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Asia Overview
Two very different dynamics were at work in East and South Asia during the year. In East (including Southeast) Asia, the deepening economic crisis was by far the most significant factor in terms of human rights developments, and it showed no signs of abating. South Asia remained largely unaffected by the crisis; rights issues there remained depressingly familiar, including communal and caste-related violence and abuses linked to armed conflict and civil strife. Violence against women was a major issue across the region, with particular concern for the treatment of women by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Failure to protect refugees was another regionwide problem. Important elections took place in many key Asian countries during the year, but it would be difficult to argue in India or Cambodia that they presaged any major improvement in human rights. Kim Dae-Jung’s election to the presidency of South Korea in December 1997 and Indonesia’s change in government in May 1998 offered the most hope for better rights protection, but the depth of the economic crisis in both places tempered any optimism.

Human Rights Developments
The Asian economic crisis had both predicted and unforeseen consequences in terms of human rights. Even the predicted consequences, however, were more painful than most had anticipated. Massive layoffs in Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea, among other places, resulted in much of the new middle class sinking back below the poverty line. In Indonesia, loss of jobs meant a growing inability to pay school fees—which in turn meant an increase in dropouts to the point that some feared a “lost generation”of uneducated children. The breakdown of transportation networks meant that widespread food shortages were developing for the first time in recent memory. The ethnic Chinese minority, with a disproportionate control of the retail economy, became more of a target than ever before, in some cases with tacit government endorsement.

As the job market dried up, migrant workers were sent home: Burmese from Thailand, Indonesians from Malaysia, Thais and South Asians from South Korea. Immigration detention centers were reported to be overflowing with new detainees, as not only did police intensify roundups of undocumented workers but the crisis also spurred a new exodus from migrant-sending countries. Thailand and Malaysia both used the cover of deportation of migrants to send back individuals with a clear claim to refugee status.

In a situation of economic collapse, large-scale corruption became a pressing political issue, especially in South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia, to the point that dismissal of corrupt officials, investigation of ill-gotten wealth, and the creation of anti-corruption agencies became seen as the essence of political reform.

One widely predicted consequence— an anti-Western backlash— was not nearly as strong as anticipated, as Asians tended to find more fault with their own governments, past or present, than with Western creditors. Indonesian President Soeharto, after thirty-two years, would not have been forced from office without the economic crisis as a backdrop, and investigation into his assets became a major demand of the Indonesian public. Asians increasingly sought accountability, primarily of public officials and to a lesser extent of international financial institutions, as it was they that had allowed loans to corrupt governments to proceed unhindered.

The crisis changed fundamental assumptions about rights. The Asian “miracle” had fostered the notion that economic development had to precede political liberalization. The crash forced a reassessment of that position. The World Bank, in its September 1998 report, East Asia: The Road to Recovery , noted, “Corruption and poor institutional performance shoulder much of the blame for the crisis.” Editorials in the Asian and international press suggested that open and accountable governments could prevent disastrous decision making, better cope with economic crises when they occurred, or at least forestall political unrest by having elections in which voters could throw out those perceived as the culprits. Thailand and South Korea were increasingly held up as examples of how popularly elected governments seemed to be working their way out of the crisis faster than their neighbors.

This cause-and-effect correlation was overly simplistic. Just as a utilitarian approach to authoritarianism— that it was good for stability and growth—had blinded many foreign investors to the political pressures building up within repressive states, a new-found support for democratic elections, human rights, and the rule of law on the part of much of the donor community as the crisis deepened was based on exactly the same utilitarian approach to government—democracy was now seen to be better for stability and recovery, if not resumption of growth. In fact, the nature of the political system was only one of many factors affecting the likelihood of a country to be seriously hit by the crisis and its capacity for coping with it. The utilitarian argument implied that a free press, independent courts, and a strong civil society were desirable as means of coping with the economic crisis, rather than as ends in themselves. This meant that if the economic crisis continued to deepen, the utilitarians’ support for strong democratic institutions could weaken accordingly.

What the utilitarian argument failed to grasp is that the economic crisis coincided with a profound desire for political change across Asia. Indonesia’s political instability was not caused solely by the collapse of the currency but also by the fact that resentment against Soeharto’s paternalistic repression and his children’s corruption had been building over the previous ten years. The Thai electorate saw the crisis in 1997 as an opportunity to correct some of the worst ills of a money-driven political system. In Malaysia, the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim was not only Prime Minister Mahathir’s response to an alternative set of economic policies but, perhaps more importantly, a defiant response of the old guard to a more outward-looking political generation. It was not necessarily that political change would produce economic answers, but that economic crisis helped bring simmering political tensions , many of them rooted in past human rights abuses, to the surface.

It was telling that the new attachment to democracy on the part of the international community was only visible where a locally generated transition was already in place. The economic-development-leads-to-political-liberalization theory was still very much invogue at the end of the year with respect to countries like China where democratic transitions had not taken place, and where international pressure on human rights issues had all but ceased. Chinese leaders periodically reiterated the “development first”premise during the year, and the steady stream of Western leaders going to Beijing with large trade delegations showed that the lessons learned from Indonesia and Thailand were not going to be applied to China. In India, where democracy had flourished sinceindependence in 1947, human rights issues were simply not high on the international agenda, in part because of the assumption that democracies prevented human rights abuses from happening.

