September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
Human Rights Trends in Southeast Asia - Statement by Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch before the House Committee on International Relations Asia and Pacific Subcommittee; December 12, 2001

December 12, 2001

Human Rights Trends in Southeast Asia

Statement by Mike Jendrzejczyk,
Washington Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
before the
House Committee on International Relations
Asia and Pacific Subcommittee

The entire Asian region suffered a political earthquake in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States. Afghanistan was the epicenter, but the aftershocks threw domestic politics and international relations into upheaval.

All countries in the region condemned the September 11 attacks. But some governments found, in measures to counteract terrorism, new justifications for longstanding repression. Real enthusiasm for the anti-terrorism campaign was most evident in the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and South Korea. However, by November, some Southeast Asian leaders were finding that a pro-U.S. position had political costs at home.

Indonesian and Malaysian leaders found that support from important domestic constituencies could be jeopardized if they seemed to be unconditionally supportive of the U.S. bombing of a fellow Muslim-majority nation. By November, Indonesian President Megawati was pleading with President Bush to end the bombing before Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, began.

The popular reactions across the region were if anything more important, given the increasing importance of civil society in most Asian countries. In general, there were widespread expressions of sympathy both for victims of the September 11 attacks as well as for Afghan civilians. Large demonstrations against the U.S. airstrikes erupted in October in Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere. In some cases, these protests reflected the successful portrayal by conservative Muslims of the U.S. effort as an attack on Islam, but they also expressed a broader discomfort within civil society about the perceived disproportionate use of power by the U.S. in a devastated country.

Fragile Democratic Transitions:

The September 11 attacks eclipsed many of the human rights issues that had dominated the first nine months of the year. One of these was the fragility of democratic transitions in the region and of some of the dilemmas posed by partial democratization in the absence of strong political institutions—or in the presence of strong militaries. Fair elections produced disastrous leaders in Southeast Asia: Joseph Estrada, a corrupt ex-movie star, ousted from the Philippines presidency in January by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Abdurrahman Wahid, a nearly blind cleric, ousted from the Indonesian presidency in July. Estrada remained highly popular among the country's poor, and his ouster after military-backed protests from the elite and middle class in Manila was semi-legal at best. The question arose, which was the greater danger to Philippine democracy, a shady president with underworld connections who systematically looted the national treasury but who was nevertheless the choice of the people, or his less than constitutional ouster?

In Thailand the dilemma was similar but less stark. In January, the Thai Rak Thai party, led by Thaksin Shinawatra, won a majority of parliamentary seats in the national election, making Thaksin prime minister. But ten days before the vote, Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, was indicted by the National Counter-Corruption Committee (NCCC) on charges of failing to fully declare his financial assets as required by law when he held a previous government post. If the Constitutional Court upheld the indictment, banning Thaksin from public office for five years, the Thai political system could have been thrown into serious crisis. If it did not, despite apparently strong evidence of unrevealed wealth, the independence of the Court and Thailand's battle against high-level graft and corruption would be undermined. The Court voted eight to seven not to uphold the indictment, to the disappointment of political reformers, and the relief of many who feared that democracy would be poorly served by a prolonged period of uncertainty and instability.

President Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia's great hope for furthering democratization, proved to be entirely unsuited for the job. He listened to no one, ignored major crises, and in the end tried unsuccessfully to use the military against the parliament that was trying to impeach him on corruption grounds. But the alternative was either a return to former President Soeharto's party, Golkar, or support for Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party had the most seats in the Indonesian parliament and who had extensive army backing. On human rights issues, the choice came down to one of incompetence versus lack of political will. Which was worse, a president who could not make the justice system work or one who would not even try? Much of the human rights and reformist community preferred the former, but when that same inability and lack of inattention to political and economic problems began to lead to a nostalgia in some circles for authoritarianism, Indonesia's democratic experiment was in trouble.

In Cambodia, targeted political assassinations, while few in number, continued to discourage many grassroots candidates from running in Cambodia's long-delayed commune elections, scheduled for early 2002. Southeast Asia continued to be wracked by outbreaks of war and ethnic and communal strife, producing widespread human rights violations and massive new populations of refugees and the displaced. As all eyes were focused on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, it was also worth remembering the 850,000 to one million displaced in Indonesia and some 600,000 to one million in Burma. In most cases, access to humanitarian aid and protection for the displaced was difficult, either because of government obstruction or security concerns.

Refugee populations were also large, with an estimated 200,000 Burmese in Thailand; and in West Timor, an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 East Timorese remained after the forcible expulsions of 1999, although the rate of voluntary return picked up sharply after the peaceful elections in East Timor in August.

Beginning in February, more than 1,000 ethnic highlanders from Vietnam, known collectively as Montagnards, fled to Cambodia after Vietnamese police crushed public protests over land-grabbing and controls on freedom of religion. Cambodia agreed to provide temporary asylum to the Montagnards at two UNHCR sites, but Cambodian officials violated the principle of non-refoulement several times during the year when they forcibly returned groups of Montagnards back to Vietnam, where many were arrested and beaten.

