Category Archives: Burma

The Cebu Declaration for Free Expression in Southeast Asia

CebuDeclarationLawyers from five countries in Southeast Asia have met in an historic conference in Cebu, Philippines to form a common front against the repression of freedom of expression in the region.

One of their key proposals is to engage together and hold accountable regional institutions like the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights – an organization, they say, remains unresponsive to human rights violations in member countries.

More than 30 lawyers, representing 10 civil society organizations from Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines established Sunday the Advocates for Freedom of Expression Coalition-Southeast Asia (AFEC-SEA) and vowed to “raise a Southeast Asian voice that will champion freedom of expression in our region in accordance with international human rights norms as exercised by journalists, bloggers, netizens, citizens and human rights defenders, in whatever medium, form, or frontier, whether traditional or emerging.”

“A violation of the right to freedom of expression in one Southeast Asian nation is a matter of grave concern to the whole region,” they said in a document signed over the weekend during the four-day conference in Mactan, Cebu. “The protection of freedom of expression is an obligation of the whole region under international law.”

Most of the signatories are trial lawyers who have handled cases against freedom of expression and Internet freedom. Some – including senior lawyers from Myanmar – had been jailed for fighting against human rights violations or for advocating freedom of expression.

“Recent events have posed and continue to pose serious threats to freedom of expression in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia,” the declaration said, signed by the Center for International Law Philippines (CenterLaw), Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER), Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR), iLaw, The Legal Aid Center for the Press (LBH Pers), Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism & Human Rights (MCCHR), Myanmar Lawyers’ Network (MLN), Myanmar Media Lawyers’ Network (MMLN), Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA), and the Thai Lawyers For Human Rights (TLHR).

The conference was organized by Centerlaw with the support of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative Internet Freedom program.

“(I)n establishing this freedom of expression collation, our vision is to achieve a Southeast Asia that upholds and protects freedom of expression, and the rule of law, serving as a beacon of free speech to the world,” the declaration added.

“It is an opportune time for us to issue this declaration given the escalating repression of expression in the region, including restrictions on the use of the Internet,” said Romel Bagares, CenterLaw executive director.

He said the lawyers realize that for the most part, they are fighting an uphill battle in countries like Thailand, Myanmar and even Malaysia. “But it is important that cases are filed to have an historical record of wrongs brought to court.”

Among the projects coalition members will undertake is a campaign against the use of a single gateway for the Internet in Thailand, legal challenges against the use of the 1948 Sedition Act in Malaysia to repress protests against the government, and the filing of cases in the Philippines against recently-issued government regulations on the Cybercrime Act, according to Gilbert Andres, a Centerlaw senior litigator who played a key role in bringing the lawyers together to the conference.

“The lawyers have also agreed that the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights needs to be challenged and engaged to play an active role in the promotion and protection of free expression,” said Andres.

Delegates from Myanmar also highlighted their “Yellow Ribbon campaing” for judicial independence in their country in the wake of the appointment by the government of senior military officials to their Supreme Court. “Free expression is stifled when the courts are filled with generals who repress dissent the first time they see it,” said Aung Soe, a veteran lawyer who represented the Myanmar Media Lawyers Network and the Myanmar Lawyers Network, two largest lawyers’ groups in his country .

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Cebu Declaration  on the  Right to Freedom of Expression as a Fundamental Human Right  and its importance to the Southeast Asia region

WHEREAS, we are non-governmental organizations in Southeast Asia working for the protection and promotion of human rights, especially for the right to freedom of expression;

WHEREAS, recent events have posed and continue to pose serious threats to freedom of expression in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia;

WHEREAS, we see an urgent need in Southeast Asia to utilize remedies under domestic and international law against these threats to freedom of expression, for we want to establish an edifice for free expression that will serve not only this generation but the future generations of Southeast Asians;

THEREFORE:

WE DECLARE that the right to freedom of expression is essential in the pursuit of truth, justice, equality, and accountability; but more importantly, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right since as human beings we yearn to express our own humanity.

WE DECLARE that in order to animate our core belief in the right to freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, our individual members shall commit not to prosecute criminal cases against anyone for something he or she expresses except in accordance with international human rights norms, and shall advocate for the repeal of criminal libel laws.

WE DECLARE that the right to freedom of expression is universal, but that the methods for its advocacy and protection are contextual; hence, we shall raise a Southeast Asian voice that will champion freedom of expression in our region in accordance with international human rights norms as exercised by journalists, bloggers, netizens, citizens and human rights defenders, in whatever medium, form, or frontier, whether traditional or emerging.

 WE DECLARE that the economic and social integration of Southeast Asia requires the respect and protection of freedom of expression in our region consistent with international human rights norms. Freedom of expression cannot be bargained for purely economic, social or political considerations. Moreover, a violation of the right to freedom of expression in one Southeast Asian nation is a matter of grave concern to the whole region; the protection of freedom of expression is an obligation of the whole region under international law.

WE DECLARE that the rule of law, equality, non-discrimination, access to justice and fair trial are essential to the protection and promotion of freedom of expression.

WE DECLARE that to be more effective advocates for freedom of expression and the rule of law in Southeast Asia, we resolve to work together in unity of purpose, action, spirit and passion, and WE THEREFORE ESTABLISH the Advocates for freedom of expression Coalition-Southeast Asia to advance freedom of expression across Southeast Asia consistent with international human rights norms, through strategic litigation, education, training and advocacy.

LASTLY, WE DECLARE that in establishing this freedom of expression coalition, our vision is to achieve a Southeast Asia that upholds and protects freedom of expression, and the rule of law, serving as a beacon of free speech to the world.

Signed this 27th day of September 2015, in Lapu-Lapu City, Mactan Island, Cebu, Philippines, by our duly authorized representatives

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Filed under Burma, Free Expression, Human Rights, International Law, Internet, Libel, Malaysia, Thailand, Uncategorized

Burma’s children

Mae Sot, Thailand– A.P, a 19-year-old student from Burma, is a child of his country’s so-called “Lost Generation.”

A sophomore studying the Burmese language as a distance education student in Rangoon, Burma’s old capital, A.P. is in this border town in Thailand’s northern reaches with four other students to attend a training conference on free expression organized by my organization, the Center for International Law (CenterLaw), and its partner-institution, the American Bar Association (ABA).

“My parents don’t know I’m here,” he tells me later over dinner at the end of the intensive two-day conference.

“But I have to be here.” Unlike most of the 32 participants in the training conference, he could speak intelligible English, and he exuded the bravado that could only come from a young man with a clear vision of what he would like to be in the future.

In 1988, the Burmese military junta shut down the country’s state-run schools and universities following wide-spread student uprising. Many students were arrested, but many more left the country as refugees. It was an unprecedented brain drain like no other, as young professionals – doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, scientists – followed suit. But the Burma’s generals couldn’t care any less. For them, the fewer the critics at home, the better.

What ensued was unmitigated academic disaster, the result of an egregious crime against the life of the mind. Students of the era who suddenly found themselves with no schools to go to were called the “lost generation” by the foreign press. Years later, the junta would eventually allow the reopening of schools but only under their close supervision and with such watered-down standards that for many, it didn’t make much of a difference had the schools remained shuttered down.

The few who could afford it went to private schools that sprang up like mushrooms in the wake of the closure of state-run schools; most, however simply found their academic life – and their youthful dreams – taken away from them. When I ask A.P. what his parents do for a living, he replies that his father runs a small shop while his mother is a school teacher.

A.P.’s parents must have been students themselves at the time when the generals ordered all state-run schools closed down. But he wants to do more than studying. He wants to enter politics and help shape a future Burma without its junta of generals. But for that he must prepare, he says.

“That is why I want to study political science too.”

In 2007, Burma was rocked by a new wave of protests sparked by the junta’s unannounced decision to remove fuel subsidies to public transportation in the oil and natural gas-rich country. Thousands of monks, joined by students, took to the streets to launch civil resistance. Western observers thought the “saffron revolution” would finally topple the Burmese dictatorship. Instead, it was violently suppressed by the military junta.

The junta has been in power since 1962. In 2010, it supposedly transferred power to a civilian government, now headed by President Thein Sin, although many of its military leaders still dominate the government.

Indeed, student activists of A.P’s new generation must still face ruthless generals whose heartless ways were demonstrated yet again two years ago when they blocked international aid for victims of the international cyclone Nargis, which had killed an estimated 140,000 Burmese.

Julian Assange’s Wikileaks would later reveal that the junta’s leader, General Than Shwe, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in the aftermath of the calamity, had thought of making a US 1 billion dollar bid for the Manchester United football club.

A big fan of the football club, the general backtracked on the plan because it might “look bad”, according to Wikileaks. Instead, Than Shwe created a new Burmese football league worth millions of dollars, all this while many survivors of the disaster waited in vain on his government to provide them with permanent housing, access to clean water, and tools for fishing and agriculture.

The junta also sentenced to 35 years in prison Burma’s most eminent comedian, Zargana, who had spoken critically of the government’s slow action on the destruction the cyclone left in its wake.

One shudders at the thought of what other horrors a humor-less government who does that to a comedian is capable of doing.

But more recently, under intense international pressure, the Burmese government promised a package of reforms and in a gesture observers said was meant to improve its international image, ordered the release of large groups of political prisoners.

Only last month, in its most significant step yet, the government freed more than 600 prisoners, including the most prominent student, democracy and minority leaders and military intelligence and army dissidents jailed in 2004.

At our training conference, A.P. and his fellow students – most of them in their late teens – wore white T-shirts with the words “Free Expression” printed on them. They were an interesting contrast to the older participants at the conference, including some who had spent years in jail for their political activity and a handful of monks.

The participants came from all over Burma from various organizations that banded together to form the Action Committee for Democracy Development (ACDD), a political alliance representing monks, ethnics, youth and student activists of the 1988 and the 2007 generations.

Not a few traveled for at least four days to get to the conference venue, a small resort tucked away in a hilly part of Mae sot. Most of them did not have travel documents – which is why the ACDD chose a resort with  nondescript surroundings as conference venue.

And all of them appeared to be skeptical of the government’s recent gestures of goodwill.

They say it’s all for a show, done to justify Burma’s turn to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014.

There is of course, the wide-ranging sanctions imposed by Western nations on Burma that need to be lifted.

DNA, the well-known Burmese political dissident who assisted us in putting together the conference, told as much to me when I asked for his opinion on the question. Still, there is work to be done, and he agrees that training conference like ours are much needed. Indeed, I saw for myself the participants’ eagerness to learn, the language barrier and the sweltering heat of the sun in Mae Sot notwithstanding.

A.P. himself says he will vote in the forthcoming parliamentary elections announced by the civilian government. He looks forward to seeing newly-released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) emerge victorious in the elections. It will be the first time in two decades that the NLD is joining the parliamentary elections, which is  the first to be held in 22 years.

“Our youth association shares the same goals with her,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean I want to belong to her political party.”

At the dinner, everyone is boisterous. Thai beer and food went well with their Burmese version of the videoke. “We’re all happy tonight,” says A.P., a teenager with a well-chiseled face, an easy-going manner and a smile on his eyes. “Tomorrow we all go back to Burma and we will not be seeing one another for a long time.”*

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Click here for the link to my column for the Iloilo News Today where this essay first appeared.

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Filed under Burma, Free Expression, Impunity