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Thailand – will diplomacy work?

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If it weren’t so sad, the state of affairs in Thailand following the May 2014 coup would be laughable. As Thailand inches its way to becoming a pariah state – not unlike North Korea – little is being done to halt what, to all appearances, is rapidly becoming an Orwellian nightmare.

Order 13 – formalizes penalties for imagined threats

Immediately after the overthrow of Thailand’s last democratically-elected Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, the military junta government under the leadership of general Prayuth Chan-o-cha proceeded to tear at the country’s democratic ideals by doing away with any semblance of the rule of law. Nominally, the interim government was supposed to organize elections by the end of 2014, a promise that was nevertheless broken repeatedly as the date was pushed back to 2015, 2016 and now to 2017.

Such an overextended stay in power has not been easy to achieve, and the junta can boast a long list of human rights abuses, ranging from the banal (stifling press freedoms) to the Manchurian (forced reeducation programs for critics). For its latest dirty trick, the junta invented a few new offenses and provided for them under something called Order 13 – created under the laughable guise of protecting the public.

In the run up to the passing of Order 13, the junta had banned several innocuous activities, such as public gatherings of more than five people, the eating of sandwiches in public and the three-finger salute from the movie “Hunger Games”, all seen as seditious gestures. And should you be a hapless citizen unlucky enough to be caught, you run the risk of being sent to an “attitude adjustment camp”, a poorly used synecdoche meant to disguise acts of torture. Which is where Order 13 comes into play. The April decision conferred broad and sweeping policing powers on military officers with ranks as low as sub-lieutenant. According to junta spokesman, Colonel Piyapong Klinphan, the order was implemented to prevent crimes that pose a danger to public order, and includes the authority to seize assets without warrants, suspend financial transactions and ban anyone from travelling abroad.

Shortly after the order was announced, “journalist non grata”, Pravit Rojanaphruk was denied permission to travel to Helsinki to attend the World Press Freedom Day organized by UNESCO. According to Klinphan, the reason for detaining the reporter was simply that he was attacking the junta on social media. Other journalists critical of the junta have been threatened with prison or even execution, and a liberal use of the lese majeste laws has seen people accused of defaming the royal dog, a charge that carries a 15-year prison sentence.

And given the contents of the draft constitution, due to be voted upon in August, which awards even more powers to the military in what can be seen as a legal codification of the current undemocratic regime. The 250-strong senate will be appointed by the military and will have wide sweeping powers to block legislation, appoint the constitutional court and even bring in an unelected Prime Minister if general elections are inconclusive. The charter has been attacked by human rights groups and by Thai politicians. Former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra has called it a “charade” that will make Thailand look like Myanmar before political reforms.

Under the rudderless rule of the junta, Thailand is clearly a runaway train. Can international diplomatic efforts save the country from becoming Southeast Asia’s next North Korea? Sadly, not really.

The most common words being used by both the US and the European Union as they scold Prayuth are express concern and urge. It’s not hard to understand why the interim Prime Minister ignores the reaction of the rest of the world to his draconian penalties for relatively innocuous behavior. In his Guardian op-ed, muzzled reporter Pravit Rojanaphruk speculates that since Prayuth wasn’t elected, he feels he doesn’t have to please anyone, giving him free rein.

Immediately following the May 2014 coup, the brain trust behind the EU in Brussels stopped official visits and suspended free trade talks – hardly anything that would cause Prayuth to fret. Economic sanctions, or rather the threat of economic sanctions has done little but evoke a chuckle from Prayuth. Despite pressures from the European Parliament and other civil rights groups at the industrial scale slave labor in the fishery industry has taken, the European Commission stopped short of banning the imports of Thai, content with issuing yet another stern warning. Had the ban been passed, the Thai economy would have received a painful body blow that could have prompted Prayuth and his general colleagues to tone down their acts of violence.

For their part, the US has not done much more than their counterparts in Brussels – freezing military aid and issuing stern warnings has been the bulk of it. When the US ambassador to Bangkok bemoaned the state of human rights in the country, the junta opened an official investigation on lese majeste charges. Washington’s reaction was more silence.

So given all of the above – will diplomacy work?

There are two problems – the first being that the EU/US does not seem to have the political will, or even the genuine interest, to tick off a strategic Pacific ally. It would be foolhardy of the Thai people to expect much more than what has been seen over the past two years. The second problem stems from the nature of the Thai people themselves. Having been through similar scenarios over a dozen times in the past nine decades, allowing the military to overthrow an elected government has become ”the new normal”.

Thailand is shaping up to be a case study in the limits of diplomatic solutions in an age when growing interdependencies and geopolitical interests dwarf the imperative of upholding human rights. Short of being subjected to international sanctions, Thailand’s return to democracy is postponed indefinitely.

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Southeast Asia

The Lives of Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia

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photo: © UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Samyuktha Banusekar* 

The Rohingya in Myanmar fled to various countries, having been denied citizenship and persecuted in their home country. One of the countries that the Rohingya population was often found in is Malaysia, a country that is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol. Apart from the inconsistencies in international law, the Malaysian legal system also has certain lacunas in its legal system for the protection of refugees. The article further broaches the recent development in Southeast Asia that could lead to a positive contribution to the treatment of Rohingya refugees in these countries.

The Malaysian legal system has certain inconsistencies in meeting the standards set in international law for the treatment of refugees. Firstly, Malaysia’s Federal Constitution, which provides the main provisions relating to non-discrimination and equality is inadequate as a non-citizen’s right to equality is protected but not their right to non-discrimination. To elaborate further, Article 5 of the Federal Constitution recognizes that all citizens would have the right to be brought before a magistrate without undue delay and within 24 hours of arrest but the same right does not extend to non-citizens as they can be detained up to 14 days. Articles 9 (banishment, prohibition, and freedom of movement) and 10 (freedom of expression, assembly and association) contain more discriminatory provisions against non-citizens. This differentiation between rights available to citizens and non-citizens that are inherent within the Constitution would negatively impact the rights of non-citizens. Malaysia’s lack of proper domestic legislation for the protection of refugees is another inconsistency within the legal system of the country.

Malaysia’s immigration law is the central law that deals with issues concerning the treatment of refugees. This law, while answering some very important questions regarding refugee treatment in Malaysia also does not have principles of international law embedded within it. For instance, the adoption of the principle of non-refoulement and asylum, both of which have a vast scope of application, within this domestic law could enhance the protection given to refugees to a substantial level. Section 6 of the Immigration Act 18959/63 (Act 155) iterates that a person shall not enter Malaysia without a valid permit, and Section 6(3) reiterates that whoever contravenes subsection 1 shall be guilty of an offence and receive due punishment including being liable to whipping of not more than six strokes. In this regard, caning as a punishment imposed on refugees, albeit the factor that only adult males under the age of fifty-five are subjected to caning, would amount to torture, and would also violate human rights. Apart from this, a vast amount of powers are conferred on authorities under the Immigration Act, which could lead to arbitrary actions, and since there is also a lack of opportunity to review or challenge the decisions of the court regarding the status of refugees, this must be addressed. Despite having relief to gain restitution via employment tribunals and civil law lawsuits, there are several impediments to accessing justice along with financial hardships that make it difficult to utilize.

In recent years, the countries of Southeast Asia have attempted to enhance the protection given to Rohingyas. One such initiative which would impact this enhancement in the coming year would be “Protecting Rohingya Refugees in Asia” (PRRiA), which is a two-year initiative funded by the European Union’s Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid Operations department (ECHO) launched in mid-2021. This project puts together evidence-based research, programmatic and advocacy skill to frame a better-suited integrated regional protection response for Rohingya refugees in Southeast Asia.

The project may contribute positively to the situation in Malaysia as well, considering that it is one of the countries that the project specifically focuses on. Regional protection policies such as encampment, temporary or proper detention areas and unconstrained urban settlement could be achieved through a systemized approach to the protection of refugees.

On an individual level, despite not having any international treaty or convention obligations imposed upon it at a formal level, Malaysia must take the initiative towards the protection of refugees and asylum seekers in the country. Ratifying either the Refugee Convention and the accompanying Protocol, or passing a law that governs refugee issues would contribute to the betterment of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. Policy concerns about the control of undocumented workers could also be viewed keeping in mind the broader political and economic environment that would flourish in light of foreign labour.

In conclusion, for the protection of refugees and also improving certain factors that would develop a country, refugees must not be viewed as passive victims that do not have a right to defend themselves and are in need of security and should be considered as the receivers of proper policy conditions for their protection, as also a means to improve factors related to foreign labour countries. The report can be accessed on this link

*Samyuktha Banusekar is a fourth year law student pursuing B.Com. LL.B. (Hons.) at School of Law, SASTRA Deemed University, India.

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Expanding the India-ASEAN Cyber Frontiers

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The recently concluded India-ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Dialogue (also known as the ‘Delhi Dialogue’) celebrated thirty years of the India-ASEAN relationship. The current year, designated as the ASEAN-India Friendship Year, highlights the significance of strengthening the partnership in an increasingly dynamic regional and geopolitical landscape. For India, ASEAN stands at the core of its vision for the Indo-Pacific,  as well as for its Act East Policy. For the ASEAN, India presents the solution for solidifying strategic autonomy as the great power competition between the US and China unfolds in the region.

It is argued that the great power competition is now about ‘technology’. According to this view, power transition theories emphasize the ‘innovation imperative’, and technological progress determines the viability for the ‘continuous rise’ of the rising powers. For India and ASEAN, capability and capacity building in this domain is now paramount to securing national interests.  

At the Delhi Dialogue, the Foreign Minister of Singapore remarked that the digital revolution is creating a complete revamp of the means of production and wealth generation for the future. He stressed that “if ASEAN can complement India’s natural leader in the arena, the two can remake not just the next two decades, but at least the next half-century”.

In the cyber domain, India and ASEAN face common challenges and vulnerabilities. While digital infrastructure in Southeast Asia (SEA) has been regularly exploited as launchpads for cyber-attacks worldwide, India has been at the top of the list of victims.

India-ASEAN in the cyber domain

Indian and ASEAN strategies in the cyber domain converge to a great extent. In discussions related to cyberspace governance in the United Nations (UN), both have adopted a balanced approach. Like India, the ASEAN countries want to safeguard cyber sovereignty (the view led by China and Russia), while supporting the multi-stakeholder approach (the view led by the US and Europe). It has been argued that ASEAN countries’ policies are focused more on avoiding social disruptions and controlling the spread of disinformation, than on technology issues. While the latter remains important, the former aspect has gained increasing significance for New Delhi in recent years.

Unlike the US and some of the Western allies, ASEAN countries have so far refrained from using cyber attribution as a political tool. This is similar to India’s policy which has not yet adopted the ‘naming and shaming’ approach towards its cyber adversaries, despite a few instances of indirect inferences by officials and leaders.

A major challenge for India and ASEAN has been China’s exploitation of cyberspace. Over the years, China-based threat actors have wreaked havoc in cyberspace, with motives ranging from commercial espionage to political espionage. An exponential increase in China-linked cyberattacks is witnessed in India and SEA countries whenever disagreements and conflict arise on borders (e.g., the Galwan valley clashes) or in the maritime domain (e.g., the South China Sea dispute).

India-SEA cyber relationship has broadened and deepened over the past decade, both on bilateral and ASEAN levels. India has been part of deliberations on cybercrime, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) security, and emerging technologies at the ASEAN Digital Minister’s Meeting and the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting.

Bilaterally, India-Singapore relations have significantly improved, with the Indian Prime Minister hailing the ‘warmest and closest’ relationship between the two lions (countries). Singapore is among the most active SEA countries in cybersecurity discussions at the UN. It participates in both the UN Group of Governmental Experts (UNGGE) and the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on ‘Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the context of international security’.

India-Malaysia relations have also improved since the new leadership took reign in 2021. In April 2022, the two countries reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral relations and agreed on a faster revival of ties in the post-covid period. Malaysia is deemed ‘neither a technology powerhouse nor a prolific hacker’. However, Malaysia has worked towards developing a strong national cyber strategy and uses global cooperation mechanisms for enhancing its capabilities in fields like foreign intelligence gathering.

As a natural leader in SEA, Indonesia has championed the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Though Indonesia lacks a comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy, Indonesia’s leadership in the ASEAN framework remains important for developing frameworks for collective cyber resilience. For India, these present excellent case studies for developing an active cyber diplomacy approach and fostering global cooperation mechanisms in the cyber domain.

Way Ahead

ASEAN provides the SEA countries with an avenue for advancing strategic autonomy in an increasingly competitive Indo-Pacific. The ASEAN centrality in the region is respected by the West which now seeks to engage the ASEAN countries diplomatically, economically, and politically.  ASEAN centrality has also meant that Chinese aggressiveness has driven other regional middle powers like India, Australia, and Japan towards ASEAN, thus elevating its stature further. However, in recent decades, China has made significant inroads in the SEA markets and is now seen as an important political partner as well. Despite concerns over increasing Chinese imprints on SEA’s digital domain, Chinese technological capabilities and policies attract several SEA countries.

The US-China rivalry puts India and SEA at risk in cyberspace as the rivalry will percolate towards allies and partners. In this light, the need is for developing a third way in the cyber domain – a Cyber Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). India-ASEAN engagement can address the technological gaps and cybersecurity issues, without being drawn into the rising great power competition in the region. The partnership can encompass digital infrastructure, 5G technology, cyberspace governance, and the       construction of a new South-South paradigm in cyberspace.

As fears of a ‘Digital Cold War’ emerge in the Indo-Pacific, a Cyber NAM can be a significant diplomatic effort towards a peaceful and secure cyberspace.

