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Human Rights Developments

      With few exceptions, Asia in 1991 was one long paroxysm of bad news on the human rights front. Civilians continue to bear the brunt of civil strife or outright war in Afghanistan; Cambodia; the states of Punjab, Kashmir and Assam in India; Aceh in Indonesia; East Timor; the Philippines; Sri Lanka; Tibet; and along Burma's borders with Bangladesh, China and Thailand. Anachronistic, one-party states continue to detain dissidents and nonviolent advocates of democratic change _ thousands in the case of China and Burma, hundreds in Vietnam and Indonesia, and an unknown number in North Korea.1 Pakistan, the Philippines and South Korea only recently the shining examples of restored of democracy in the region, were looking increasingly tarnished in 1991 in terms of respect for basic freedoms. Refugees continued to face the threat of refoulement from Hong Kong (to Vietnam), Malaysia (to Indonesia) and Thailand (to Cambodia).

      But there were also a few qualified bright spots. Parties to the Cambodian conflict signed a peace accord on October 23, with numerous human rights safeguards built in. At the end of the year, however, the feasibility of that accord was in some doubt, and reports from Phnom Penh of fear _ not only of the Khmer Rouge but also of the security forces of Prime Minister Hun Sen's government _ were widespread. Afghanistan also inched toward peace after the announcement of U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar's five-point framework in May.

      In another positive development, countries in the region that were once the first to say that human rights abuses were an entirely domestic affair began to concede ground to their critics. On November 2, China issued a White Paper on Human Rights, acknowledging the government's acceptance of the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but arguing that international standards must be viewed in the historical context of each country. Indonesia became a member of the U.N. Human Rights Commission and invited U.N. Special Rapporteur Pieter Kooijmans to Indonesia in November. Kooijmans was in East Timor when a massacre of demonstrators by the Indonesian military occurred on November 12. Malaysia and Indonesia, stung by the United Nations Development Program's publication of a "human freedom index" in May, in which Malaysia was rated on a par with Haiti and Indonesia on a par with North Korea in terms of respect for human rights, called for the development of an Asian concept of human rights. Any effort to move away from universal standards would be dangerous, but the Malaysian-Indonesian call reflected a recognition that human rights issues cannot be ignored.

      External powers began to be more vocal on human rights in Asia, most importantly with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained Burmese opposition leader, and the passing of a U.N. General Assembly resolution in November condemning Burmese human rights abuses. The European Community (EC) told the six countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) in May, at an EC-ASEAN dialogue in Luxembourg, and again in July, following the ASEAN prime minister's conference, that henceforth development aid would be linked to human rights. The EC countries also wrung from ASEAN a mild rebuke of the Burmese leadership, the first such criticism of Burma from its Asian neighbors. Japan was also unusually outspoken on Burma at the end of 1991, and a Japanese official even raised the possibility in November that the massacre in Indonesia might provoke a review of Japan's Official Development Assistance to Indonesia. The Japanese stance reflected a new policy articulated during the year that Official Development Assistance should be linked to the human rights performance of recipient countries.

      Far and away the biggest cause of human rights violations in the region was war. Annual death tolls of civilians were in the thousands in Kashmir, Punjab and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the scale of the conflict approached conventional warfare with five thousand guerrillas of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam laying siege to an army post in July. Both sides engaged in summary executions, torture and disappearances. In Punjab and Kashmir, Indian security forces retaliated against whole villages and neighborhoods for ambushes by militants, and suspected guerrillas were arrested, tortured and often killed in custody. Counterinsurgency operations against a small separatist movement in Aceh, on the northeast coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, continued to result in widespread killing of civilians, mass arrests and torture during the year.

      The use of weapons that cannot distinguish between civilian and military targets, in violation of the laws of war embodied in the Geneva Conventions and their protocols, was another characteristic of war in Asia. In Afghanistan, the opposition mujahedin fired poorly aimed and inherently inaccurate Sakr-B rockets on population concentrations in Kabul and other cities. The Sri Lankan army bombed the Jaffna Peninsula in what appeared to be an indiscriminate manner; in addition, its 1990 bombing of the electric power grid in Jaffna left most of the peninsula without power needed for refrigeration of medicines, among other things. In Cambodia, the relief brought about by the signing of the peace accord was tempered by the realization of what the war would leave behind _ the largest concentration of land mines per capita of any country in the world. The danger that mines pose to those returning from camps along the Thai-Cambodian border was so high that Asia Watch warned against mass repatriation of refugees until an effective mine-mapping and mine-clearing program was well underway. The indiscriminate way in which mines maim or kill, long after their military purpose has been served, led Asia Watch to call for an outright ban on their use, not only in Cambodia but around the world. Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia took up that call in a speech before the U.N. General Assembly in September.

      Religion was manipulated for political ends. In Pakistan, the state's political use of the shari'a or Islamic law, and particularly the law on zina, or adultery, made women particularly vulnerable to abuse. In China, a government campaign against Catholic and Protestant activities intensified, and the Communist Party called religion a vehicle for "hostile infiltration from abroad" and "national splittism." The Indonesian army accused the Catholic Church in East Timor of fomenting anti-government activity and, in October, stormed a church where pro-independence youth had sought sanctuary.

      Little progress was made during the year toward the creation of more open societies. In Thailand, a democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup in February. In China, controls on freedom of speech, assembly and association remained tight. Cautious steps toward a more consultative form of government in Singapore were halted after the opposition in the August elections quadrupled its seats in the fifty-one-seat national parliament from one to four; Singaporean leaders decided that the increase was a popular rejection of their own version of glasnost. Freedom of expression took a beating all over, from Afghanistan, where a newspaper editor was briefly detained for printing a "war-mongering" article, to Indonesia, where another editor received a five-year prison term for publishing the results of an opinion poll deemed offensive to Muslims. Wherever nationalist conflicts were present, speaking of independence became a dangerous act, whether in East Timor, Kashmir or Tibet. Urging reunification with North Korea was off-limits in South Korea; discussions of reunification with the republic of Mongolia was banned in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. In India, the government seized newspapers in Punjab and Kashmir, while separatist militants threatened and killed journalists.

      Throughout the region, internal security acts permitting prolonged detention without charge or trial were used to arrest and hold political suspects for indefinite periods, sometimes without access to family or counsel. The Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act in India, the Anti-Subversion Law in Indonesia, the Internal Security Act in Malaysia, and the National Security Law in South Korea are only a few examples of the laws used and abused in 1991. China continued to arrest and detain dissidents for the crime of "counterrevolution" which encompassed twenty-two separate acts.

      The year was more notable for the continued detention of long-term political prisoners than for their releases. Wei Jingsheng, the pro-democracy activist in China, entered his thirteenth year in prison; he was believed to be working in a salt mine. Chia Thye Poh, suspected by the Singaporean government of belonging to the Communist Party, entered his twenty-sixth year of detention and restrictions on his liberty without charge or trial; since his release from prison in 1989, he has been forced to live in a form of limited house arrest on Sentosa Island.

      The refugee crisis in Asia got no better. By mid-December, two planeloads of Vietnamese refugees had been sent against their will from the abysmal detention centers in Hong Kong back to Vietnam. While Hong Kong authorities claimed that the refugees were economic migrants, procedures to determine who was fleeing persecution were too flawed to accept that statement at face value. Burmese refugees in Thailand continued to face abuse from Thai authorities as well as the possibility of forced deportation. The Khmer Rouge in October made plans to force some 40,000 Cambodians in a camp called Site 8, in Thailand, across the border into Cambodia; they were only prevented from doing so by a massive international campaign and the quick action of international relief agencies along the border. The Indonesian and Malaysian governments agreed on but have yet to proceed with the return of some two hundred refugees from Aceh who had fled to Malaysia in early 1991 and have been in detention ever since. Japan forcibly deported one Chinese dissident who had unsuccessfully sought political asylum but showed greater flexibility in handling requests for visa extensions from Chinese students than it had in 1990.

The Right to Monitor

      Local human rights organizations were generally free to document and publicize abuses by their governments in India, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Yet, this freedom did not prevent at least two monitors in India from being killed for their work in 1991, or the harassment of human rights lawyers in Malaysia and the Philippines.

      Human rights monitors also worked openly in Indonesia, although there were clear, if unwritten limits, as to what was acceptable. The government prevented members of the Legal Aid Institute in Jakarta from going into highly sensitive areas to conduct fact-finding missions and barred Institute lawyers from defending suspects in subversion trials in Aceh and East Timor.

      In most countries of the region, however, human rights monitoring was considered a subversive activity. In China, members of a Shanghai group called the Study Group on Human Rights Issues in China were arrested in April, and individual efforts, such as those of Hou Xiaotian, wife of detained dissident Wang Juntao, were met with surveillance and temporary detention. In Vietnam, those members of a human rights group in Danang who had not fled as refugees to Hong Kong were in Vietnamese custody. Government antagonism has made it impossible for human rights monitoring groups to form legally in Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, China, North Korea, Singapore and Vietnam.

U.S. Policy

      The Bush Administration by and large did not treat the protection of human rights as a high priority in Asia. In some cases, like Burma, where pariah governments ruled and strategic interests were minimal, the Administration was consistently critical, and pushed its friends in the region, like the ASEAN countries, to be so as well. In other cases where strategic interests were high, notably China, the Administration seemed reluctant to press for reform of what remained one of the worst human rights records in the region, arguing that this would "isolate" the world's largest country. As a rule, the Administration was reluctant to move beyond verbal criticism to take concrete steps, or even threaten to take such measures, against major human rights abusers.

      China continued to represent the biggest blot on the Bush Administration's human rights record. The Administration's decision in May to extend unconditionally Most Favored Nation trading status lifted the economic pressure on the Chinese government that had been one factor in the release of almost nine hundred detainees in 1990. If the Administration expected rewards in terms of human rights concessions from the Chinese for this move, it got none. It proceeded with a visit by Secretary of State James Baker to Beijing in November _ a visit desperately desired by the Chinese government _ despite having neither sought nor received any commitments on human rights in advance. Human rights ended up being a major focus of the trip, but it was largely because of pressure from outside the Administration, and the trip produced few results. The Administration sought information from the Chinese government about a list of political prisoners but then allowed the Chinese to sit on the list for nearly six months without demanding a response. One got the impression that the Administration saw human rights abuses in China as an irritant that it devoutly wished would go away, rather than as a major problem to be tackled vigorously.

