A new report by the CIVICUS Monitor rates civic space in Thailand as 'repressed,' as the royal defamation law continues to be used to criminalise dissent and spyware has been used against activists. Protesters were also prosecuted and faced excessive force while concerns remain about a restrictive NGO bill.
Dinso Road being blocked by crowd control police and a row of shipping containers during a protest march on 18 November 2022 (Photo by Ginger Cat)
Restrictions and attacks on activists and civil society have persisted across the Asian region according to a new report released by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories. The report, People Power Under Attack 2022, shows that out of 26 countries or territories in Asia, seven – China, Laos, North Korea, Vietnam and now Afghanistan, Myanmar and Hong Kong – are rated as ‘closed’. Eight are rated as ‘repressed’ and seven as ‘obstructed’. Civic space in Japan, Mongolia and South Korea is rated narrowed, while Taiwan remains the only country rated as ‘open’.
In reality, this means that the freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly and association are not being respected in most countries in this region. 2022 is the year with more people living in countries with closed civic space ever documented by the CIVICUS Monitor. Twenty-eight per cent of the world population - approximately 2 billion people - experienced extreme levels of repression.
In Thailand, where civic space is rated ‘repressed,’ the CIVICUS Monitor documented in 2022, the ongoing use of royal defamation laws used to criminalize dissent while spyware was found on the phones of activists. Protesters were also prosecuted and faced excessive force while concerns remain about a restrictive NGO bill.
Our findings show that the authorities have continued to arrest and prosecute activists and critics for royal defamation (lese majeste). In March 2022, a man was sentenced to two years in jail for lese majeste for putting a sticker bearing the name of a satirical Facebook page on a portrait of the Thai King outside the Supreme Court during a pro-democracy rally in September 2020. In April 2022, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, was charged with royal defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act over a post he made on Twitter in May 2021 that was deemed an insult and a threat against the King. In September 2022, an activist was jailed for two years after a court found she had insulted the monarchy by dressing like the Thai queen. In November 2022, an LGBTQI+ activist, was sentenced lèse-majesté to two years jail for giving a speech that allegedly defamed the royal family.
A report in July 2022 found the use of Pegasus spyware on the phones of dozens of Thai activists, including many who have repeatedly faced arrest, harassment, and physical attacks by Thai authorities. Other targeted persons include academics and human rights defenders who have publicly criticised the Thai government.
Protesters have also been targeted. In January 2022, police in Thailand filed criminal charges against two union officials and four other labour activists after speaking at a protest, demanding that the Thai government and brands pay salaries owed in the lingerie sector. In July 2022, activists from the pro-democracy group Thalufah who were involved in a 2021 protest were indicted. In November 2022, at a demonstration against the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, Thai police used violent tactics to disperse peaceful protesters, including firing rubber bullets and beating people with batons. Police shot Phayu Bunsophon, from the Dao Din democracy group, in the right eye with a rubber bullet, permanently blinding him According to reports, at least 33 people were injured and 25 protesters were taken into police custody. Riot police also attacked journalists at the scene.
Human rights groups have raised concerns over a draft law to regulate non-profit groups, which could be used to muzzle civil society groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organisations contains numerous provisions that would subject organisations and their members to restrictive measures, thus curtailing their rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and other human rights, including the possibility of violations of the right to privacy.
Three countries or territories have been downgraded from ‘repressed’ to ‘closed’ – which is the worst rating. Afghanistan has been downgraded due to the severe restrictions on civic space by the Taliban following their takeover in 2021. Activists and journalists have been arrested, detained and even tortured. Women rights activists protesting discriminatory policies around education and employment have been met by restrictions and violence. The Taliban has also clamped down on civil society organisations. Another country that has been downgraded is Myanmar. Two years on from the coup, thousands of activists and anti-coup protesters have been jailed by the military junta’s secret military tribunals on fabricated charges. The junta has continued to torture detainees with impunity and four activists were executed in July 2022. Scores of journalists have also been detained while media outlets have been banned. In October 2022, the junta enacted a new NGO law that will further shackle what is left of civil society.
