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Human rights progress and challenges in South East Asia

Exploring a week of significant developments in South East Asia, Simone Galimberti delves into the region’s strides in human rights alongside persisting challenges, highlighting the complex interplay of progress and setbacks in the pursuit of justice.



by Simone Galimberti

The past week marked a significant moment for Southeast Asia, showcasing that fundamental and indispensable human rights still hold relevance in this region. This area, often criticized for its human rights abuses and infringements, demonstrated that positive change is possible.

Despite the region’s history of challenges with social justice, recent days have brought about pivotal milestones. These developments spark hope for a future where social justice might triumph over the prevalent norms of abuse and limited freedoms.

The week witnessed numerous major positive strides. However, these advancements were shadowed by some concerning decisions, highlighting the ongoing struggle with human rights issues in Southeast Asia.

The commutation of 11 death sentences in life imprisonment was itself remarkable not only because it was the first time that a court in Malaysia applied the Abolition of Mandatory Death Penalty Act.

The Act, which came into force on 4 July this year, is also important because the new law made away with natural life sentences for those that come to an end with the natural death of the convicted.

The second positive event was the bail of former Senator Leila De Lima of the Philippines, an atrocious case of injustice, a political vendetta based by Former President Rodrigo Duterte and the whole state apparatus, all based on clumsy and ridiculous accusations.

Ms De Lima, not only the former Justice Minster from 2010 to 2015 but also a human rights activist, had started an inquiry against the death squad killings that were perpetuated by Mr Duterte when he was the Mayor of Davao City.

This was a brutal policy that had also continued over his presidency, a policy that cost thousands of lives.

The nightmare has not ended for Ms. De Lima. While she has already been acquitted on two charges, over her almost seven long years spent in prison, she is still not completely off the hook, but hopes are high that, finally, justice will be made and that the remaining case can be overthrown.

At the same time, almost through an infamous balancing act, South East Asia was hit by the news that a prominent, outspoken former member of the National Assembly of Vietnam, Luu Binh Nhuong, was arrested on 14 November.

Ironically, the arrest occurred when the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to development, Surya Deva, was on an official visit to the country.

As explained by Gutzy, Prof. Deva praised the progress made by Vietnam in poverty reduction but called for major reforms in terms of civil society participation.

Prof. Deva also commented, according to a report from Reuters, on the imprisonment of Mr Luu Binh Nhuong, highlighting the risks of “the selective use of the law.

The government should not use the law as a device to target certain people because of their political or religious views”, he further commented.

So far, there has not been any comment about the arrest from either the American Embassy in Hanoi or directly from the State Department in Washington.

This silence as concerning as it is not surprising considering the recent visit of President Biden to Vietnam and the elevation of the bilateral relationships between the two countries to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

The latest worrisome development in the matter of human rights does not come from a steadfast human rights abuser like Vietnam, and that’s why it is even more troublesome.

Fatia Maulidiyanti and Haris Azhar, two renowned human rights activists in Indonesia were indicted on 13 November in a defamation case initiated in September 2021 related to a YouTube video where, according to Amnesty International, were discussing “the alleged involvement of several military figures in the mining industry”.

As we can see, it is really a mixed picture, two positive cases being matched by an equal number of injustices.

Where should we go from here?

What will it take for the whole region to truly evolve and progress in an unequivocal way towards higher and higher human rights standards?

Will what happened in Malaysia with the commutation of the death sentences provide impetus to the full abolition of capital punishment?

This topic is still not being discussed, at least officially.

Yet it is not improbable that Putrajaya will, sooner than later, at least with the current administration in power, move in that direction.

If PM Anwar finds the firmness and courage to proceed head-on with this path of reform, then a strong, unequivocal signal will be given to the whole region and it will matter.

On the Philippines: recent events might bring some hope

About the Philippines, expectations should be kept low with the current presidency of Bongbong Marcos, but some improvement might occur.

At least he discontinued the war on drugs of his predecessor, and he is, quite gently, we should say, after the highest ranks of the police that were asked to provide courtesy resignation as reported by the Rappler.

What the president will do with the highest-ranking officers is still a mystery. So far, only 18 of them have been sacked.

At least, we assume that some heads will fall, considering that, for the task of assessing each resignation, a committee has been composed.

The precise role of this committee needs some clarifications: it will, at least officially, investigate not the officials’ involvement in the war on drugs but rather their potential links with the drug trade.

This is quite a substantial difference even though it can offer a cover to the administration to go after those who were really involved in the crimes ordered by Mr Duterte.