      The same thing could be said of the Administration's actions toward other countries, like Indonesia, where rather than offend a friendly government, the Administration played down the extent of human rights abuses in the Aceh region, asserting in February that it had no reason to believe that abuses were taking place on a massive scale. After the massacre in East Timor in November, the Administration quickly expressed regret, sent a team to Dili to investigate and called in the Indonesian ambassador, all to its credit, but the sharp contrast with its reaction to Aceh appeared to be because two American journalists witnessed and were injured in the course of the Dili killings. Unlike the Dutch and Canadian governments, the Bush Administration held back in using economic leverage to press Indonesia to account for the massacre.

      U.S. law was invoked in a few Asian cases to press for human rights improvements in 1991. No country save Burma was denied foreign aid on the grounds that it engaged in a systematic pattern of gross abuses. In South Korea, were guarantees to potential U.S. investors from the U.S. government's Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) were denied on the grounds of violation of worker rights. The small amount of U.S. development aid given to Thailand was suspended following the February coup, but that was mandatory under U.S. law rather than a decision taken voluntarily by the Administration out of concern for basic freedoms. Assistance for military training to Indonesia continued despite the killings in Aceh and East Timor, with the State Department continuing to insist that the training gave Indonesian officers a good grounding in professionalism and humanitarian behavior.

      In many cases, the Administration did not speak with a single voice, sending mixed signals to offending governments. In Burma, the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency worked at cross purposes. In Afghanistan, the CIA reportedly continued to press the mujahedin to take the offensive as the State Department was working toward peace. These contradictory actions undermined the Administration's effectiveness.

The Work of Asia Watch

      Asia Watch helped to define and generate attention to some of the key human rights issues in Asia in 1991. Two of those issues in China were the trials of key dissidents in early 1991 and the use of forced labor to produce products for export. In the first case, Asia Watch revealed hitherto unknown accounts of why dissidents like Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao had been branded the "black hands" of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, and obtained key documents from their trials. The wealth of information made it possible to see many of these dissidents as individuals with characters and personalities instead of faceless victims of a repressive government. In many ways it was the Asia Watch information on Chen and Wang that led Human Rights Watch Chairman Robert Bernstein to set up the Committee to End the Chinese Gulag, a campaigning organization headed by Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, Yuri Orlov, Cyrus Vance and Bernstein himself, which aims to work for the release of all those imprisoned for peaceful dissent in China.

      Asia Watch also published articles from restricted circulation journals in China which demonstrated beyond any doubt that it was central government policy in China to produce export goods in labor camps, and that some of those goods were going to the United States in violation of U.S. law. In its efforts to uncover the truth about prison exports, Asia Watch was primarily concerned about drawing attention to the use of political prisoners in the production of these goods, the appalling conditions under which prisoners were forced to work, and the subordination of humanitarian reasons for having inmates work to the economic imperative of boosting export earnings by relying on extremely cheap or unpaid labor. The issue of prison export became one of the outstanding human rights issues between China and the United States.

      Another issue that Asia Watch helped to define was the problem of land mines in Cambodia. Relief workers along the Thai-Cambodian border had long known of the magnitude of the problem but international awareness of the issue was limited. The report, produced jointly by Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights in September, led Prince Sihanouk to call for a worldwide ban on mines, beginning in Cambodia, and encouraged the U.S. government to allocate more funds for mine-clearing programs. Scheduled for translation into French in early 1992, the report also helped to draw attention to the particular iniquities of mines as a weapon: their tendency to injure civilians more often than combatants; their durability for years, and sometimes decades, after the war they were used in is over; and the failure of most armed forces to record where mines are laid and to remove them after a battle.

      The work on Aceh helped to generate international awareness to a little-known region of Indonesia and added to the pressure on the Indonesian government to allow a visit there by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in July. However, the need for more pressure continues to be apparent, as the ICRC has not been permitted to make a return visit, let alone set up an office in the troubled area.

      Cooperation with and support of local human rights monitors remained a high priority for Asia Watch. In India, human rights organizations working on Kashmir and Punjab saw the two Asia Watch reports produced on those areas in 1991 as supportive of their own efforts. In Indonesia, a Ford Foundation-funded internship program allowed two Indonesian interns from the Legal Aid Institute to work with Asia Watch during the year and helped to send Indonesian-speaking Americans to Jakarta to assist in translating key documents into English. Asia Watch staff responded to requests for help during the year from human rights monitors in virtually every country where human rights organizations were permitted.

      One way of keeping up the contacts with such organizations was by travel to the region, and in the course of the year, Asia Watch staff and consultants visited Australia, Burma, Cambodia, China, East Timor, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Tibet.

Indonesia in fact has three legal political parties _ the ruling GOLKAR and two smaller parties _ but the latter are tightly controlled by the government and would not be allowed to challenge GOLKAR seriously, let alone to win.

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