Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Cabinet Secretariat, Government of Japan

1-6-1 Nagata-cho, Chiyoda-ku

Tokyo 100-8968, Japan   Fax: +81-3-3592-0179


Re: Making Human Rights a Cornerstone of the Japan-ASEAN Summit

Dear Prime Minister Abe,

We write in regard to the Japan-ASEAN summit scheduled for December 13 to 15, 2013. We sincerely urge you to make human rights and democracy a cornerstone of your discussions with the ASEAN leaders, and make prominent reference to specific rights concerns in your public appearances at the summit. 

On January 28, 2013, you made an important and welcome policy announcement that the Japanese government will pursue an international “diplomacy based on the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights, and the rule of law.” Needless to say, protection and promotion of human rights are a central element of international law and raising concerns about other governments’ failure to protect human rights is a legitimate area of international diplomacy. The Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs formally agrees with this position in its official policies. But in practice, Japanese diplomats at Embassies throughout ASEAN commonly tell Human Rights Watch that they avoid raising human rights issues in their interactions with host governments because they think that doing so constitutes interference into domestic affairs of another country. As a major Asian power that is also the biggest aid donor to many ASEAN countries, Japan is in a unique position to encourage its aid recipients to significantly improve their compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.

In the past, Japan’s approach to human rights has largely been to engage in quiet diplomacy and avoid public criticism of abusive governments. We believe that Japan’s efforts would be more effective if Japan combines private diplomacy on human rights concerns with speaking forthrightly about rights in public.

We sincerely expect the vision you expressed in your January speech will transform Japan's tradition oflargely “behind closed doors”diplomacy into a more strategic policy of engagement and public criticism. The upcoming summit meetings are an excellent opportunity to put your vision into practice by making human rights and democracy apriority of the meetings. In this regard, we sincerely request your attention to the concerns we have about human rights in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam.


Prominent Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, a Magsaysay award winner, was abducted on December15, 2012 in Vientiane, the Lao capital. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage obtained by his family showed Sombath was last seen with local police at the ThaDeua police post before being taken away by unknown persons in a pickup truck. TheLao authorities have responsibility to account for Sombath’s enforced disappearance, but they refused to conduct a thorough investigation into his abduction, rejected all offers of external assistance, including professional analysis of the original CCTV footage showing the abduction, and have not put forward any credible explanation for his disappearance.

Both the US and the EU have publicly expressed their concerns about Sombath’s enforced disappearance. As December 15, 2013 marks one year since his disappearance, Japan should use thisopportunity to also publicly raise serious concerns about his abduction.


Cambodia remains in a deep political crisis threatening the democratic process that was the objective of the 1991 Paris Agreements, of which Japan was a major architect and a signatory.  The crisis is largely a result of the failure of the Cambodian government to fulfill itscommitments under international law and the Paris Peace Agreements to promote and protect human rights. The most immediate cause is the authorities’ failure to respect the people’s right to choose their leaders through free and fair elections and their right to peaceful assembly. Large segments of the population and much of Cambodian civil society reject the official results of the July 28, 2013 elections, according to which the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party won a majority and a result of which Hun Sen has continued as prime minister. The authorities’ attempts to prevent and suppress demonstrations related to the elections have been accompanied by repeated instances of excessive use of force by the police and gendarmerie, killing two people and wounding many others.

Japan should join other countries in publicly calling for an independent, internationally assisted investigation into election irregularities.During your recent visit to Cambodia, we understand that Prime Minister Hun Sen made a request for Japanese assistance for electoral reform in Cambodia. Human Rights Watch urgesJapan to withhold such assistance until there is an agreement among the main political parties and Cambodian civil society on concrete and feasible steps to ensure that future elections conform with international human rights standards and best practices, including the creation of a fully independent and impartial election management machinery and a reliable and credible voter registration list.Even then, Japan should only provide assistance after consultation with the main political parties and Cambodian civil society. In the meantime, Japan should urge the main political parties and Cambodian civil society to agree upon and implement a new binding regulatory framework for the promotion and protection of the right to peaceful assembly, one fully based on international standards and best practices,including those identified by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.