The former aspect, the war on drugs and all the killings it has caused will remain taboo, considering that the daughter of Mr Duterte is now the sitting Vice President.

Some cosmetics investigations are supposed to be undertaken but just as a “save face” measure.

The only hope lies far away, in the Hague, the seat of the International Criminal Court.

It is there where its Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan has decided, over the summer, to resume the investigation on the drug war in the Philippines.

Regardless of the fact that Manila has announced, in response to Mr Khan’s announcement, the closing of all the communication channels with his Office, the final outcome of the investigators in the Hague, at the end, indeed will do count and it will matter a lot.

The fact that Ms. De Lima is ready to do her own part to help the investigation can truly be a game-changer despite the risks to her life that the former Senator will incur.

At the of the day, if charges are made against Mr Duterte, then we can expect that President Bongbong Marcos will have to act on his own.

Probably, he will have to take some substantial actions, though not directly against Mr. Duterte but targeting some of his former associates.

A smart and cunning thing for him to do would be to act “pre-emptily” before an official indictment against the former President is issued by the Hague.

The ruling by the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Mr. Duterte’s war might also come to Mr. Marcos’s rescue, helping him extricate himself from a very complex conundrum.

At the same time, perhaps something is really changing in relation to the assumed “untouchability” of Mr. Duterte.

He was recently summoned after he publicly threatened to kill a current member of the National Assembly, and a formal case against him might open soon.

Without any doubt, the United States will be in a unique position to prod the government of the Philippines to bring some justice to the victims of this brutal war.

We should expect Washington to do more not only with Manila but also with Hanoi and with Jakarta.

On the former, some back-channel communication might go on, but it is evident that the Americans have zero influence on matters of so-called “national security” in Vietnam.

This is not acceptable as the new elevated partnership between the two nations should also bring in the space where concerns on the status of human rights in the South East nation can be discussed in total frankness, more systematically and on a continuous basis.

Fading hopes in Jakarta but still a small opportunity window

Concerning Indonesia, the prospects of a victory of former General Prabowo Subianto in next year’s presidential elections will bulldozer any hope for progress in the country’s human rights situation.

President Jokowi has been a disappointment on many fronts, including the ongoing saga of having one of his sons as Mr Prabowo’s running mate next year.

Still, the real possibility, according to the latest opinion poll, of Mr Prabowo becoming the next President might imply that the existing small and imperfect “window of opportunity” for some changes could soon be definitely shunned.

Will Mr Jokowi be interested in a much bigger legacy than moving the capital of the country to the jungle of Borneo?

We doubt that international partners should indeed create pressure to ensure the creation of a more lasting legacy.

The time is short, and possibilities narrower by the day, but still, Mr. Jokowi could finally redeem himself with some bold actions, starting with ending the case involving Fatia Maulidiyanti and Haris Azhar.

How the Vietnam political leadership could be influenced

Lastly, about Vietnam.

The international community will have an opportunity to highlight the human rights abuses perpetrated by the communist regime next year during the Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council.

But this won’t be nearly enough.

Also, in this case, only pressure at the highest levels of policy-making from Vietnam’s most important partners, not only in the West but also from the “enlightened” nations of the region, could only do the job.

Unfortunately, the tools at their disposal, like the Human Rights Dialogues between the EU and ASEAN, are utterly inadequate for such types of discussions.

The latest meeting of this mechanism happened in October in Brussels and did not bring any tangible result because such fora are, by design, useful but not meaningful neither are able to bring real changes.

Probably only Mr Anwar, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, can muster the moral strength to talk about human rights with his peers.

Perhaps reluctantly

Yet some surprises might come from some of his peers like President Jokowi and President Bongbong Marcos.

They could be reluctantly dragged to champion and protect human rights.

For the former, it would be, ultimately, about his final legacy, while for the latter, this could become one of the defining issues of his presidency, even if forced by undesired events out of his control.


At the end of the day, improving human rights in South East Asia is a very complex and long game.

The scenario is changing, but there is a very high mountain to climb in order to bring system changes in the region when we talk about human rights.

There are, without question, some shades of hope that can be noticed and must be supported.

Here, a mix of actions, endogenous and from the outside, could make a difference and lay the foundations for a better region.

The author writes about human rights, regional integration in the Asia Pacific region. 

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human rights ah? is ASEAN suppork human rights, then all of them will need to quit for shame and failures. then the whole ASEAN grp becomes an empty husk. kek.