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Asia Overview

In East and Southeast Asia, governments relied on Asian initiatives during the year to address economic, political, and human rights issues. Gone was the rhetoric of "Asian values" with its pre-financial crisis premise that economic development and protection of individuals rights were incompatible. In its place was simply a determination, from democratic and authoritarian governments alike, to show that solutions to Asian problems were to be found within the region, despite the diversity of cultures and political interests involved. South Asia, as always, was a region apart, so divided by rivalries and security concerns that regional cooperation was all but impossible.

On the economic side, one example of East Asian regionalism was the movement toward developing the equivalent of an Asian Monetary Fund involving China, Japan, South Korea and the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It had a political parallel with the all-Asian resistance in late 1999 to an international tribunal for East Timor, balanced by the prominent Asian participation in the U.N. Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) in which peacekeeping forces were headed first by a Filipino and then a Thai. In October 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to ease tensions with North Korea, a wholly homegrown initiative. At the governmental level, the "We'll do it our way" stance was partly a case of resistance to solutions imposed from outside but also one of perceived common interest in building regional strength across a variety of fields- including human rights.

Asian regionalism was helped by the fact that the influence of the international donor community was near an all-time low, although aid levels were never higher: witness the helpless outrage of donor countries during the year over the treatment of women in Afghanistan; the attacks on minorities in

India; the aftermath of the October 1999 coup in Pakistan; the continuing restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma; Indonesia's failure to stop militia violence in West Timor; the obstructions placed by Cambodia in the way of a tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge; the arrests of political and religious activists in China; or the coup and hostage crisis in Fiji in May. In all these countries, domestic political imperatives far outweighed any fear of international reaction, and as it turned out, there was not much to fear from donors worried that pressure would inflict more damage on themselves than on the offending country.

Unlike the years immediately prior to the financial crisis when East and Southeast Asian governments steadfastly refrained from criticizing each other (South Asian governments felt no such hesitation), Asian regionalism in 2000 was more accommodating of different viewpoints. This may have reflected the impact of democratization in important countries in the region such as Thailand, whose foreign minister broke ranks with other ASEAN countries and openly criticized Burma's suppression of opposition political activities. It also reflected distrust between the big regional powers, China, India, and Japan, and suspicion within the less powerful countries about the long-term political and economic agendas of the big three.

The phenomenon of finding strength as a region without necessarily constituting a solid political bloc may also have reflected the many internal conflicts that strained bilateral relations. Kashmir remained a constant source of tension between India and Pakistan. Indonesia's inability to control the conflict in Aceh worried Malaysia, just across the Straits of Malacca. The raid into eastern Malaysia by guerrillas of the Abu Sayaf wing in the southern Philippines led to the deportation of thousands of Filipinos from Malaysia and strained that relationship. The ongoing ethnic insurgencies in Burma affected relations with India, Bangladesh, and Thailand, all of which had to shelter thousands of refugees from those conflicts.

Both governments and regional and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were committed, where possible, to regional approaches to resolving regional human rights problems such as exploitation of migrant labor, human trafficking, and child prostitution. There was less support among governments for the international system for protecting human rights. Not only did China work harder than ever to escape censure at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, weakening that body as a result, but the Australian government in September bitterly rejected the actions of several U.N. bodies that had questioned its treatment of aboriginals and refugees.

Asian NGOs as a group, however, remained an important voice for the expansion of the international system, pushing-as their governments, with few exceptions, did not- for ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, an end to the use of child soldiers, and implementation of human rights commitments made at the Beijing Women's Conference in 1995.

Human Rights Developments

In general, a rising concern with justice for past abuses did not translate into effective measures to prevent new ones. Serious problems remained in terms of protecting civilians in areas of conflict; ensuring basic civil rights under authoritarian governments; and providing protection to refugees, migrants, and trafficking victims.

