As the 7th Japan-Mekong Summit was held in Tokyo on July 4th, Kazuko Ito, Secretary General of Human Rights Now, wrote an online article about human rights situations in Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.
Following is the translated version of the article.
For the original article written in Japanese, please visit the link below.
Announcement of 750 billion yen capital support at the Japan-Mekong Summit Meeting brings concern of critical human rights situations in Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar
By Kazuko Ito| Attorney at Law, Secretary General of Human Rights Now, an international human rights NGO
Published on July 4, 2015 at 6:27 pm
■The Japan-Mekong Summit Meeting
The Japan-Mekong Summit Meeting was held today:
“‘the Japan-Mekong Summit Meeting’ consisting of Japan and five Mekong countries was held at the State Guest-House, Moto-Akasaka, Tokyo, on the morning of July 4. The meeting adopted a joint statement, named the ‘New Tokyo Strategy 2015’, which lists the achievement of ‘quality growth’ such as environment-conscious infrastructure development. Prime Minister Abe declared that Japan will offer 750 billion yen in support of this strategy in the coming three years.”
This event is an unfamiliar meeting between Japan and five Mekong countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Japan has kept a good relationship with these Southeast Asian countries in comparison to its relationship with Korea and China and thus, Japan is using this opportunity to strengthen its diplomatic relations with these countries. In light of the recent economic situation in Japan, 750 billion yen in three years appears to be a massive support.
The adopted joint statement, the ‘New Tokyo Strategy 2015’ is, according to Nihon Keizai Shimbun:
“a revision of the strategy set in 2012. The main pillars are (1) Industrial infrastructure development, (2) Strengthened support for the development of the legal system and the development of human resources, (3) Economic development taking into account prevention of disaster and environment, (4) Coordination with countries and international organizations that strengthen engagement in the Mekong region such as the United States, China, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).”
Source: Nihon Keizai Shimbun
However, while the statement mentions “environment” and “disaster prevention” and includes wording that seems to take a hostile view of China, my concern is that it does not mention or discuss “human rights,” which continues to be a matter of grave concern in this region.
Unreserved economic support to countries which infringe or could infringe human rights may unintentionally benefit dictatorial or quasi-dictatorial governments. This benefit may in turn lead to increased oppression or suppression of human rights. Such oppression and suppression has always been feared, and every country in the Mekong region has human rights infringement concerns, among many other areas of concern.
Is there a problem with giving or promising to give a generous sum of money without any reservation? As a human rights NGO, we are fearful.
However, the general population in Japan may not have much interest in this region and its issues. The typical response is probably, “Where is the Mekong region?”
So today I would like to discuss the human rights issues that currently riddles countries in the Mekong region. Although I will focus on Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, Laos and Vietnam also have grave problems that should not be ignored.
Recently, I have been unable to rest. Everyday, as I answer calls from Cambodian NGOs, I am reminded of the terrible situation faced by the local people in Cambodia. The NGOs share with me their complaints and tell me that the situation is getting worse.
This terrible situation can be attributed to “the Draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO)” that the Government submitted in June. This Draft Law emerged unexpectedly, without any consultation with the civil society. The draft law “would require registration of all domestic and international citizen groups and NGOs working in Cambodia, ban and declare illegal any activities by unregistered organizations, and subject such activities to criminal sanctions (administrative fines).”
Moreover, the Ministry of the Interior (an organization whose functions are similar to the National Police Agency in Japan) will have discretion over the mandatory registration system for domestic organizations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation will strictly regulate the registration of foreign civil groups.
For domestic organizations, the request for registration may be rejected if such associations or NGOs “could adversely affect public security, stability and order, or generate a threat to national security, national unity, or the culture, traditions and customs of the Cambodian society.” Article 24 further requires domestic and foreign NGOs and foreign associations to “adhere to a stance of neutrality vis-à-vis political parties.”
Similarly, Article 30 provides that the Ministry of Interior may delete domestic NGOs and associations from the registry if those organizations fail to maintain political neutrality; violates the financial reporting obligations; engages in activities that “could adversely affect public security, stability and order; or generates a threat to national security, national unity, or the culture, traditions and customs of the Cambodian society.”
Furthermore, persons who have performed a leading role in an organization that has been deleted from the registry will be prohibited from founding any organizations.
For details, please see the Joint Statement made by Japanese NGOs, including Human Rights Now.
This Draft Law is a public security legislation with an obvious intention: To enable the Government to reject the request for registration from organizations it dislikes by justifying it with the reason that the organization lacks “political neutrality,” thus making such organizations illegal. The Government appears to intend to use this law to eliminate human rights organizations that criticize the Government.
The Government may intend to eliminate United States or European funded NGOs that criticize Prime Minister Hun Sen or eliminate private groups that join demonstrations with opposition parties. Likewise, foreign NGOs that criticize Prime Minister Hun Sen will not survive. The fear of deportation produces a chilling effect that will silence Japanese organizations currently engaged in supporting activities.
We also need to carefully watch China, which plans to enact a similar law this year. Surprisingly, because Cambodian human rights regulations were previously considered to be less strict than China’s, it is astonishing that Cambodia plans to force this law before China does.
Naturally, opposition campaigns are widespread throughout Cambodia. These campaigns declare “opposition to the law that deteriorates Cambodia back to the Pol Pot era where no freedom was allowed.”
However, the Government is trying to pass this Draft Law in the National Assembly next week.
Under these above circumstances, Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Japan. This visit has led to the Cambodian people’s grave concern over the outcome of this summit meeting.
Cambodian citizens desperately wish for Prime Minister Abe to address this issue, express clear concerns about it and suggest to the Prime Minister Hun Sen to “abandon the enactment.”
LANGO will be treated as a special law under the civil law. The Japanese Government and JICA have long been engaged in drafting this Cambodian civil law. However, LANGO is completely contradictory to the drafted civil law and the change occurred without any consultation with JICA. This shows a disregard for Japanese support, and thus, Japan has good reason to express anger.
The current stance in the EU is that “if such law is to be enacted and deprives Cambodian civil society of its freedom, [the EU] should consider halting trade with or support for Cambodia.”
In contrast, Japan has declared that it will grant monetary support for Cambodia.
Japan has been an important player in giving aid to Cambodia and has been supporting the country since immediately after the end of its civil war.
In 2011, a similar discussion was made about the Cambodian NGO Law. When the Japanese ambassador issued a detailed comment on it, the comment had a significant impact in the Cambodian Government’s ultimate choice to abandon the enactment of the Draft Law. However, this time, it appears that the ambassador has not issued any comment on the current draft law.
In order to prevent forced passage of a law that could suppress Cambodia’s entire civil society, it is very important for Japan, as an influential aid giving country, to play its role. The international society is closely watching how Japan will act on this issue.
■ Myanmar (Burma)
Myanmar is heading toward democratization – This is the view of the Japanese Government, and it seems that the Government wishes to increase its support for Myanmar.
However, just last week, the Myanmar Parliament rejected the draft of the revised Constitution, which aimed to promote democratization.
The current Constitution of Myanmar, enforced through a forced referendum under the military government in 2008, provides that 25% of the representatives in the Parliament shall be military personnel recommended by the Commander-in Chief of the army and not chosen by election. Furthermore, revision of this Constitution requires 75% or more of the Parliamentary representatives to vote in favor of the revision. Therefore, it is impossible to revise the Constitution in a manner that is against the wishes of the army.
In addition, this Constitution states that a person who has spouse or children of foreign nationality may not be the President. This provision obviously intends to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from being the President.
Moreover, there is a provision stipulating that if the head of the army considers the nation is in danger, he can declare a state of emergency, under which the army can take over all sovereign power and dissolve the Parliament.
Therefore, the current “democratization” movement in Myanmar is extremely fragile because it is possible for the army to crush it in a single stroke if the movement displeases them.
Myanmar plans to hold general elections in 2015, and most citizens wish to revise the military government controlled Constitution before the elections. Under these circumstances, the draft revision of the Constitution was submitted last week; however, since it was proposed by the ruling party, which is close to the army, the draft revision included only subtle revisions such as “amend 75% to 70%” and “change the provision of declaration of a state of emergency to a little stricter one,” which disappointed the citizens.
But last week, even this draft revision was rejected by the Parliament, and it has become almost impossible for Suu Kyi to be President.
The Japanese Government should clearly comment on these undemocratic political movements occurring in Myanmar.
Before the democratization efforts, Myanmar was known for having over 2,000 political prisoners and the international community strongly demanded for their release. Although the President released most of these political prisoners by last year, recently, people are being suppressed under public security legislations. When I visited Myanmar in June, local people reported that 160 people are jailed and recent information has indicated that the number has increased to nearly 200.
There is also the Rohingya issue and the human rights violations relating to fighting in the Karen region – as such, human rights infringement in Myanmar is still grave.
According to the report by Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the joint statement shows that Japan, Myanmar and Thailand stressed “the enormous potential and the geopolitical significance” of the “Dawei Special Economic Zone,” which is planned to be in southern Myanmar and will be the largest of its kind in South East Asia. The countries showed their favor for the plan by intending to contribute to further development.
However, the development of the Dawei Special Economic Zone brings with it further problems. Many local people live in the planned construction area and their traditional lives will be drastically changed by the plan.
Unfortunately, the Special Economic Zone cannot be developed without vacating many of the local population. Thus, this development plan ignores the widespread wishes of the local people and its implementation will deprive many people of their homes. Unsurprisingly, many locals strongly oppose the plan. They insist that this is another case where developmental ambitions ignore human rights and the environment. These concerns raise the big question of whether it is appropriate to endorse the kind of development outlined in the joint statement.
In Thailand, the situation is even more dire. Over a year has passed since the army’s coup d’état and the martial law declared by the military government is still in place. Expressions of objection to the military government is restricted and the army has the authority to detain a person without judicial scrutiny. In fact, it is reported that more than 1,000 people were detained without indictment for a crime.
Additionally, any political meeting with five or more people is made illegal, and the military court, not the regular court, is in charge of such cases.
Unofficial statistics indicate that more than 800 people have been tried in the military court for conducting peaceful activities that demonstrate their opposition to the military government.
To protest such a situation, young lawyers who seek the restoration of human rights in Thailand formed a group. In June, this group wrote a report titled “One year from the coup d’état, the situation of human rights in Thailand” and planned to hold a news conference to report its concerns to the worldwide media at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. However, the conference was banned by order of the military government.
In addition to the above, more than 70 other public events have been forcefully cancelled.
While it appears that peace has returned to Thailand, in reality, the human rights situation is still very serious.
Human Rights Now has also published a statement on the recent human rights situation in Thailand: Over one year has passed since the coup d’état~ human rights situation in Thailand ~ (by Human Rights Now) in English
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the Japanese Government has fully played its role with respect to Thailand.
■ The government should carry out human rights diplomacy in its true sense.
In the beginning, the Abe administration stressed human rights / democratic diplomacy, however, recently it does not mention human rights or democracy very often. This meeting involved parties that are riddled with human rights issues, as described above, but there were no discussions regarding human rights. Thus, the administration creates the undeniable impression that they are “retreat[ing from] human rights diplomacy.”
While Japan is competing with China to be the largest donor (aiding country) in the area, Western countries are also influential donors.
Generally, the donor country’s opinions and principles deeply affect the policies of the aided country, and accordingly, a donor’s stance on human rights has influence on the human rights situation of an enormous number people.
While Western countries have always had strict demands with respect to human rights, Japan does not. Although the Japanese stance is not as terrible as China’s, the government did not make any clear human rights demands when it provided its monetary aid. As a result, this support is far from leading to any improvement of the human rights situation and may even produce adverse effects.
During the summit meeting, there seemed to be discussions aimed to inhibit China. Thus, Japan clearly intends to strengthen its relationship with this region and exclude China’s influence.
However, frankly speaking, I fear that the Japanese Government has softened its stance on human rights issues compared to the past. The government seems to have lost its concern and passion for protecting human rights. This loss could be due to its competition with China for leadership in the region.
The development projects that China participates in has caused many problems in the Mekong region. The Dawai Development Project might attract a similar criticism if it is not revised.
Japan should instead provide economic aid only after giving serious consideration to the local people’s situation and the Government should not let narrow-sighted competition with China for leadership cloud its judgment. Japan must consider human rights and environmental issues, not only with respect to each project, but also with respect to the greater human rights situation in the relevant country when it adopts its aid policy. Japan should continuously demand the improvement of the human rights situation in these countries and carefully adopt aid policies accordingly.
Japan’s presence in the Mekong region is more significant than we, Japanese people, perceive. Official statements made by Japanese leaders are carefully observed not only by the Mekong countries’ leaders but also by the general public. With great influence comes an obligation to the international community to use that influence for the improvement of human rights in the region.
It is unclear what the Japanese Government intends to do by promoting “active pacifism.” I understand that true active pacifism addresses the local people’s pains and endeavors to eliminate the oppression faced by the people. (To do so, the Government needs to concretely respect universal human rights whether domestically or in its foreign relations. For example, the Government should also reflect on and drastically improve itself because the current government has made dangerous strides towards suppressing free speech in Japan.)
Following this summit meeting, I will carefully watch the Japanese Government to see if it can clearly opine on each of these current and serious issues in future summit meetings and bilateral dialogues. Such issues include the Cambodian LANGO, which could be adopted as early as in next week.