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A police officer shoots a rubber bullet gun during a protest dispersion. (File photo)

Civic space in Thailand remained repressive in 2021, says CIVICUS

Thailand’s civic space rated as ‘repressed’ as majority of countries in Asia are suppressing civic freedoms in 2021, stated by CIVICUS, a global platform tracking civic space and civil society.

  • Majority of countries in Asia restricting civic freedoms
  • Singapore downgraded from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’
  • Concerns about the deterioration of civic space in Myanmar and Afghanistan

Restrictions and attacks on activists and civil society has persisted across the Asian region according to a new report released by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online research platform that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories The report, People Power Under Attack 2021, shows that out of 26 countries or territories  in Asia, four – China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam – are rated as ‘closed’. Eleven are rated as ‘repressed’ and seven as ‘obstructed’. Civic space in Japan, Mongolia and South Korea is rated narrowed, while Taiwan remains the only country rated as ‘open’.

In reality, this means that the basic freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly and association are not being respected in most countries in this region. This decline marks a trend worldwide, as data from the CIVICUS Monitor shows that 89% of the world’s population now live in closed, repressed or obstructed countries.

In Thailand where civic space is rated ‘repressed,’ the CIVICUS Monitor documented in 2021, excessive use of force around protests, the use of criminal defamation, lèse majesté and other repressive laws against activists and proposed plans for a restrictive NGO law.

Police attempted to disrupt protests and use excessive force to protesters. Some were detained and suffered injuries, including children. In February 2021, authorities placed dozens of containers along the road in front of the entire length of the compound of the army barracks in an attempt to block the protesters. Razor wire was also placed to prevent pedestrians from using the bridge in front of the barracks. The Thai police then shot rubber bullets and used water cannon and tear gas.  In August 2021, police forcibly dispersed at least ten demonstrations using rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas. Journalists, including those who visibly identified themselves as press, were also reported being hit with rubber bullets at protests.

In addition to cracking down on street protests, Thai authorities have continued their harassment of pro-democracy protest leaders and participants through legal processes including charges of sedition and “lèse-majesté”. There have been a significantly increase in the use of Article 112 of the Criminal Code (“lèse-majesté”) to criminalise protesters after almost a three-year hiatus. More than a hundred have been charged under Article 112, including children. Many of those charged for lèse-majesté have been subjected to a systematic denial of bail by the courts, both during investigation and pending trial. Critics have also been targeted. In January 2021, a woman was jailed for 43 years for criticising the royal family, the country's harshest ever sentence for insulting the monarchy.

Concerns continue to be raised about a draft law to regulate non-profit groups which could be used to muzzle civil society groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The “Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organisations” contains provisions that would have a deeply damaging impact on those joining together to advocate for human rights in the country, in violation of their right to freedom of association and other rights.

This year, Singapore has been downgraded from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ as the government continues to use various tactics to silence dissent. A repressive “anti-fake news” law was used against government critics and independent media outlets. Journalists and bloggers also faced defamation charges with exorbitant fines imposed. A vaguely worded contempt-of-court law has been used to prosecute activists for criticism of the courts under the guise of protecting the judicial system, while activists organising peaceful gatherings, including solo protesters, have been arrested or charged. Civil society has also raised concerns that a new Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, passed in October 2021, will further curtail civic space

“A staggering number of people in the Asia region are living in countries with closed or repressed civic space where their freedoms to speak up, organise or mobilise are severely restricted. Now Singapore, which claims to be a democracy, is joining this notorious list, due to its array of restrictive laws used to stifle dissent, the attacks on independent media, and a chilling new foreign interference law,” said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS.

In Asia, the top civic violation this year is the use of restrictive laws in 21 countries, as governments use legislation to muzzle dissent. Human rights defenders were detained under such laws in at least 19 countries and in 11 countries they were prosecuted.

China continued to prosecute scores of human rights defenders under vaguely worded offences while in Hong Kong, the draconian National Security Law has been weaponised to target dozens of activists. In Vietnam, activists and bloggers are facing long sentences for ‘anti-state propaganda’ and ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ while in Cambodia, ‘incitement’ laws are systematically used to target dozens of activists. Criminal defamation laws were deployed to criminalise activists and critics such as in Bangladesh for online dissent.

Another major violation is the crackdown on protests with protesters detained in at least 14 countries. In Myanmar, thousands of protesters were arbitrarily detained by the junta following the February 2021 military coup and some were even met with deadly force. In Indonesia, activists protesting the unilateral renewal of the Papua Special Autonomy Law.

Other major violations documented in the Asia region include the harassment and intimidation of activists, including surveillance, smear campaigns, cyber attacks, torture, ill-treatment and the detention of journalists.

“As authoritarian leaders in Asia seek to hold on to power they have deployed restrictive laws to arrest and criminalise human rights defenders. Scores of activists and journalists are behind bars, facing trumped up charges, and some have been tortured and ill-treated. Instead of listening to peoples’ demands, the authorities have also resorted to disrupting peaceful protests in numerous countries, at times under the guise of the pandemic, with excessive or deadly force. Despite these attacks, civil society have not relented and are finding new ways to push back and to demand their rights,” said Benedict.

Countries of concern in the region were Myanmar which saw a rapid decline in fundamental freedoms following the coup with the crackdown on protests, the arrest, detention and criminalisation of hundreds of activists, the targeting of journalists, as well as the torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners. Another country is Afghanistan - following the Taliban takeover, protests - especially by women - were met with excessive force leading to deaths and injuries, and there have been reports of intimidation and attacks on activists and journalists.

Despite these threats to civic freedoms, there has been some good news. Mongolia’s civic space rating has been upgraded from obstructed to narrowed. In April 2021 the country adopted a new law for the protection of human rights defenders, making it the first country in Asia to provide a legal framework for their protection. Other positive developments include progress in the campaign by activists to hold Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte accountable at the International Criminal Court, and the decriminalisation of same-sex relations in Bhutan.

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 550 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2021.

Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

The full report can be downloaded here.

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