In the name of the public health emergency: An emerging challenge on the right to protest in Southeast Asia
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed to us how restrictions imposed by governments, which seem neutral in their aim to curb the spread of COVID-19, are biased against vulnerable groups and have a disproportionate impact on their wellbeing. This article presents a non-exhaustive collection of examples of how such restrictions indirectly discriminate against vulnerable groups, focusing on their implications for civic space and democracy in Southeast Asia.
Entering the second year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Southeast Asia – the first case was reported on 13 January 2020 in Thailand – governments of the region have imposed strict measures and health protocols, including the limitation of activities and movements through, for instance, the number of people in gatherings. Governments went the extra mile, from declaring a state of emergency to creating a new set of regulations, tightening restrictions under the existing rules, and imposing heavy sanctions for those who violate the protocols.
In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government adopted the Law on Preventive Measures Against the Spread of COVID-19 on 5 March 2021, which institutionalised heavy sentences of up to 20 years of imprisonment for those violating the COVID-19 measures, which include the restriction of gatherings. In addition to implementing a strict Movement Control Order (MCO), the Malaysian government also adopted the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance on 14 January 2021, which grants excessive powers to the Malaysian armed forces to enforce the COVID-19 protocols. Indonesia’s Ministry of Health Regulation No 9/2020 imposes restrictions on activities in public spaces as well as socio-cultural activities. Heavy movement restrictions were also imposed in Singapore, Vietnam, and other countries.
Although deemed necessary to impose social distancing, the restrictions have disproportionately targeted vulnerable groups and those who convey dissenting opinions to demand their fundamental rights be upheld even during the pandemic. The MCO in Malaysia targeted both documented and undocumented migrants. Due to their poor economic conditions, they had to live in crowded settlements even before the pandemic – making social distancing impossible to achieve from the beginning.
Furthermore, groups such as human rights activists, students, and labour union workers who raised their voices and demanded justice after receiving unjust treatment from employers and governments during the COVID-19 pandemic have also encountered challenges resulting from the restrictions of movement. In Indonesia, hundreds of protesters who marched against the Indonesian parliament’s decision to adopt the Omnibus Law in 2020 – a law that civil society organisations criticised across the country for weakening environmental protections and workers’ rights – were detained under the pretext of violating COVID-19 prevention measures. Most of the protesters are students and labour union workers.
In Cambodia, the COVID-19 law has stifled protests and criminalised worker union leaders from the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), a casino worker union. The union’s leaders have been detained and criminalised for their involvement in the worker strike that started on 18 December 2021 to demand justice and the reinstatement of 365 workers laid off by the casino earlier in April.
The violation of COVID-19 measures has also been used to stifle protests in Malaysia. On 2 June 2020, the police arrested Sarasvathy Muthu, a woman human rights defender, together with four activists from the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services and the Parti Sosialis Malaysia, during a peaceful protest in solidarity with cleaners in state-run hospitals in Ipoh. Further, during the wave of demonstrations to express disappointment against the government for its ineffective handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in July 2021, the authorities intimidated and harassed activists, journalists, and peaceful protesters, including medical practitioners, questioning them for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions.
International communities have urged governments to uphold civic space and fundamental freedoms even during the COVID-19 pandemic, because enabling effective participation is an essential part of democracy. Although under international human rights law, and particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), states might limit certain rights and derogate from their obligations in emergencies such as public health crises, they should implement the restrictions proportionately with proper balancing. In a dialogue held in the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association highlighted the importance of not using excessive measures under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic to hinder the right to protest. Civil society organisations such as CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, have also reported the state of the freedom of peaceful assembly during the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing at the use of excessive forces by authorities to disperse crowds and detain protesters in more than 70 countries.
These trends of harassment against peaceful assembly under the pretext of combating the COVID-19 pandemic have further limited the movement and, subsequently, the voices of the oppressed. With the new Omicron wave at the moment, nobody can predict precisely when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. If the health crisis goes on for long, we might see a wave of normalisation of those restrictions into common practices. It will further deteriorate human rights and fundamental freedoms in the region. The pandemic, therefore, brings not only a public health crisis but also a danger to civic space and freedom, which have been continuously challenged by the rising of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia even before the pandemic.
Cornelius Damar Hanung has worked in the field of human rights for the past 10 years, focusing on the rights of LGBTIQ+ people and civic space in Asia. He currently works with CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation in the areas of advocacy and campaigns, as a member of the Governance Circle of the Innovation for Change (I4C)’s East Asia Hub. He is an LLM candidate at the University of Hong Kong. Views are his own.