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Human Rights Developments

Asia continued to be a region of impressive economic growth rates and poor human rights, with China the outstanding example of both. If in 1993, in an effort to keep western critics at bay, some of the worst abusers in the region argued that Asia had its own definition of human rights, in 1994, they did not even have to make the argument: criticism eased anyway. One by one, developed countries pursued a policy of "commercial diplomacy," looking to China, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and even Burma, for investment opportunities and good trade deals. Human rights concerns were inevitably pushed to the sidelines, and repressive governments could feel triumphant. With President Bill Clinton's decision in May to end the linkage between Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status and human rights in China, use of trade conditionality and other forms of economic leverage seemed, for the moment, a thing of the past.

The problem was that the abuses did not go away_indeed, in some cases, the easing of international pressure seemed to generate more. Developments in China, Indonesia, and India were illustrative.

In China, at least nineteen activists were arrested for peaceful activities between March and December 1994, including Wei Jingsheng, China's most famous prisoner. After serving over fourteen years in prison for having advocated democratic change in China through a series of posters and mimeographed journals, Wei had been released in September 1993 and proceeded almost single-handedly to revive the pro-democracy movement in China. He wrote articles, gave interviews and met diplomats, all of which, according to Chinese authorities, violated the terms of his parole. On February 27, 1994, he met with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor John Shattuck, much to the Chinese government's anger, and in April, he and his assistant, Tong Yi, were detained. Tong Yi was later tried on a spurious criminal charge; as of mid-November, Wei Jingsheng remained in untried detention in an unknown location.

There were no significant releases of political prisoners between May and mid-November, when eight people were paroled on the eve of President Clinton's meeting with Jiang Zemin at the November 1994 summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Jakarta, Indonesia. The paroles were offset, however, by the secret trial of Chinese journalist Gao Yu, who on November 10 was given a six-year sentence for "leaking state secrets" for having written an article based on a copy she had obtained of a secret speech by Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Gao Yu's family was not informed of the trial until after it was over, and she had no legal counsel. She had been arrested in October 1993, one day before she was to leave for the United States to begin a fellowship.

Negotiations over access to Chinese prisons by humanitarian organizations ground to a halt after President Clinton's unconditional renewal of MFN status became certain, and violations of China's own criminal procedure code seemed to increase.

Human rights abuses in Tibet continued, with thirteen monks and nuns arrested in February and March in and around Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, for organizing peaceful protests. In May, Chinese authorities began a campaign to ban the display of photographs of the Dalai Lama.

In Indonesia, where the threat of American trade sanctions because of worker rights violations was effectively ended in February, the government had no hesitation in putting independent labor organizers on trial weeks before President Clinton and his trade representative arrived in Jakarta for an APEC summit. Mochtar Pakpahan, leader of the Prosperous Workers Union of Indonesia, an independent labor union, was sentenced to three years in prison on November 7 on charges of inciting labor unrest in Medan, North Sumatra in April. Mr. Pakpahan was not in Medan at the time of the unrest.

The APEC meeting triggered a series of harsh measures by the Indonesian government to prevent any signs of dissent or unrest. These included curbs on the press, surveillance of human rights activists, harassment of outspoken academics and an anti-crime campaign that resulted in dozens of extrajudicial executions.

In India, deaths in custody in Kashmir took a sharp upward swing after international criticism became more muted. Police abuses continued in Punjab, despite the crushing of the militant Sikh opposition. Indeed, the continuing abuse was a direct legacy of the extrajudicial methods, including many disappearances and executions, used to curb militant violence. Indian officials, particularly at the state level, continued to use special security laws such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities act, usually known as TADA, to arrest and detain suspected members of armed opposition groups or members of particular communities. In the state of Gujarat, Muslims were disproportionately arrested under TADA, for example.

Many Asian human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), from Sri Lanka to Thailand, expressed cynicism over the eagerness of Western governments to buy into the miracle economies of Asia, particularly when they themselves were feeling more heat. In Bangladesh, NGOs came under physical attack from religious extremists, and the government made little effort to investigate or prosecute the perpetrators. In Indonesia, a draconian draft presidential decree on NGOs was threatening to drastically increase government control over their activities and give broad new grounds for dissolution. In China, new state security regulations signed into law in June widened the basis for restricting peaceful dissent and independent organizing.