Hong Kong has also been downgraded due to the systematic crackdown on dissent following the passage of the draconian National Security Law in 2020. More than 200 individuals have been arrested under the security law and dozens of civil society groups and trade unions have disbanded or relocated since the law came into place. Activists have also been criminalised on sedition charges. Independent media outlets have also been targeted with raids and forced to close and journalists have been criminalised.
“The regression of civic space across the Asia region is reaching alarming levels. Most people in the region are living in countries with closed or repressed civic space where their freedoms to speak up, organise or mobilise are under attack on a daily basis. The downgrading of Afghanistan, Myanmar and Hong Kong’s civic space rating this year to ‘closed’, highlights how authoritarian states are increasingly gaining ground and the critical need to support activists and civil society from these countries who are pushing back again these repressive regimes” said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for CIVICUS.
In Asia, the top civic violation documented in 2022 is the use and enactment of restrictive legislation in 23 countries, as governments used the criminal justice system to muzzle dissent. Among the legislation most often used to stifle dissent include laws related to national security and anti-terrorism, public order and criminal defamation. Human rights defenders were prosecuted in at least 17 countries in the region.
As President Xi Jinping sought an unprecedented third term in office, China detained and prosecuted scores of human rights defenders in 2022 for broadly defined and vaguely worded offences such as ‘subverting state power’, ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ or ‘disturbing public order’. Restrictive laws such as ‘abusing democratic freedoms’ or ‘spreading materials against the State’ were also used in Vietnam to keep more than a hundred activists in jail. In Cambodia, ‘incitement’ provisions were used to criminalise activists and union leaders. In Indonesia, the Electronic Information and Transactions Law (ITE Law) was weaponised to silence online dissent. In India, anti-terror laws such as the repressive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) have been systematically used by the Modi government to keep activists in detention. In Pakistan, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, was used against journalists and critics to criminalise online defamation.
Another top violation in Asia was the disruption of protests which occurred in 20 countries. In at least 18 countries, the CIVICUS Monitor documented the detention of protesters.
Unprecedented protests that erupted across China in December 2022, due to widespread public frustration with the “zero-COVID” policy, lockdowns and other issues, were met with restrictions, arrests and excessive force. In Cambodia, striking unionists from the NagaWorld Casino that held regular protests were detained while Riot police also used violent tactics in Thailand to disperse peaceful protesters including around the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit In Indonesia, mass protests by Papuans against the central government’s policies and in support of independence were forcibly dispersed with unnecessary use of force. In Sri Lanka there was a crackdown on mass protests in the country, as the country suffered its worst economic crisis in decades. The authorities used sweeping emergency powers to curtail protests, make arrests and shut down social media networks. Human rights groups documented the use of excessive force by the police against protesters, with the use of water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets.
The authorities also deployed various other tactics to silence dissent in the region. In at least 17 countries in Asia the harassment of activists, journalists and critics was reported. In the Philippines, activists continue to be red-tagged and then arrested on fabricated charges. Activists and lawyers in Singapore faced police harassment for their activism against the death penalty. In India, the government sought to block activists and journalists from travelling abroad
“As authoritarian states sought to stay in power and silence all forms of dissent it weaponised an array of restrictive laws to persecute activists. When people began to mobilise on the streets against repression they were met with excessive and even deadly force. Government also resorted to other extra-legal tactics to harass activists including digital attacks, smear campaigns or travel bans. Despite this, civil society in many part of the region have continued to flight back and used innovative ways to demand their rights” added Benedict
Countries of concern in the region include Bangladesh and Cambodia. In Cambodia, repressive laws are routinely misused to restrict civic freedoms and criminalise critical voices. Prime Minister Hun Sen has also intensified his crackdown on the political opposition ahead of elections in July 2023.
Despite these threats to civic freedoms, there are some positive developments. In Thailand, after many years of campaigning, the authorities formally charged a former senior park ranger and three subordinates suspected of killing an ethnic Karen activist, while In Indonesia, after years of advocacy by activists and victims groups, the government finally acknowledged serious human rights violations from the past. In India, the Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the use of the sedition law which has been used as a tool to silence dissent while in Sri Lanka, mass protests led to the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who oversaw a climate of repression against activists, journalists and critics..
Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 490 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2022.
Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.