Asia witnessed a few triumphs and many more setbacks for human rights in 1990. One notable triumph was the success of the pro-democracy movement in Nepal, inspired in part by events in Eastern Europe, which managed to curb the powers of the King, replace a repressive government with a multiparty parliamentary system, and promulgate a new Constitution guaranteeing civil and political rights. In Cambodia and Afghanistan, the US-Soviet rapprochement led to progress in efforts to settle long-standing wars, although by the end of the year, the fragile agreement of the four parties to the Cambodian conflict on a UN-led transition authority had run into serious trouble, and fighting was escalating with the onset of the dry season. The Soviet Union's waning interest in supporting Afghan President Najibullah led the latter to embark on a program of reform which, if properly implemented, could lead to significantly greater freedoms of expression, association and assembly.
Those were the bright spots in an otherwise gloomy picture. Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, one of the world's longest serving heads of state, turned over his prime minister's post to Goh Chok Tong in November but no one believed he had really relinquished power or that Singapore's intolerance of political opposition and freedom of expression would alter. The Chinese government announced the release of some 881 prisoners but thousands were believed to remain in custody, and the trials of the "black hands" of the 1989 demonstrations were being prepared at year's end.
Democratic governments such as Sri Lanka and India were torn apart by civil strife, partly of their own making, and reacted to opposition abuses by committing serious human rights violations themselves. Newly elected governments, such as those in Pakistan and the Philippines, proved increasingly unable to assert civilian control over unruly or uncooperative militaries. The government of South Korea, also recently elected, proceeded with its "Nordpolitik" at the highest levels while cracking down on those who tried to visit or contact counterparts in North Korea, and suppressing organizations such as trade unions suspected of being influenced by the left.
Political dissenters continued to be imprisoned in Indonesia and East Timor, China and Tibet, and Burma, where the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council failed to turn over power to an opposition overwhelmingly elected to the National Assembly on May 27.
Freedom of expression was in short supply throughout the region. In China and Tibet, dissent continued to be punished with arrest and imprisonment; students who took part in the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square had the fact noted in their personnel files, perhaps endangering their job prospects for the rest of their lives. In Indonesia, a student who criticized government policies was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison on subversion charges. In Burma, monasteries were shut down as monks took a prominent role in protests against the military leadership. In Cambodia, senior government officials including a Cabinet minister were arrested for advocating a multiparty system. In Sri Lanka, a member of parliament was stopped at the airport en route to Geneva, and documents he was carrying to bring to the United Nations Working Group on Disappearances were confiscated. Further restrictions on the press were imposed in Singapore. If there was one overriding abuse in a continent marked by a crazy quilt of political systems and conflicts, it could well be the lack of freedom of expression, from which many other abuses followed.
Bush administration policies toward human rights violators in the region were contradictory and inconsistent. Administration officials castigated Burma and appeased China; talked with the Soviet Union about settling the Afghan conflict while supporting an abusive guerrilla offensive against Kabul; spoke of determination to prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power while supporting the Khmer Rouge's military allies.
Nowhere were the contradictions more obvious than on China. The administration lobbied against congressionally imposed sanctions even though prisoner releases, the safe passage of Fang Lizhi and his family out of China, and the lifting of martial law in Tibet and China were carefully timed efforts by the Chinese authorities to maintain trading privileges and ease the resumption of loans. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Richard Schifter went to Beijing in December to hold discussions on human rights, but only after the administration had effectively lifted all sanctions but one (the ban on military sales) in exchange for Chinese cooperation in the Persian Gulf. By seeing Foreign Minister Qian Qichen at the White House in November and allowing the World Bank to resume loans of a nonhumanitarian nature, President Bush sent a strong signal to Beijing that differences over human rights were over. That signal may have made the Schifter visit possible; it also may have rendered it irrelevant by removing any remaining leverage that the US had to force concessions.
On Cambodia and Afghanistan, the Bush administration worked toward conflict resolution through a formula of setting up a transition authority leading to general elections. At the same time, however, it continued supporting the non-Communist resistance in both countries rather than pressing for a ceasefire in the belief that to strengthen the resistance would wrest further concessions from the governments of Hun Sen and Najibullah. That policy risked backfiring. In Cambodia, the lack of discipline by non-Communist forces operating in "liberated zones" in northwest Cambodia made the Khmer Rouge look good by comparison. In Afghanistan, the anger over civilian deaths caused by the mujahedin rocketing of Afghan cities could only have benefited the government.
On Sri Lanka and especially Burma, the Bush administration was outspokenly critical of abuses but did not back up the criticism with concrete actions. Sanctions or other economic measures were required by law to be imposed if the Burmese government had not released political prisoners or begun moves to hand over power to the popularly elected Assembly by October 1. By the end of the year, no action had been taken.
In much of the rest of the region where abuses were rampant -- Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea -- human rights were simply not on the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda.
Because of the scale of abuses there and the cowardice of the Bush administration's response, China continued to receive the greatest share of Asia Watch's staff time and resources. Asia Watch issued three reports and maintained the most comprehensive list available of political arrests and releases. Asia Watch helped shape the congressional debate over sanctions, testifying in Congress nine times during the year on China, particularly with regard to the debate over whether to extend Most Favored Nation trading status for China.
Asia Watch also engaged governments directly in debate. It was the first human rights organization invited to undertake a mission by the Hun Sen government in Cambodia and by the Najibullah government in Afghanistan. Both visits were opportunities to discuss human rights concerns at length with senior government officials, including, in Afghanistan, a two-hour meeting with President Najibullah. A mission to South Korea in June led to a continuing exchange of letters with the Korean government over labor rights and imprisonment under the National Security Law. In September, Asia Watch met with Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas to discuss issues ranging from abuses in East Timor to the use of the anti-subversion law to detain political opponents. Even in countries that Asia Watch cannot officially visit, such as China, it was clear from government denunciations of our reports that our allegations were reaching their intended target.
In general, the higher our profile in a particular country, the greater the interest of local human rights organizations in sharing information and working together. Publicity about our concerns as expressed in reports and press releases thus strengthened our relationships with local human rights monitors, particularly in East and Southeast Asia. Asia Watch benefited from extensive press coverage in the Bangkok and Hong Kong newspapers of its work on China, Tibet, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia and Japan.
Japan deserves a special mention. During the year, Asia Watch made a concerted effort to build contacts with Japanese organizations and individuals with the aim of encouraging Japan to use its enormous economic and political leverage in Asia for promoting human rights. Toward that end, Asia Watch staff visited Japan in June and convened a meeting of Japan specialists in Washington to discuss opportunities for influencing the policy-making process. We also joined with Japanese organizations in protesting the treatment of Chinese dissidents in Japan.
As in earlier years, Asia Watch, given its limited resources, was forced to be selective about the countries on which it worked. There was little work done on Bangladesh, Brunei, Malaysia, North Korea, Pakistan, Singapore or Taiwan. Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Vietnam received most of our attention in 1990.