The Pinochet precedent was very much on the minds of governments and NGOs in the region during the year, as accountability for past abuses was an issue as never before. In South Korea, efforts were underway to hold the U.S. accountable for the No Gun Ri massacre in July 1950, during the Korean war, in which some 400 civilians may have died. Throughout the countries occupied by Japan during World War II, women forced into sexual slavery as "comfort women" were still campaigning for individual compensation from the Japanese government. Relatives of families of those killed or unaccounted for in the Thai army's May 1992 firing on unarmed demonstrators demanded and got release of classified government documents about the incident and continued to demand the prosecution of those responsible. Relatives of Tiananmen Square victims filed a civil complaint in a U.S. court in September against Li Peng, then Chinese premier, now head of the National People's Congress in Beijing. In Cambodia, international pressure forced the Hun Sen government to agree reluctantly to a tribunal over which it would not have complete control to try former Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity committed from 1975 to 1979. The final establishment of the tribunal, which would be based in Phnom Penh and have a majority of Cambodian over non-Cambodian judges, was still awaiting action by the Cambodian parliament by late October. A special panel of the Dili district court in East Timor was set up in June to try those responsible for crimes against humanity and serious crimes committed during the period January to October 1999.

In part because of a rising interest in accountability, the International Criminal Court attracted more attention in the region. By the end of the year, New Zealand and Fiji had ratified the Rome Statute while South Korea, Thailand, Bangladesh, Australia, the Solomon Islands, and the Marshall Islands had all signed. A conference of Asian NGOs, held in Bangkok in June, decided to make ratification of the statute a key priority for regional advocacy.

Even as moves to punish past abuses were gathering strength, serious human rights problems continued to plague the region. Some were linked to separatist or nationalist movements and governments' abuse of security laws to detain, torture, "disappear," or kill suspectedopponents. Some were classic examples of the refusal of authoritarian governments to tolerate peaceful political opposition. Others were linked to communal violence, still others to the failure of governments in the region to protect refugees and migrants.

In all countries where armed rebellion against the central government was underway, all parties to the conflict were responsible for abuse. In Sri Lanka, civilians in the northeast of the country were caught in the middle between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces. In Kashmir, Indian security forces used draconian counterinsurgency measures, including arbitrary arrest, torture, and staged "encounter killings", against Muslim citizens who were suspected of supporting guerrilla activity, while armed Islamists were believed responsible for mass killings of Hindu civilians. In Nepal, an ongoing Maoist insurgency continued to spread from four midwestern hill districts to encompass nearly the entire nation. In Aceh, in Indonesia, the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM, Free Aceh Movement) was reported to have killed suspected informers; government security forces were responsible for the torture and killing of suspected GAM supporters. Separatist conflicts were also underway in West Papua, Indonesia; northeast India; Xinjiang, in western China; and around all of Burma's borders. In Laos, armed insurgency from ethnic Hmong in the highlands and ethnic Lao rebels based in Thailand and Laos increased during the year, and in June, the government initiated a national security alert after a series of unclaimed bomb blasts were attributed to those Lao insurgents. Governments tended to deal harshly with any rebels arrested, sometimes judicially, sometimes extrajudicially, but their prosecutions of their own agents for human rights violations were rare. Several South Asian governments responded to internal armed conflicts by introducing or enhancing existing anti-terrorism legislation or emergency powers.

Fundamental rights to freedom of association, expression, and assembly were tightly restricted in North Korea, Burma, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. China, despite some liberalization, still banned any group or publication that it considered a threat to the Communist Party's hold on power.

But even in more open societies, like Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, and Cambodia, politics could be a risky occupation, as the trials of Anwar Ibrahim and Nawaz Sharif made clear. The use of draconian internal security legislation remained an issue in many of the region's democratic or democratizing countries. In Bangladesh, for example, the government signed the Public Security Act into law in January, affording sweeping powers to the police and circumventing guarantees of due process.

Where public advocacy was possible, human rights defenders were working toward legislative change. In South Korea, for example, President Kim Dae-Jung announced in August his willingness to repeal the harsh National Security Law, as recommended by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and demanded by a coalition of more than 200 local rights organizations; as of October, it was still on the books, but former prisoners who had been unfairly detained under it by previous administrations became legally eligible for rehabilitation and compensation. (In fact, a 1999 law made anyone who had suffered detention, job loss, or expulsion from universities as a result of involvement in pro-democracy activities eligible for "restoration of honor" and compensation.) In India, NGOs campaigned against the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill into parliament.

