expression, human rights, equality, and inclusive democracy, then these groups – and those of us who support them – will need to continue to build solidarity and leverage the learning and experiences of those beyond their borders. 

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