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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights highlight increased risks faced by legislators in Southeast Asia

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights report highlights ongoing threats to MPs in Southeast Asia, with Myanmar being the worst for detaining parliamentarians.



Detained Myanmar State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi (L) and president Win Myint (R) during their first court appearance in Naypyidaw, May 24, 2021. Myanmar's Ministry of Information via AFP

In a striking revelation, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) disclosed ongoing human rights violations against parliamentarians across Southeast Asia, with a sharp focus on Myanmar.

The report was unveiled today in Manila, Philippines, spotlighting the precarious situations of lawmakers, particularly from Myanmar, but also in other regional nations.

According to APHR Chair Mercy Barends, who is also a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives, “An attack against one parliamentarian is an attack against the democratic institution of parliament itself.” She emphasized the critical role of parliamentarians in maintaining checks on power and bolstering democracy.

The 2023 edition of the “Parliamentarians At Risk” report underscores Myanmar as the most concerning country for the incarceration of parliamentarians, with all 74 detained MPs in the region coming from there.

The majority of these are members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that won the 2020 elections.

Many continue their legislative duties from hiding, risking severe reprisals including detention, torture, or death at the hands of the military, which also targets their families and seizes their properties.

Myanmar’s former leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi,  has been serving a 27-year prison sentence in Naypyidaw, while the president of her ousted government, Win Myint, was serving an eight-year sentence in Taungoo.

Last week, Aung San Suu Kyi was earlier relocated from prison to house arrest due to concerns about her health amid a severe heatwave.

The report also highlights the broader regional trend of using judicial harassment against opposition lawmakers. In the Philippines, for instance, former senator Leila de Lima, an APHR member, was recently released on bail after nearly seven years of detention but continues to face charges in an ongoing drug case.

De Lima describes her situation as reflective of a regional move toward authoritarianism that suppresses dissent and stifles freedom through various oppressive tactics.

Furthermore, the report discusses election irregularities in Thailand and Cambodia, where intimidation tactics and non-democratic processes prevent free voting.

Despite winning the most seats and the popular vote, Thailand’s Move Forward Party’s path to governance was obstructed, mainly due to its stance on royal reform. This led to Pita Limjaroenrat’s resignation as party leader and the party’s transition to the opposition.

Similarly, Cambodia’s elections were marred by the barring of significant opposition parties and attacks on civil society, consolidating power in the hands of longtime ruler Hun Sen and his regime.

In Malaysia, while the new government campaigned on a platform of reform, judicial harassment continues, including through draconian laws such as the Sedition Act, which APHR has repeatedly called to be repealed. The act – which has previously been used against opposition parliamentarians – can carry a punishment of three to seven years in prison for vaguely worded offenses, including acting with “seditious tendency” against the government.

“Parliaments – and by extension parliamentarians – play a crucial role in providing oversight of the government in a functioning democracy. It is therefore of the utmost importance that lawmakers can conduct their mandate without fear of reprisals from the government,” said APHR Board Member and Malaysian member of parliament Wong Chen.

“In view of the continued risks faced by parliamentarians in the region, APHR continues to call on all stakeholders and international partners to step up collective efforts in protecting parliamentarians at risk in the region.” said Wong.

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