Civil society in Asia knew better. For the tens of thousands of Asian nongovernmental organizations, the economic crisis strengthened the argument that political and economic rights were truly indivisible. Just as political reform became the major demand of nongovernmental groups in the initial phase of the crisis, concerns over food security, access to health care, an adequate standard of living, and provision of a social safety net for the unemployed and impoverished became paramount concerns as the crisis deepened. In policy terms, this meant a move away from advocating the conditioning of IMF or other assistance packages on immediate political reform toward insistence that nongovernmental groups should be actively involved in the planning and implementation of aid or bailout programs.

The nuclear standoff in South Asia did not lead to an increase in communal violence in India and Pakistan, as some had feared. However, the tests did contribute to rising tension between the two countries over Kashmir, and shelling by troops along the cease-fire line increased sharply in July and August, killing more than one hundred civilians.

Afghanistan remained a human rights disaster, with the world either unable or unwilling to exert pressure on warring parties to end abuses that included massacres of those deemed to be the enemy. In the case of the Pakistan-backed Taliban forces who controlled much of the country, abuses included discrimination against and deliberate terrorization of women, as well as summary executions, including the massacre of thousands of Hazaras, a Shi’a minority, in August. Human rights violations in Sri Lanka were also committed by both parties to the conflict, and the fighting appear to be escalating toward year’s end. (In early October, local rights monitors and journalists estimated the number of government soldiers killed by the Tamil Tigers in a three-day period to be in the high hundreds.) In Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma, ongoing conflicts had displaced hundreds of thousands internally, and many more had fled abroad. Refugee and rights organizations paid particular attention during the year to the failure of the international community to provide adequate protection to ethnic minority refugees from Burma in Thailand, but the protection failure was in fact region-wide.

Violence against women was a major issue around the region. The policies of the Taliban perhaps attracted the most attention, but reports of rape against ethnic Chinese women in Indonesia during riots there in May generated outrage around the world and led to the creation of a new network of groups organized over the Internet or in person to combat such violence. Many of the members were based in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as among ethnic Chinese communities in Canada, Australia, and the U.S. By October, international and domestic concern had led to the creation of a Commission on Violence Against Women. In India, violence against Dalit, or low-caste, women continued as part of a broader pattern of violence against Dalits. Police paid little attention to crimes by higher-caste groups against Dalit women, including sexual assault and rape, which seemed aimed at intimidating Dalits into ceasing their efforts to demand fundamental rights. Concern over trafficking of Asian women continued, as the economic crisis drove many more families into poverty, making them vulnerable to the offers of recruiters.

Abuse of national security legislation, particularly that which provided for broad powers of search, arrest, and detention without charge, remained a focus of human rights groups’ concern. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir’s use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) to arrest his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, was the most prominent example of such abuse. In India, groups continued their campaign for repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, but it was only one of several preventive detention statutes used to harass and detain lower castes, minorities, and human rights activists. In Indonesia, President Habibie announced his intention to repeal the hated Anti-Subversion Law (Presidential Decree 11/1963), but by year’s end it appeared that many of the law’s provisions would simply be included in the criminal code. In China, the fate of some 2,000 prisoners convicted of “counterrevolution” who remained in prison even after the “counterrevolution” provisions of the criminal code were repealed became a focus of international concern. On a more positive note, the Supreme Court in Pakistan checked efforts of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to suspend all fundamental rights by declaring a state of emergency; it also struck down controversial sections of a 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act that gave enhanced powers to the police. Nevertheless, by year’s end, the courage of the court gave little hope to Pakistani human rights defenders, who predicted only further erosion of civil liberties. One reason for their pessimism was Sharif’s proposed amendment to the constitution, authorizing the removal of officials for failure to enforce Islamic law.

Important elections or changes of leadership took place during the year across the region, in India, Cambodia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, China, and Vietnam. The Hong Kong election in May was structured to reduce the number of popularly elected seats, but pro-democracy candidates overwhelmingly won those available in a clear rejection of the notion that the people of Hong Kong would see that their best interests lay in supporting Beijing. The Cambodian election may have demonstrated again the desire of Cambodians to vote, but it also demonstrated the cynical use by donor countries of international observers to rubber-stamp a preordained outcome. In this case, ruling party intimidation and pressure in the months before election day made it questionable whether the polling results, free or fraudulent, accurately represented the desire of the electorate. In India, the coming to power of the Hindu nationalist party generated fears of a rise in communal tension; those fears were realized in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh, where anti-Christian violence surged in the latter half of the year. In Indonesia, the resignation of President Soeharto and the immediate lifting of controls on political parties offered some hope that the elections scheduled for 1999 would be the freest since 1955, although thirty years of stifled political development meant that coalition-building and compromise were something of a lost art. And despite some signs that pressures for political reform were increasing in China and Vietnam, the closed nature of the political system in both countries made it impossible to tell how much the new leadership would be beholden to conservatives in the Communist Party power structure.





China and Tibet


Indonesia and East Timor




Sri Lanka




Arrests in Malaysia
What You Can Do

Attacks on Ethnic Chinese Women in Indonesia
What You Can Do


Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch