Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Cambodia presented its human rights report before the United Nations Office in Geneva amid growing allegations that abuses are being systematically committed by state forces. The UN committee acknowledged that Cambodia has introduced some reforms in recent years, in particular land reform and registration of indigenous communal lands. But it also expressed dissatisfaction with the answers given by the Cambodian representatives, especially over the issue of impunity and extrajudicial killings.

The Cambodian government was represented by Ney Samol, Permanent Representative of Cambodia to the UN Office at Geneva, and Mak Sambath, president of the National Human Rights Committee of Cambodia.

The committee tackled several issues that seek to probe the role of the Cambodian government in addressing the rising number of human rights violations across the country in the past two decades.

One panel member asked why the police seemed hesitant to aggressively pursue investigations involving trafficking cases. Related to women’s issues, another panel expert expressed concern about the plight of women workers in the garment sector. The panel also cited a report published by Cambodia’s Minister of Women’s Affairs in 2012 and 2013 which mentioned that 35 percent of men had used some form of physical violence against women. It confirmed news reports of increasing incidences of domestic violence, rape, and acid attacks.

Cambodia was praised for abolishing death penalty but an expert observed that “there was still a gap between law and practice with regard to the right to life.” Proof of this is the unsolved murder cases of 12 journalists.

Cambodia was pressed to improve its policies concerning civil and political rights. The committee enumerated several laws and programs that limit free speech and assembly on the grounds of defamation, disinformation and incitement. Journalists were in fact threatened with detention and prosecution for purportedly spreading disinformation. Two other draft laws, cybercrime and civil society regulation, could also undermine citizen rights. An expert urged Cambodia to involve the public in finalizing these measures.

The committee also demanded more information about Cambodia’s prison system. Finally, it encouraged the government to respect the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

Cambodia firmly denied that activists are persecuted in the country. According to the government side, everyone in Cambodia is free to conduct political work as exemplified by the more than 1,000 NGOs that focus on human rights. Overall, there are more than 4,000 NGOs allowed to operate in the country, and these groups are not forbidden to criticize government policies.

The government also informed the committee that prison visits are regularly made to prevent torture. It claimed that it has been “working tirelessly” to solve the cases of disappeared and murdered journalists. It insisted that there’s no impunity in Cambodia.

It reminded the committee that Cambodia has been cooperating with international bodies to monitor the country’s compliance with human rights agreements. So far, Cambodia has already welcomed five special rapporteurs.

At one point of the proceedings, the Cambodian panel was combative. Asked about the gender imbalance in the government delegation, the Cambodian representative retorted that all five special rapporteurs to Cambodia had also been male, just like all secretary-generals of the UN.

The representative went on to defend the country’s record in upholding women’s rights by mentioning that some 20 percent of women were in leading positions in Cambodia’s public institutions.

Finally, the Cambodian government stressed that protests or public gatherings that threaten “security and stability” are temporarily prohibited.

Cambodia’s report to the UN was criticized by Licadho, a local human rights group. It noted that the report “lacks any connection to the present situation on the ground and reflects the authorities’ unwillingness to seriously acknowledge and address serious and systematic human rights violations.”

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog, submitted several recommendations to the UN pertaining to the human rights situation in Cambodia. Some of these included the establishment of an independent commission to investigate irregularities in the 2013 elections, the opening of the media sector to independent and opposition voices, and a lifting of all arbitrary bans on freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Thailand’s New Law Could Be Worse than Martial Law

Written for The Diplomat

The decision of the Thailand government to lift martial law on April 1 has failed to appease critics after General Prayuth Chan-ocha signed a new law that imposed harsher security measures across the country.

Martial law was declared on May 20, 2014 to restore order in the nation’s capital, which was besieged at the time by street clashes between pro-government and opposition forces. Two days later, a coup was launched by Prayuth, who established a government called the National Council of Peace and Order. The NCPO drafted an interim Constitution that was used to appoint government bodies including the legislature. Prayuth’s appointees subsequently named him as the country’s prime minister. But despite the existence of civilian agencies, martial law was retained.

The government was probably hoping to deflect international criticism when it revoked martial law this week. Yet it is hoping to restore confidence by replacing martial law with Order Number 3/2558 (3/2015), which invoked article 44 of the interim constitution to justify the enactment of extraordinary security-related measures. For some critics, the new order is akin to the draconian provisions of Thailand’s 1959 charter, which gave the military leader vast powers to persecute and prosecute the opposition.

The new order provides the appointment of “peace and order maintenance officers” from the ranks of the military who are given broad powers to defend the security of the state. These army personnel can search homes, summon and arrest troublemakers, confiscate property, and detain suspected individuals in special premises for up to seven days even without judicial authority.

Article 5 of the order could further undermine free speech in the country. The provision reads: “Peacekeeping Officers are empowered to issue orders prohibiting the propagation of any item of news or the sale or distribution of any book or publication or material likely to cause public alarm or which contains false information likely to cause public misunderstanding to the detriment of national security or public order.” (Unofficial translation by iLaw, the Freedom of Expression Documentation Center)

Thailand media groups described the article as a “greater threat to press freedom and freedom of expression than the lifted Martial Law.”

“Civilians are also at risk, as people who communicates and discusses topics through online social media that contain information viewed by the authorities as threat to national security, cause of public alarm, spreading of false information or public misunderstanding will be punished on the same condition,” the media groups warned in a joint statement signed by the Thai Journalists Association, National Press Council of Thailand, Thai Broadcasting Journalists Association, and News Broadcasting Council of Thailand.

They urged the NCPO to clarify the intent of the article and provide a more specific definition of “national security threat” and “dissemination of false information.”

Freedom of assembly is still curtailed, as stated in article 12 of the order which bans “political gatherings of five or more persons.” Referring to this provision, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance asked: “If the aim of the order is to lift martial law, why are such activities still banned and what are the criteria for giving permissions to such gatherings?”

Meanwhile, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reminded the public that the order didn’t remove martial law in the southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and the four districts in Songkhla. A Muslim separatist movement is currently active in the southern region.

Anusorn Iamsa-ard, spokesperson for the former ruling Pheu Thai Party, likened the lifting of martial law and the enactment of the new order as “running away from a tiger into a crocodile.” Sathit Pitutecha, deputy chairman of the Democrat Party, warned NCPO that the order “will destroy the confidence of both domestic and foreign communities, especially the international communities, who will only see Thailand as more of a dictatorship.”

Even the National Human Rights Commission, which rarely criticizes the NCPO, issued a statement about the detrimental impact of the measure. “The PM has to be cautious about falling into the trap of having so much authority, which could lead to criticism later on. During a time that the country is trying to promote national reform and solve inequality issues, I doubt that it’s suitable to use Article 44 or martial law,” said NHRC Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara.

Instead of assuring the international community about its commitment to democratic transition, Thailand further damaged its reputation by choosing to affirm its restrictive policies.

“Normally I would warmly welcome the lifting of martial law, but I am alarmed at the decision to replace martial law with something even more draconian, which bestows unlimited powers on the current Prime Minister without any judicial oversight at all,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

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