(Views are personal)

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Vietnam’s role in eliminating Khmer Rouge in Cambodia

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Khieu Samphan (left) and Nuon Chea in the Trial Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). File photo. Photo: ECCC

Right from the time of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam has adopted a liberal socialist welfare state emulating the erstwhile USSR. Within the historical narrative related to Indochina region the atrocities committed by Khmer Rouge has been listed as one of the darkest periods of history in Cambodia. Khmer Rouge after coming to power were suspicious of Vietnamese intentions and has developed an antagonistic attitude towards Vietnam. There have been skirmishes between the armed forces of the two countries and Khmer Rouge was strongly supported by China at that time. The establishment of People’s Republic of Kampuchea after the defeat of Pol Pot which was a replacement for the authoritarian Pol Pot regime. Led to the re institution of the state institutions and the protection of the religion and trade. The support which was given to the other opposition parties by the US which have fled Cambodia and shortage refuge in Thailand. 

The government instituted by Vietnam and the government in exile with Norodom Sihanouk as president and his deputy as Prime Minister, were seen as the two power centres. Vietnam has supported the re-establishment and restoration of public life in Cambodia in the late 1980s because of economic hardships and strong economic boycott adopted by the United States has led to more hardships to the Cambodian citizens. As a result of which Vietnam has justified its intervention in Cambodia to protect the citizens and the hardships brought about by Pol pot regime. Subsequently Vietnam withdraw its forces from Cambodia in 1989. In terms of protection of religion particularly Buddhism and restoration of monasteries large number of Vietnamese have helped Cambodians to adhere to the religion. However, withdrawal of Vietnamese forces led to a power struggle between different factions of Cambodia. 

Following the negotiations in 1991 there was a agreement between different fractions which led to the formation of the coalition government under supreme National Council which was headed by Norodom Sihanouk and brought about representatives of the three factions representing different political orientations and royal representatives.  The effective control of Cambodia was in the hand of the Phnom Penh regime and the conclusion of a peace agreement in 1991 led to first establishment of peace and protection of human rights across Cambodia. 

The disarming of Cameroon was a major issue for the UN operations particularly UN Security Council and therefore it was thought that is structured de-weaponization of the rival factions should be done. Under the UNSC and its mandate way back in 1992-93 the national elections were held in July 1993. These were seen as one of the most free and fair elections across Cambodia. The election of FUNCINPEC led to the return of Prince Norodom Sihanouk to the seat of power. The Khmer Rouge resistance was eroded because of the lack in foreign funding and subsequently thousands of supporters defected to the government and joined Cambodian army. Vietnam has been instrumental in looking into the safe transition and exchange of power between different factions. 

While much of the history has been documented but the Vietnamese army sacrifices to free Cambodians from brutal Khmer Rouge regime was not celebrated in the way it should have been. It was seen that more than 30,000 Vietnamese troops were killed before final withdrawal in September 1989. The Vietnamese soldiers underwent serious hardships and were supported by the Cambodians who were helping them in a limited way.  

Vietnam’s sending of troops to Cambodia in late 1978 was primarily to protect the millions of Cambodians who have fled the urban centres to rural locations because more than 202 million people have died and executed by the Khmer Rouge regime. The Vietnamese army despite limited rations and supplies have tried to protect the population and because of the Vietnamese attack the Pol Pot fled from Cambodia. Immediately after driving US from Saigon, the engagement of Vietnam in Cambodia was seen as the draining of Vietnamese resources as many of the refugees had started trickling into Vietnamese borders. While Vietnam has fought against French and the Americans their role in Cambodia has been underplayed and many of the Vietnamese soldiers who returned from Cambodia felt that they were not given due recognition by new Cambodian government. 

Even Cambodia has been ignorant of the fact that Vietnam was the one country which rescued them from the hardships of regime. In fact, the friendship monument in Phnom Penh clearly reflects the Vietnam’s role in driving Pol pot away. It was also a redemption of Vietnam’s glory and history which showcased that Vietnam could play a significant role in the Indochinese history. If one investigates the four years that they had ruled Cambodia, the brutal regime was responsible for forcing millions of people to work in community farms, but this forced social engineering was detrimental to the society and economy of Cambodia. The bloodshed also had aftereffects because many families died from exhaustion, disease, and starvation. 

One of the important aspects of Pol pot regime was the support from the hill tribes and they are known respect for Buddhism as a religion. Pol pot was instrumental in isolating people and abolished money, religion, and private properties. In the history of Cambodia Khmer Rouge regime, the South 21 jail in the capital was seen as notorious because more than 17,000 men, women and children were detained in that centre during the rule of the regime. The full horrors of the regime were discovered when the documented stories and oral history narrated by people in their diaries and verbal communication highlighted the deplorable conditions of living and the killing fields which brought Cambodia to the verge of complete economic downturn and retreating the country to the primitive age. 

The UN established tribunal decided and brought Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. In November 2018 the UN administered tribunal give sentences to Pol pot brother Khieu Samphan for crimes against humanity and genocide. The Pol pot regime also conducted ethnic genocide against Cham  and Vietnamese minorities. In fact, the role that Vietnam has placed in computing history needs to be revisited and loaded for its efforts in protecting the Cambodians as well as other ethnic minorities. 

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