Despite some encouraging steps, such as signing the Convention Against Torture and decriminalizing same-sex marriage, the Communist Party of Vietnam, through its control of Vietnam’s government, security forces, national assembly and judiciary, continues to repress human rights. The amended constitution adopted on November 28, 2013 and scheduled to come into force on January 1, 2014, contains additional rhetorical commitmentson human rights, but its operative articles maintain loopholes contrary to international  standards that provide an ongoing legal basis for human rights violations via the application of abusive laws and decrees. Among the many areas for concern are freedom of expression and association, peaceful assembly and the right to a fair trial. The government’s determined disregard of these rights is evidenced by the conviction and sentencing to prison by party-controlled courts of at least 63 political and other activists during 2013, a significant increase from recent years.

Japan should press Vietnam to begin reversing this trend by immediately and unconditionally releasing the following 10 political prisoners,whom – notwithstanding the charges pursuant to which they have been convicted and sentenced to prison – we believe are imprisoned for their exercise of basic human rights: Nguyen HuuCau, Tran Huynh DuyThuc, Le Van Son, Nguyen Van Hai, Ta Phong Tan, Nguyen Van Ly, Cu Huy Ha Vu, Dinh Dang Dinh, Ho ThiBichKhuong, and Vi Duc Hoi. Japan should also urge Vietnam to start a process of legal reform that gives effect to the human rights rhetoric of the constitution instead of relying on its language of exceptions to abuse them.Among the abusive texts currently most used to deny people their basic human rights are penal code articles 88 and 258, which are used to imprison people on politicallymotivated and trumped-up charges of conducting anti-state propaganda and abusing democratic freedoms, respectively.  Again as one of many steps, Vietnam should immediately abolish or amend these provisions to bring Vietnamese law in line with international human rights standards, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Vietnam, and do so in consultation with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.


President SusiloBambangYudhoyonohas made public appeals for greater religious freedom and tolerance, but his government continues to respond weakly to growing violence and discrimination against religious minorities in Indonesia. Other areas of concern include new onerous restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the proliferation of local decrees that violate women’s rights, and mistreatment of the increasing number of refugees and migrants, including unaccompanied migrant children, reaching Indonesia.

Japan raised the issue of freedom of religion and belief for religious minorities at Indonesia’s session at the UN Universal Periodic Review in 2012, and in response, Indonesia agreed to take further measures. However, according to the Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom, there were 264 cases of attacks on religious minorities recordedin 2012 and 243 cases in the first 10 months of 2013. Japan should further press Indonesia to respond strongly to the growing violence and discrimination against religious minorities.

The perpetrators are usually Sunni Islamist militants andtheir targets include Christians, other Muslims, including Ahmadiyah, Shia, and Sufis. For example, on June 20, 2013, a mob of more than 800 Sunni militants pressured local authorities to evict hundreds of displaced Shia villagers from a stadium in Sampang, Madura, where they had been living since August 2012 after more than 1,000 Sunni villagers attacked their homes and killed one resident. The displaced Shia villagers were then forcibly driven to an apartment building that the government had prepared in Sidoarjo, Java, three hours away. The Ministry of Religious Affairs organized a “supervision” in which the Shia villagers were forced to convert to Sunni Islam. 

Japan should express concerns on the proliferation of decrees that violate women's rights. InAugust 2013, Indonesia's official Commission on Violence against Women reported that national and local governments had passed a total of 342 discriminatory regulations, including 79 local bylaws requiring women to wear the hijab. More than 60 of these regulations were promulgated in 2013.


