Detention of Cambodian rights leaders, dissolution of Maldivian rights group signs of closing civic spaces in Asia Pacific

Philippine human rights  group Karapatan joins other human rights groups and advocates in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region in expressing the strongest condemnation on the growing threats and attacks on human rights defenders in the region, particularly the detention of Cambodian human rights leader Mu Sochua in Malaysia and the forced closure of the Maldivian Democracy Network.

While the Duterte regime is relentless in its crackdown on progressive and democratic forces in the Philippines, human rights defenders in Cambodia and Maldives face alarmingly similar attacks from their governments. Clearly, there is an emerging trend of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region which has resulted to intensified attacks on human rights defenders and the further narrowing of democratic spaces in the region,” Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay said.

On Thursday, November 7, 2019, Mu Sochua, vice president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was set to return to Cambodia as she arrived at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport from Jakarta, Indonesia when Malaysian authorities detained her at the airport. Sochua along with other CNRP leaders and members have fled Cambodia following threats of arrests; they are currently gearing to return and end their self-exile to articulate the opposition’s legitimate issues within Cambodia . The Malaysian government initially threatened to deport Sochua to another country but she was released from custody following massive outcry calling for her immediate and unconditional release.

Governments are colluding to suppress and harass activists and Sochua’s brief detention in Malaysia sets a dangerous pretext for all human rights defenders in Southeast Asia. Other governments in the region can now follow suit with Malaysia’s actions to coordinate with each other in blocking activists from either entering their country or returning to their countries—effectively hindering us from doing our work and building networks and alliances with other human rights defenders in the region. We hold accountable both the Malaysian and Cambodian governments in this brazen assault on human rights,” Palabay continued.

The Karapatan official also slammed the decision of the Maldivian government to dissolve the Maldivian Democracy Network last Tuesday, November 5, 2019. The motion comes following allegations of blasphemy made in response to a 2015 report ‘Preliminary Assessment on Radicalisation in the Maldives’ as well as other state-instigated smear campaigns which has resulted to the harassment of the Maldivian Democracy Network such as death threats and incitement of violence against its staff and associates. Palabay said that the attacks on the Maldivian Democracy Network “closely mirrors state-led efforts to discredit and delegitimize the work and advocacy of human rights organizations in the Philippines, including Karapatan.”

We stand with the Maldivian Democracy Network in asserting that human rights defenders in all countries must be free to do our work without threats, without intimidation, without fear of reprisals, without being maliciously tagged as ‘terrorists’ or ‘radicals.’ Karapatan has been tagged as a ‘communist terrorist’ front by the Philippine government numerous times which has led to the threats on our members and even their deaths. These tags are no joking matter as they put the lives of human rights defenders at extremely dangerous risks,” she said.

Karapatan expresses solidarity with all human rights defenders in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. As we all face the threats of closing civic spaces and intensified attacks amid a growing trend of authoritarianism in the region, now is the time, more than ever, to assert our rights, to resist and fight back, to build solidarity and alliances since the people’s struggle for human rights knows no borders. Together, we defend human rights and people’s rights,” the Karapatan official ended.