Southeast Asian leaders have started gathering in Cambodia for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, where they will also be joined by other world leaders like US President Joseph Biden. This summit comes at a critical time, with the rise of regional and global authoritarianism, reports of gross human rights violations in Myanmar and a continued crackdown on civil society across the region. The threat to Internet freedom cuts across all of these issues.
The new from Freedom House Freedom on the Net 2022 report, which covered eight of ASEAN’s 10 member states (and of which I am a co-author), found that governments in the region have restricted online expression and privacy over the past year. These restrictions have contributed to the 12th consecutive year of decline in global internet freedom. Leaders attending the summit, which kicked off Nov. 8, are expected to take the opportunity to protect human rights online for people in Southeast Asia.
Myanmar’s junta will be absent from the summit, which has waged a staggering campaign of online and offline repression since seizing power in February 2021. The association withdrew its invitation due to a lack of progress in the plan to five-point peace that ASEAN and the junta committed to last April.
This decision is necessary and welcome, but insufficient in itself, given the abuses of the junta. The regime imposed strict restrictions on internet access, imprisoned dozens of people for their online activities, and consolidated control of service providers under the military and military-linked companies. The military has also cracked down on online activism, specifically targeting support for the National Unity Government (NUG), a resistance movement made up of pro-democracy leaders that serves as a civilian alternative to the junta.
The summit offers ASEAN leaders the opportunity to engage in more meaningful actions to support the people of Myanmar. They should support a global arms embargo and targeted sanctions against the junta and companies linked to it. Any sanctions should exempt companies that provide internet services, digital platforms or circumvention technologies, which serve as essential tools for people in Myanmar to raise their voices against the junta. Leaders should also engage with the NUG, as Malaysia’s foreign minister did on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting in May, to support Myanmar’s peaceful transition to elected civilian rule while resisting to the fake junta elections. Without such action, the junta will continue its brutal agenda with even greater impunity.
Leaders of ASEAN countries can certainly do more at home. In the eight Member States covered by Freedom on the Net 2022, officials have arrested people for discussing political, social or religious topics online. Some were sentenced to long prison terms. Last December, Vietnamese authorities sentenced journalist Phạm Thị Đoan Trang to nine years in prison in retaliation for her online criticism of the government. Trang joins a growing cohort of bloggers serving long sentences in Vietnam, including Radio Free Asia contributor Nguyễn Văn Hoá, jailed since 2017 for drawing attention to an environmental disaster. Meanwhile, Cambodian-American human rights lawyer Theary Seng, whom Cambodian authorities sentenced to six years in prison for social media posts critical of the government, has gone on a hunger strike. a week to coincide with the ASEAN summit.
ASEAN leaders should use the summit as a backdrop for the unconditional release of those jailed for their online expression, including Trang, Hoá and Seng. Indonesian President Joko Widodo provides an example: he granted amnesty last October to Saiful Mahdi, a university professor who faces a one-month prison sentence after being found guilty of defamation for criticizing the processes hiring from his school on WhatsApp. Global policymakers attending the summit are expected to engage ASEAN member states to advocate for these releases.
Southeast Asian governments have also tightened their control over online content. Over the summer, Indonesian authorities briefly blocked Yahoo, PayPal and other platforms that failed to register under a new legal regime for e-services. Under this system, companies must remove content that the Indonesian government deems problematic. Meanwhile, the Cambodian government, the current chair of ASEAN, has sought to consolidate control of the country’s connection to the international internet. If successful, this effort will strengthen the government’s ability to censor dissent and monitor Internet users.
These actions are driven in part by the harms of the digital age, such as harassment and misinformation. But people’s rights are violated when their governments decide what can and cannot be said online. Laws like Indonesia’s can be exploited to censor people who hold a wide variety of opinions, from criticism of authorities to expressions of personal identity. They also increase compliance costs for businesses, potentially prompting the private sector to move their operations elsewhere or limit access to their products, leaving people with fewer options for online services.
Instead, authorities should pursue tight regulation that forces social media platforms to put in place transparency measures on their products and give users greater choice over how content is curated. By doing so, governments can empower people to shape their experiences online. Greater transparency will also strengthen informed policy-making.
To commit to this approach, ASEAN leaders should reform or repeal repressive internet regulations, while other summit participants should urge member states to adopt rights-respecting laws in the digital age. This is no small feat, given the human rights record in some ASEAN member states. Their leaders should recognize that digital repression reduces the quality of life of people at home, threatens the private sector and undermines international legitimacy.
As ASEAN comes together, Southeast Asian leaders and their global partners should commit to protecting human rights online. These steps will cultivate a freer Internet for people in the region.
IMAGE: Protesters wave National League for Democracy (NLD) red flags and three finger salutes on February 09, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar. (Photo by Hkun Lat/Getty Images)
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