Burma has been experiencing important but still fragile political, economic and social reforms since the new government took power in March 2011, yet serious and systematic human rights challenges remain. Japan has been one of the most supportive international aid donors and investors in these reform efforts, but has continually hesitated to speak openly and critically about the shortcomings of the reform process to guarantee basic rights and freedoms. Japan should make it a priority to press Burma to end ongoing abuses against the stateless Rohingya Muslim population in Arakan State,where an estimated 180,000 remain internally displaced after communal violence in 2012 that in some cases constituted ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and urge Burma to address the grave humanitarian situation there. Japan should push Burma to improve the condition of Rohingya Muslims and amend the citizenship law to end discrimination against Rohingya and ensure their full participation in the 2014 census.Japan has an opportunity to partner with ASEAN states to work with the Burmese government to improve this dire humanitarian crisis before it worsens. Japan should also prioritize action to seek and end ongoing abuses against ethnic Kachin in northern Burma,where an estimated 100,000 civilians displaced from the 2011-2013 conflict face dire restrictions on humanitarian aid and human rights protection against abuses by all sides to the conflict.

Japan should also call on Burma to permit the establishment of an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Burma,which would fulfill a public pledge made by President Thein Sein in 2012 that remains unmet through 2013. Such an office would have an important role to play in monitoring and reporting on ongoing rights violations in Burma and supporting the realization of both government human rights mechanisms and civil society efforts to promote and protect human rights.

Japanese investment through JICA in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) outside of the commercial capital Rangoon has been mired in controversy for the past two years. Despite the good efforts of Japanese officials to consult with all parties, Burmese officials continue to intimidate farming communities slated to be displaced by this project. Japan should press harder for Burma’s government to protect the rights of communities facing widespread displacement and forced eviction for infrastructure, development, agriculture and natural resource extraction projects by Burmese and foreign investors throughout Burma,which is a major national issue that contributes to ongoing rights violations. Japan should view the Thilawa project as a cautionary case study setting out Japan’s obligation to help ensure that the rights of local communities are supported against capricious, abusive and illegal displacement.

Legal reform in Burma remains uneven, and some recently promulgated laws purporting to guarantee rights have actually contributed to arbitrary and abusive use of power by local authorities in cases involving land rights, freedom of protest, media freedom, and commercial development. Despite the laudable release of political prisoners in Burma during 2013, there still remain some 60 political prisoners behind bars and another 250 people facing charges related to conducting peaceful public assemblies and marches. President Thein Sein has promised to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013.  Japan should usethe Japan-ASEAN meeting to call for the Burmese government to meet its promise to release all political prisoners, and pledge to end the cycle of politically motivated arrests and charges that are putting a new generation of activists behind bars. 


Close diplomatic, political, economic, and socio-cultural ties have provided Japan significant leverage to be frank and forthright in raising human rights issues with the Thai government. We urge your government to make use of this leverage through strong public statements and private diplomacy. 

A new round of street battles in Bangkok erupted after Prime MinisterYingluckShinawatra’sgovernment tried to pass a blanket amnesty for all individuals responsible for political violence and corruption from 2004 to 2011. More than 100,000 opposition supporters took to the streets in November and December, leading clashes that left at least four dead and over 200 wounded. Against the backdrop of new violence, those responsible for past violence remain unpunished. In political confrontations and violence in 2010, at least 90 people died—including Japanese photographer Hiroyuki Muramoto—and more than 2,000 were injured. The large majority of casualties in 2010 resulted from unnecessary or excessive use of lethal force by soldiers, although there were elements of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), popularly known as the “Red Shirts” who were also responsible for armed attacks on soldiers, police, and civilians. Japan should make it clear to the Thai government that it opposes an amnesty for the killings and other abuses related to political confrontations, and urge the Thai government to prosecute all those responsible for rights abuses, regardless of political affiliation or position.

Restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in Thailand continue unabated. Thousands of websites have been blocked for suspected content considered offensive to the monarchy, and the highly popular Japan-based LINE mobile messaging service has been targeted for surveillance by Thai authorities. Under the lese majeste statute of the Penal Code and the Computer Crimes Act, Thai authorities prosecute individuals deemed to be critical of the monarchy, as well as webmasters and magazine editors who fail to censor lese majeste content. Often persons charged with lese majeste offenses have been denied bail and remain jailed for many months awaiting trial. In many cases, those convicted receive very harsh sentences. Japan should urge the Thai government to end this climate of fear and censorship and urge Thailand to reform its lese majeste laws in line with international human rights standards.

Finally, Japan should press Thailand to protect refugees and asylum seekersand ensure all are given access to a fair refugee status determination procedure that conforms to international standards. Japan should urge Thailand to sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention andits 1967 Protocol and develop and pass a national law that recognizes refugee status.

Thai authorities have frequently intercepted and pushed back boats carrying ethnic Rohingya from Burma and Bangladesh, despite allegations that such practices led to hundreds of deaths in 2008 and 2009. Since January 2013, Thai authorities have detained more than 2,000 ethnic Rohingya on the grounds that they are “illegal migrants.” Families were separated, with the men sent to overcrowded and under-resourced immigration detention centers, while the women and children are held in government shelters. In the detention centers, men were restricted to extremely cramped conditions in small cells resembling large cages, where they barely had room to sit. Since October 2013, these Rohingya have been taken by Thai Immigration officials to Ranong for return to Burma after signing ‘voluntary’ departure forms written in Thai that the Rohingya neither could read nor understand. However, rather than being returned to Burma, the Rohingya have been transferred to the control of human traffickers who have detained them in remote jungle camps, where the Rohingya were beaten and tortured until they come up with money to pay for their transfer to Malaysia.

Japan should encourage Thailand to follow the Guidelines of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers, which state that as a general rule, asylum seekers, including children, should not be detained but allowed to remain in the community, work, and live under temporary protection. Japan should offer concrete assistance and urge Thai authorities to work closely with UNHCR, which has the technical expertise to screen for refugee status and the mandate to protect refugees and stateless people. 


As Philippines President Benigno Aquino III enters the second half of his six-year term in office, his administration has still not delivered on many of its human rights commitments. The government has not made significant progress on its pledge to expedite the investigation and prosecution of extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances, and other serious violations of human rights. While the number of extrajudicial killings has dropped significantly since Aquino took office in 2010, politically motivated killings are still frequently reported and the killings of petty criminals by “death squads” in urban areas continue unabated. Human Rights Watch appreciates the fact that you publicly raised the concerns about the extrajudicial killings with then President Arroyo in 2006 and 2007. However, in the past three years, there have been only two cases of extrajudicial killings in which someone was convicted for the crime, and even in those cases, other key suspects did not face justice. Harassment and violence against leftist political activists and environmentalists continues. The killing of journalists has recently worsened, with 10 members of the media murdered in 2013 alone.

Japan should continue to engage with the Philippines on the issue of extrajudicial killings by pressing the government to end impunity for these human rights violations. Specifically, Japan should press the Philippines to make fully operational the inter-agency committee on extrajudicial killings that President Aquino created in November 2012.This committee has been tasked to expedite and streamline the investigation and prosecution of specific cases.  Japan should urge President Aquino to explicitly order the Philippines military to stop targeting leftist activists and to investigate those soldiers and officers implicated in past attacks.Japan should also press President Aquino to rescind Executive Order 546 that was promulgated by his predecessor and authorizes local government officials to arm militias.We urge your government to emphasize to President Aquino that he should order the disbanding of abusive paramilitaries and militias such as the CAFGUs (Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units), SCAA (Special CAFGU Auxiliary) and CVOs (Civilian Volunteer Organization) that are blamed for many human rights violations.


Following the May 5, 2013 election that saw the ruling BarisanNasional returned to power with a reduced majority, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has reversed course on key human rights reforms while expanding prosecutions of opponents for actions that are consistent with exercise of civil and political rights. Specifically, the government dusted off a long-ignored law, the Prevention of Crime Act 1959, and amended it to reintroduce up to two years of administrative detention for alleged “criminals” that is not subject to judicial review, and accordingly will undermine due process under the law. Japan should urge Malaysia to revoke these changes, and pass laws on criminal activities that comply with international human rights standards. 

