Human rights clampdown as virus spreads in south-east Asia: experts

South-east Asian governments are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to crack down on critics, according to Human Rights Watch.

As the disease has spread throughout the region, HRW's Asia director Brad Adams says four authoritarian regimes in particular have started to tighten their grips on what their citizens can say and do online, and in public.

"The governments of Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar are all taking actions against their critics," he said.

A security guard wearing a protective mask assists a woman in Manila. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte authorised sweeping quarantines to fight the coronavirus. Credit:AP

The number of cases across the region is growing rapidly but unevenly. Singapore has managed to keep a reasonably tight lid on case numbers through strict measures such as contact tracing. It has so far reported 844 infections and three deaths.

But other countries such as Indonesia, which for nearly two months denied having any infections, have seen a rapid growth in case numbers. It had 1285 confirmed cases and 114 deaths as of Sunday, and has conducted just 6396 tests despite its 270 million people.

The Philippines has also seen the number of infections start to rise, with the latest figures counting 1418 positive cases from just 3113 tests conducted, and 71 deaths.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen greets passengers disembarking from the MS Westerdam, owned by Holland America, at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, last month.Credit:AP

"This is standard behaviour by authoritarian south-east Asian leaders. They are taking advantage of the moment to go after people in a targeted manner. It’s not sweeping crackdowns or mass arrests – that’s because that leads to a backlash that could undermine their positions. What they are trying to do is make example of some people to scare everyone into submission."

People who have expressed concerns about the coronavirus' impact on Cambodia have been arrested for spreading fake news online, for example, including members of the dissolved main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party. The country has reported 103 cases so far.

Cambodian Prime Minster Hun Sen initially played down the severity of the outbreak, even welcoming a cruise ship that other countries refused to allow to dock, but he has since pivoted in his handling of the pandemic.

"Hun Sen is going after everybody as he has been sitting on a tinder box for years," Adams said.

Since the Philippines main island of Luzon went into lockdown on March 16, according to HRW, hundreds of people in Manila and other parts of the country have been arrested for violating curfews, quarantine regulations and social-distancing rules.

"With the Philippines, there is no one more erratic than [President Rodrigo] Duterte, he is more than willing to use the full force of the military, the police, death squads against his people. I don’t think anyone could feel comfortable that if he was angry enough, he wouldn’t use national interest to silence someone by violence or the law," Adams said.

A man has his temperature taken at a drive through COVID-19 testing centre at Vibhavadi Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand.Credit:Getty Images

In Thailand, where there were 1388 cases and seven deaths by Monday, an art gallery owner was arrested and charged for complaining on March 16 on Facebook about incoming passenger screening measures in place at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. HRW says journalists and healthcare sector whistleblowers have also been targeted.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced quarantine orders last week for the whole island of Luzon, the archipelago’s most populous island.Credit:AP

"Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis," Adam said.

And Myanmar only reported its first case of coronavirus in the past week and it has recorded eight infections so far. The regime there has also warned citizens against spreading fake news.

Griffith University lecturer Lee Morgenbesser, an expert on authoritarian regimes, said the virus provided the perfect pretext for leaders in Cambodia, Philippines, Thailand, and to a lesser extent Myanmar, to consolidate power and stifle free speech.

"First, the virus is so fast moving, what you think is correct about it can be different in a few days and it's difficult to contest the severity of what they are claiming about its impact," he said.

"People are dying and there is a lack of information. Second, given the severity of the virus and some of the things that have been implemented in democracies, like Australia saying you can’t have a gathering of more than two people, a similar law from an authoritarian regime can be justified."

The difference, Morgenbesser said, was the intent behind the laws.

"In the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia I would argue that there is very clear intent to use these new laws, and the coronavirus, to consolidate more power. I’m not entirely convinced that’s the case in Myanmar."

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