Meanwhile, Vietnam did little to address the grievances that sparked unrest in the Central Highlands last February. At least twenty-four people were put on trial as of November on charges of disrupting security and given prison sentences of up to twelve years. The area where the protests erupted was put off limits to media and diplomats, except for a government-sponsored press tour in March and a limited visit by the U.S. ambassador in July.

Internal Security Laws

Even before September 11, internal security legislation was being widely abused in many Asian countries. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir made increasing use of the draconian Internal Security Act to arrest members of the political opposition. On November 30, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said that Malaysia might amend its security laws to deal with “modern day terrorism,” provoking warnings that this could lead to even further repression of political dissent.

In mid-September, Badawi took advantage of the September 11 attacks to praise Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA), which has been used to imprison pro-democracy activists, students, and alleged Muslim extremists as well as supporters of jailed former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. The ISA allows for indefinite detention without trial and arrest without a warrant by anyone a police officer has “reason to believe” has acted or is likely to act “in any manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia.” The Malaysian bar association, Malaysian NGOs, and the U.S. State Department have criticized the use of the ISA and urged its repeal. (It would be highly useful if President Bush were to follow up his meeting with Prime Minister Mahathir at the Shanghai APEC summit by reiterating this concern.)

In Indonesia, laws once used to detain critics of former President Soeharto made an unwelcome comeback. In Aceh, Jakarta, and Papua, peaceful critics of government policies were put on trial for allegedly “spreading hatred” toward government officials, a vaguely defined colonial-era offense frequently used by Soeharto against perceived political enemies. On November 20, 2000, for example, activist Muhammad Nazar was arrested for having hung banners at a campus rally criticizing the military and calling for a referendum on the political future of Aceh. He was convicted of “spreading hatred” in March 2001, sentenced to ten months, and, with credit for time served, was released in October 2001.

Human Rights Defenders

Human rights activists in Southeast Asia play a high-profile international role, and in some cases, pay a high price for doing so. At least eight human rights defenders in the region were killed between November 2000 and November 2001, six of them from Aceh, Indonesia. Many more faced intimidation or arrest.

Long established regional organizations such as Forum Asia and the Asian Commission on Human Rights campaigned actively for Asian ratification of the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court and for the repeal of the Internal Security Act in Malaysia. They also worked with other groups in the region to promote better protection of human rights defenders. The Asian Migrant Centre based in Hong Kong had a campaign in seven Asian countries for the ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The Asia Monitor Resource Centre took a leading role in documenting labor practices and implementation of corporate codes of conduct throughout East and Southeast Asia. The Bangkok-based South East Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA) was an effective advocate for journalists in the region, helping raise the profile of the beleaguered malaysiakini.com, an electronic news service that the Malaysian government shut down; assist the new East Timorese journalists association get started; and protest threats against the daily newspaper in Banda Aceh by rebels unhappy with the paper's content.

National human rights commissions in the region had their ups and downs. SUHAKAM in Malaysia took a stronger position than many expected in criticizing government abuses against demonstrators and Internal Security Act arrests; Komnas HAM in Indonesia came more and more under the control of obstructionists anxious to prevent serious human rights investigations.

U.S Policy in the Region:

The Bush administration has tried to balance its immediate priority on pressing Southeast Asian governments to cooperate on anti-terrorism initiatives, while also focusing on longer-term objectives such as stabilizing newly democratic governments and helping to restart stalled economies.

In this context, we strongly believe that the need to promote human rights, good governance, and the rule of law is more essential than ever.

The World Bank published an analysis of the impact of September 11 on East Asia and concluded, “Governance and institutional reform efforts are increasingly important for economic and social advance in the region…Over time, governments and political institutions are also becoming reshaped to meet the demands of civil society for greater participation and political accountability…In countries of the region that are predominantly Muslim or have large Muslim minorities, the quality of governance institutions will be tested as governments contribute to the global campaign against terrorism, while maintaining the rule of law and domestic stability.”

We believe that U.S. policy should continue to press for fundamental judicial and legal reforms—in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere—as crucial to effectively fighting corruption and to promoting sustainable growth.

Throughout the region, we urge the administration, with support from the Congress, to maintain a vigorous program of support for civil society including NGO’s and human rights defenders, as well as groups trying to assist refugees and internally displaced populations hit by civil conflicts. We have seen how pro-active embassy staff on the ground can make a major impact.

Some country-specific recommendations:


The recent upsurge of violence between Christians and Muslims in Sulawesi has added urgency to the need to disarm and cut off funding for armed groups in the region, including the extremist Laskar Jihad militia, previously involved in attacks on Christians in the Moluccas that contributed to the prolonged conflict there. Last week, Minister Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono announced that Jakarta is sending five battalions of police and soldiers to Sulawesi, but local leaders and aid workers are skeptical they can disarm both sides. We agree with the recommendations of the Commission on International Religious Freedom, which on December 5 called on Secretary Powell to press Indonesian authorities to bring under control rogue elements of the Indonesian security forces that support militia groups like Laskar Jihad, to protect civilians in Sulawesi, and to ensure that the perpetrators responsible for the killings of both Muslims and Christians are brought to justice.