The Malaysia government continued the politically motivated prosecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on thoroughly discredited “sodomy” charges. In just a few days, starting on December 11, Anwar will again be in court, facing the prosecutors appeal against his acquittal. Japan should intervene with the Malaysia government and urge it to order the Attorney-General’s Chambers to drop the appeal, thereby ending this case against Anwar.  Moreover, Japan should urge Malaysia to repeal its sodomy statute, and replace it with a gender neutral law outlawing rape, and end all other policies and laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Malaysia has also continued a frontal assault on the rights to freedom of assembly and association following the May election, and re-energized opposition political campaigners and civil society activists have been the victims of these efforts.  At least 43 persons have been charged with violating the Peaceful Assembly Act for failing to give 10days’ noticeto police in advance of protest, a requirement that is excessive by international rights standards. A number of other opposition activists have been charged under the Sedition Act for public speeches or comments that did not advocate violence, and thus should be protected under the international right to freedom of expression. Japan should press Malaysia to follow through on past, pre-2013 election pledges by Prime Minister Najib to revoke the Sedition Act.

Finally, despite its membership on the UN Human Rights Council, Malaysia’s record on ratification of international human rights instruments is abysmal, and among the worst in Southeast Asia. Japan should encourage Malaysia to ratify key international human rights conventions, and issue an open invitation for UN Special Rapporteurs, operating under the Special Procedures auspices of the UN Human Rights Council, to visit the country. 


Singapore has significantly increased its restrictions on freedom of expression and the press by extending onerous controls to Internet news websites that previously had been allowed to operate without significant government interference. In June, the government began to require submission of a US$50,000 bond and annual licensing for websites meeting criteria set out by the government, accompanied by requirements to take down any content that the government unilaterally determines violatesvaguely defined conceptions of “public interest,” “public security” or “national harmony.” In late November, the government’s media regulator, the Media Development Authority, required Breakfast Network (www. to register with it and ostensibly to ensure the site will “not to receive foreign funding for its provision, management and/or operation.” Japan should raise concerns with Singapore about using regulatory process to undermine freedom of expression on the Internet, and urge them to revoke the regulations promulgated in June. 

Singapore has also increasingly used an antiquated charge of “scandalizing the judiciary” to suppress commentary that touches on the country’s courts. What constitutes an offense under this law is left to the discretion of the government, and during the year, authorities targeted LGBT and social activist Alex Au, and Facebook-based cartoonist Leslie Chew, for prosecution. Japan should press Singapore to revoke this criminal offense in its penal code, and recognize that respecting people’s right to analyze and criticize judicial decisions is critical to fair and transparent judicial process.

Singapore also continues to use the Public Order Act 2009 to regulate, and frequently deny permits to public assemblies or processions that occur outside the city-state’s designated “Speaker’s Corner” area at Hong Lim Park. Moreover, highly restrictive regulations that are implemented by the Registrar of Societies require government approval for any group with more than 10 members to exist. Japan should urge Singapore to revise its laws and regulations on freedom of association and public assembly and bring those into compliance with international standards.And like Malaysia, Singapore has a very poor record in ratifying international human rights conventions or cooperating with the Special Procedures under the UN Human Rights Council, and Japan should urge significant improvements in both areas. 

Brunei Darussalam

In October, absolute monarch Sultan HassanalBolkiah promulgated a new Sharia criminal code that will introduce punishments such as stoning for adultery, and amputation of limbs for theft. Such treatment constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment as set out under international law.Japan should raise serious concerns with Brunei’s leader and urge him to reverse this decision, and ensure that Brunei’s criminal code fully complies with international human rights standards.The code will only apply to Muslims, who comprise approximately two-thirds of Brunei’s population, when it comes into effect in 2014. 

Thank you for your consideration of our views. We stand ready to provide further information or details that you might find helpful about the rights record of ASEAN member states.



Brad Adams

Kanae Doi