In much of the region, communal, ethnic, or caste tensions were caused or exacerbated by government actions. In India, Hindu nationalist policies of the ruling party encouraged attacks on Dalits ("untouchables"), Muslims, and Christians. In China, perception of organized meditation groups as a potential political threat led to widespread persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and members of other qi gong groups. Ethnic tensions rooted in longstanding social and economic grievances and a perception on the part of indigenous elites of dispossession by "migrants," led to the coup in Fiji in May and the attempted coup in the Solomon Islands in June. In Fiji, many of the "migrants" were in fact third- and fourth-generation Fijians. In the Moluccas, in Indonesia, a bitter communal conflict with similar socioeconomic roots was fueled by the participation of security forces in the conflict, with the army largely siding with Muslims and the police with Christians. There was not a single ethnic or communal conflict in the region that was reducible to "ancient hatreds," and impartial government policies, had they been in effect, could have gone a long way to reducing the potential for violence.

Protecting refugees, migrants, and victims of trafficking was a huge issue across the region, made more complicated by the fact that it was, by definition, transnational. To combat trafficking of Thai women to Japan, for example, both the Thai and Japanese governments needed to reform legislation and crack down on corruption of police and immigration officials. To protect foreign migrant workers against abuse in Malaysia or South Korea, countries exporting labor needed to prosecute illegal labor recruiters while the receiving countries needed to step up investigations and prosecutions of abusive employers.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted the January 20 Asia-Pacific Symposium on the Trafficking in Persons, but the conference did not generate any concrete preventive measures. The governments of the United States and the Philippines organized a conference of the Asian Regional Initiative on Trafficking of Women and Children (ARIAT) from March 29-31 in Manila. That conference did produce an action plan for tackling human trafficking in the region.

Throughout the region, huge numbers of refugees and internally displaced people continued to need protection. On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) only five Asian countries were parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or to its 1967 Protocol. Serious issues of refugee protection arose even in some of those five during the year. In Australia, for example, a riot in August at an immigration detention center in Woomera, South Australia, drew international attention to the government's harsh treatment of undocumented migrants. In China, reports of forcible return of North Korean refugees were almost impossible to verify because UNHCR was allowed no access to the area concerned. In some countries, protection in the host country was the problem. Many refugees from East Timor were virtual hostages of militia leaders in Indonesian West Timor, for example. In others, the country from which refugees fled obstructed their efforts to return. Despite international pressure to secure the right to return for approximately 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in camps in Nepal since late 1990 and 1991, Bhutan continued to resist proposals for their repatriation. The UNHCR pledged to continue its voluntary yearly repatriation of thousands of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran; the refugees returned to face ongoing civil war and severe violations of human rights.

In many countries that offered little or no protection for refugees, desperate asylum-seekers tried to enter the workforce of the host country, blurring the line between refugees and migrants, and making deportation of undocumented migrants tantamount in many cases to refoulement. This was the case with three groups of Burmese refugees: ethnic Shan refugees in Thailand, ethnic Chin in India; and ethnic Rohingya in Malaysia.

Protection of the internally displaced remained weak in some countries and non-existent in others. Many of the estimated one million internally displaced in Sri Lanka faced restrictions on fundamental freedoms and discrimination at the hands of Sri Lankan security forces; therewere even allegations that army and police used displaced villagers as forced labor north of Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka. The Indonesian government for much of the year obstructed efforts of international agencies to assist the more than 300,000 Indonesians displaced by the communal conflict in the Moluccas. By October, some aid was getting through. In Afghanistan, aid agencies faced an ethical dilemma of whether to continue to provide assistance in light of the ruling Taliban's policies on women when to halt all assistance could have a disastrous impact on the displaced population. A Taliban offensive in northeastern Afghanistan resulted in a massive exodus from Takhar province into neighboring Badakshan. Up to 90,000 were believed to be homeless, and a humanitarian crisis loomed as winter approached.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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Post-Election Repression in Malaysia

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