The U.S. should continue to support those in Indonesia calling for accountability of security forces for past and current human rights abuses as essential to any effective TNI reform effort, or to creating a climate in which grievances in Aceh or West Papua can be addressed. We support the Leahy human rights conditions on IMET for the Indonesia military and for Foreign Military Sales (FMS), as updated in the pending FY 2002 foreign operations appropriations bill, and urge House and Senate conferees to adopt the Senate language in the final measure.

It is also extremely useful for members of this Committee and others in Congress to express their support for President Megawati’s efforts to promote stability, democratization and economic progress, while also urging her to take action on key human rights cases. One such case is the recent death of Theys Eluay, chairman of the Papuan Presidium Council, who was abducted and killed on November 10. During her visit to Washington in September, President Megawati told President Bush and members of Congress that she would pay attention to the concerns of people in West Papua and Aceh which fuel support for separatist and autonomy movements. Only an impartial, truly independent investigation of Mr. Eluay’s death can reduce the level of local suspicion and mistrust of government authorities.


This week, a high-level delegation from Vietnam, led by Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, will be visiting Washington, New York and San Francisco. The delegation is coming immediately following the annual donor consultative conference in Hanoi (December 7-8), convened by the World Bank, and the decision last month by Vietnam’s National Assembly to ratify the bilateral trade agreement. Representatives of a number of companies are expected to be on the delegation.

We believe that Vietnam’s donors should press for significant progress in human rights and the rule of law to accompany Vietnam’s commitments to economic reforms. The U.S. should also offer assistance, on a bilateral basis or through the World Bank or U.N. Development Program as well as private programs, to help reform the country’s criminal, press and security laws – not just its commercial laws.

Specific steps to improve human rights would include: an invitation to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to visit Vietnam again (they visited in 1994), with unrestricted access to the Central Highlands; the unconditional release of all persons held for the peaceful expression of their religious and political views including dozens of political dissidents, indigenous Montagnards, Buddhists, Catholics and Protestant Church leaders under house arrest or imprisoned; repeal of Administrative Detention Directive 31/CP which authorizes detention without trial for two years; and the easing of restrictions on the media and the internet.


Over the past year, political violence has increased with the approach of the local elections, scheduled for February 2002, in Cambodia's 1,600 communes, or subdistricts. Existing commune chiefs, mostly appointed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), are to be replaced with popularly elected commune councils. The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, an NGO coalition, documented eighty-two cases of political threats and violence since the beginning of the year, most of them directed at the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

We hope the administration will support independent election monitoring, by Cambodian and international NGOs, and speak out strongly – at the embassy level and in Washington – if political violence continues or escalates in advance of or after the elections. Members of this Committee might consider visiting Cambodia in the pre- or post-election period.

We also urge the U.S. to take a cautious, wait-and-see attitude towards the attempt to establish a so-called “mixed tribunal” to put on trial former members of the Khmer Rouge. The legislation sent to the Cambodian National Assembly in January 2001 differed markedly from what had been agreed on with the U.N., most notably deleting a provision that prior amnesties would not be a bar to prosecution.

The U.S. should withhold any political or financial support, or contribution of judges or prosecutors, for a joint tribunal until and unless the concerns expressed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan have been adequately addressed. Cambodia’s judicial system remains weak and far from independent, with numerous court decisions influenced by corruption or apparent political influence. A tribunal for Khmer Rouge leaders conducted according to international standards could help set a positive example, but the international community should not support a flawed tribunal in which Cambodian government officials directly or indirectly shape the outcome of the proceedings.


There were signs this year of a political thaw and, for the first time in years, hopes that the government might lift some of its stifling repression of civil and political rights. But thus far, progress had been limited to some political prisoner releases and easing of pressures on some opposition politicians in Rangoon. There has been no sign of fundamental changes in law or policy, and grave human rights violations remain unaddressed. Conditions in ethnic minority areas remain particularly grim.

Following his visit to Rangoon in January, the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Representative for Burma, Razali Ismail revealed that Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt and Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), had been engaged in talks since October 2000. Since then, the military government has taken certain “confidence building” measures, releasing approximately 200 political prisoners and allowing some NLD offices to gradually reopen. At least 1,600 political prisoners remain behind bars, including 19 elected MP’s, and Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest. The U.N. Special Rapporteur for Burma, Paulo Pinheiro, in his report to the General Assembly last month, noted that “progress is fragile…one would hope that the confidence building would be followed by bolder moves” by the Burmese government.

We urge the administration, with strong bipartisan backing from Congress, to keep in place existing sanctions against the Burmese government while remaining flexible in order to respond to any significant positive developments; to support the International Labor Organization’s efforts to end all forced labor and establish a monitoring presence inside Burma; and to use U.S. influence with Japan, the European Union, members of ASEAN, Australia and others to encourage them to maintain pressure for fundamental, basic human rights improvements and compliance with the recommendations of the U.N. General Assembly and U.N. Commission on Human Rights. We support humanitarian assistance given through NGOs and U.N. agencies, especially aid targeted for internally displaced and those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

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