Intraregional concerns took on a new prominence during the year. This was particularly true of the countries of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian nations: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. A theory of "ASEAN solidarity" was propounded to mean that each ASEAN country would try to prevent activities disliked by another from taking place on its soil. Thus, Indonesia bullied first the Philippines, then Malaysia and finally Thailand to stop conferences or demonstrations on East Timor from being held in those countries. The Asia-Pacific Conference on East Timor in Manila went ahead in May, but some foreign participants were denied visas. In July, the Thai government put eleven East Timor activists on a blacklist and deported three others who were in Thailand for a conference on human rights in East Timor and Burma. In the case of the Manila meeting, the Indonesian government used economic sanctions, including canceling joint ventures, to try to halt the conference. In September, Malaysia persuaded Thailand to arrest a religious activist whom it accused of "deviating" from Islam. The man was deported and immediately arrested under Malaysia's abusive Internal Security Act; he was released in November but two of his followers remained in detention. The actions of both the bullying and the bullied governments sparked widespread protests from NGOs in the region.

At the same time that governments of the region were colluding in human rights abuses, they were also having increasing problems with the way neighboring governments treated their own nationals, particularly workers. Labor shortages in the more developed countries of the region exerted a strong pull on workers from poor countries: some 200,000 to 400,000 Burmese, for example, were working in Thailand, while Thai workers went to Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. Indonesians constituted most of the 430,000 legal and 200,000 illegal foreign workers in Malaysia, and Filipina domestic workers could be found in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. When Malaysia arrested over 1,000 Filipina maids in March on suspicion of prostitution, the Philippines government was furious. When the Japanese government imprisoned trafficked Thai women as illegal immigrants, Thailand requested that they not be considered criminals and that they be given safe passage home, even though its own officials were actively involved in the trafficking into Thailand of Burmese women and girls. China was upset at the treatment of Chinese workers in a Japanese-owned factory in Dalian, and Korean managers at joint ventures in Indonesia were singled out for criticism by Indonesian labor officials.

Worker rights continued to be one of the major issues for Asia, leading to over 10,000 strikes and work stoppages in China in 1993 by the government's own admission, and to tens of thousands of workers out on the streets of Medan, North Sumatra in April 1994. Wages and working conditions were usually key issues, but so was the freedom to organize to present demands for improvements. Vietnam gave workers the right to strike, but the new labor code denied that right to those in state-owned factories or private firms deemed essential to the economy and security. Many Asian governments were creating a pressure cooker by keeping tight controls on freedom of association and allowing worker grievances to build up.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights monitoring from within the country was not possible in North Korea, Burma or Brunei and extremely restricted in Singapore, China, and Vietnam. In Burma, a former UNICEF employee was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for providing information to foreign embassies and media. Chinese human rights activists were particularly targeted after it became clear that international pressure was evaporating. The best-known of those activists, Wei Jingsheng, was detained on April 1 and remained in custody as of this writing. Elsewhere, human rights organizations were subjected to harassment if they probed too deeply into sensitive subjects, but were able to operate nevertheless. No restrictions were placed on NGOs in Japan or Hong Kong, and there were few restrictions in Thailand.

One positive development in the region was the development of national institutions for human rights monitoring, even when the institutions created were less than fully independent. The Indonesian national human rights commission set up by presidential decree in June 1993 began functioning that December. By the end of 1994, it had proved to be more independent than expected, even if it seemed to be better at dispute arbitration than investigation. It had no power to compel testimony. A slightly stronger commission set up in India proved also to be better than human rights activists feared, and showed a willingness to take on some of the country's most controversial issues, like Kashmir. The human rights commission of the National Assembly in Cambodia was active in investigating complaints and in raising human rights issues related to proposed legislation. A bill to set up a human rights commission was pending in Thailand at the end of the year.

Asian governments made increasing use of the specialized human rights mechanisms of the United Nations. In July, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on summary and arbitrary executions visited East Timor, and the working group on arbitrary detention visited Vietnam for three weeks in November. The special rapporteur on religious intolerance was scheduled to visit China, also in November.

The Role of the

International Community

As noted above, virtually all donor countries rushed to board the economic bandwagon in Asia. The U.S., in particular, lost credibility as a human rights advocate with the de-linkage of MFN and human rights in China after two years of strong rhetoric. The "comprehensive engagement" of the United States in China was matched by Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans's "principled pragmatism" toward Burma. The European Union, for its part, moved toward "equal partnership" with the countries of ASEAN. In all cases, the move was away from criticism and toward engagement, as if the two were mutually exclusive.

Japan's human rights diplomacy continued to evolve slowly, conditioned largely by overriding economic and political interests. Thus, Tokyo was more energetic in applying its principles for allocating overseas aid (Official Development Assistance or ODA) outside of Asia_for example, in Haiti and Nigeria_than in China or Indonesia.

There were moves in the United States to involve the private sector in human rights protection through the adoption of a voluntary set of principles for corporations. The White House took the lead in formulating those principles after President Clinton made his decision on MFN. But the principles, which were initially expected to relate to companies operating in China, were reportedly broadened to become more generic, and as of November, it was unclear whether the White House formulation would turn American businesses into a more pro-active force on behalf of human rights.

The Work of

Human Rights Watch/Asia

Human Rights Watch/Asia focused on several key countries of the region: Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan and India. Additional research and monitoring took place on Nepal, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines.

In terms of thematic issues, political imprisonment, worker rights and the trafficking of women were high priorities, as were human rights abuses associated with internal strife or conflict, such as Kashmir.

Human Rights Watch/Asia issued three book-length reports during the year, including Detained in China and Tibet, a 688-page directory of political and religious prisoners in China, the most comprehensive account of arbitrary detention ever published on post-Cultural Revolution China. It also published sixteen short reports, nine of them on China.

In advocacy, particular attention was paid to pressing the U.S. and Japanese governments to use their leverage in Asia, and to engaging the American corporate sector in a dialogue on human rights, with particular attention to China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The World Bank and World Bank-chaired donor meetings were also the focus of advocacy efforts, as were major regional meetings, such as the November APEC summit in Jakarta.

In several countries, most notably Cambodia, Human Rights Watch/Asia staff provided critical commentary on proposed laws and directives, pointing out those sections that were inimical to human rights and in some cases, suggesting alternative language.

Human Rights Watch/Asia staff worked closely with NGOs in the region, exchanging information, sharing skills, and undertaking coordinated advocacy efforts where possible. A report issued in December 1993, A Modern Form of Slavery: Trafficking of Burmese Girls and Women into Brothels in Thailand, provided an opportunity to work with Thai NGOs in evaluating the book's impact.


Human Rights Developments

The Bangladesh government failed to denounce, investigate or punish much of the widespread violence against women, and NGOs, and threats against writers and editors that occurred during the year, all linked to militant Islamic groups.

Some humanitarian agencies alleged that government officials were using threats and physical abuse to persuade thousands of ethnic Rohingya refugees from Arakan state in Burma to return home. The refugees had been living in camps in and around Cox's Bazar since 1991. Most of the returning refugees were interviewed by staff from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but the intimidation was reported to take place before the interviews. In May, a cyclone hit southern Bangladesh, leaving 100,000 refugees without shelter; in July, humanitarian NGOs in the camps reported that the Bangladesh authorities were preventing a speedy rebuilding of the camps in order to "encourage" the refugees to return. In talks on August 12, 1994 in Cox's Bazar, the governments of Bangladesh and Burma agreed to a figure of 20,000 repatriations a month and by November, nearly 95,000 refugees had returned.

On June 30, the Jamaat-i-Islami, the country's largest religiously-based political party, called a strike (hartal) to demand an end to NGO activities. On that day, a clinic in Zakiganj run by the Bangladesh Women's Health Coalition was burned to the ground and an adjoining NGO's office was badly damaged. The clinic's medical officer, Dr. Sultan, narrowly escaped being burned alive. Arrests were made, but charges were dropped, reportedly after a call from the prime minister's office.

Two of the country's largest NGOs, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and the Grameen Bank, became particular targets, in part because their efforts to promote the development and empowerment of women and girls were considered "un-Islamic." In January, fatwas (edicts) were issued by local imams in the Sadar subdistrict of Kishorganj to prevent children from going to BRAC schools. Trees being grown by local women for silk production were cut down at the imams' instigation.

A number of writers and editors came under attack during the year, including Taslima Nasreen, thirty-one, a doctor-turned-writer whose novel Lajja (Shame), a fictional account of a Hindu family's persecution by Muslims following the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992, was banned in Bangladesh in July 1993. Certain militant religious groups accused Nasreen of blasphemy and called for her execution; threats against her intensified in May 1994 after a Calcutta newspaper quoted her as having called for the Qur'an to be revised. The Bangladesh government issued a warrant for her arrest on June 4 on charges of having violated Section 295(a) of the penal code by acting with "deliberate and malicious intent" to hurt the religious sentiments of the people of Bangladesh. The Jamaat-i-Islami continued to urge that she be hanged, and on June 10 a leading imam issued a fatwa offering a reward for her assassination. No one was charged in connection with these threats. Nasreen remained in hiding until August 3 when she turned herself in to authorities and was granted bail and leave to travel abroad by the High Court. On August 10, she arrived in Sweden.

The government failed to prosecute many cases of violence against women. As of November, no charges had been brought in the December 1992 murder of Nilufar Rashid. The case was portrayed by human rights organizations as an instance of dowry death, with Nilufar's husband the main suspect. The failure of the police to conduct a thorough investigation led to charges of suppression of evidence by order of Home Minister Abdul Matin Chowdury because of his close relationship with the suspect.

Women in Farhadnagar Union, Begumganj Thana, Chohelgachi Union, Jessore, and Kasba were verbally and physically attacked for allegedly committing adultery (zina). Traditional village councils (salish) pronounced sentences ranging from public floggings and stoning, to forced marriage. Punishments were generally more severe in cases that involved pregnancy.

On July 29, in a positive move, Attorney General Aminul Huq warned that the enactment of a "blasphemy law," as advocated by the Jamaat-i-Islami, would constitute a contradiction of fundamental human rights and Islam and foster an atmosphere of religious intolerance and fear. Draft legislation, making acts which "defile" the Qur'an or the name of Prophet Muhammad criminal and punishable by death, had been introduced in 1992. The attorney general's statement emboldened others to speak out against the proposed law, but it remained pending at the end of the year.

Intervention by women's and human rights groups succeeded in getting the government to compensate victims of violence incited by fatwas and to initiate police inquiries and make arrests in some cases.

The Right to Monitor

The Bangladesh government imposed no restrictions on the right to monitor human rights, but the failure to prosecute violence against NGOs cast a pall over human rights work more generally. Father Richard W. Timm, a human rights activist who has worked extensively on land issues, child labor and abuses in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, was denied a visa renewal on December 31, 1993. He had worked in Bangladesh for over forty years, and the denial was believed linked to his human rights activism. He remained in Bangladesh, however, knowing that if he left the country, he would be unable to return.

The Role of the

International Community

Taslima Nasreen's plight drew an outpouring of international concern with quiet offers of asylum and expressions of dismay and outrage from governments around the world. Less attention was paid to the attacks on NGOs.

The international community paid scant attention to the repatriation of ethnic Rohingya refugees to Burma, despite allegations from human rights and humanitarian groups that some Bangladeshi government officials were intimidating them into going back. In late October, a group from the U.S. and British missions in Bangladesh visited the refugee camps at the invitation of the UNHCR. They reported "no evidence of systematic forced repatriation," but said they could not comment on the appropriateness of the program, since they were denied access to the Burma side of the border.

The Work of

Human Rights Watch/Asia

Until July, Human Rights Watch/Asia had restricted its work on Bangladesh to monitoring the situation of the Rohingya refugees from Burma. In July, however, on the eve of the nationwide strike called by Muslim militant groups, it issued a short report on the violence against NGOs, warning that if it were not addressed, human rights problems could worsen. Together with the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project, it also worked with members of Congress to raise concern about the case of Taslima Nasreen and gender-related violence in Bangladesh. At the end of the year, Human Rights Watch/Asia was in discussions with the Bangladesh government about a possible mission to the country.

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