Asia’s Disappearing Activists

The Diplomat: 30 August 2019

“In Southeast Asia, the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone in 2012 continues to be an emblematic case.”

Since June 2019, over a million people have taken to the streets of Hong Kong on a weekly basis to demonstrate. Protesters have faced attacks and injuries as police used tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray to quell protests.

The original target of the protests was a proposed change to Hong Kong’s extradition law. Hong Kongers’ fear of the bill is justifiable. Amendments to the Fugitives Offenders Ordinance Bill would allow individuals, including human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society activists, to be sent to mainland China to face trial, even if the person was outside the mainland when the crime was committed. China’s justice system is notorious for its lack of independence from the government, and the Chinese Communist Party has a record of arbitrary detention, torture, and fabricating legal cases against activists and journalists.

Of particular concern for the protesters and human rights groups are the enforced disappearances previously orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. In 2015, five Hong Kong book sellers — known for their books on Chinese leaders and political scandals, which are banned in mainland China —  went missing one by one from Thailand, Hong Kong, and mainland China. They later reappeared in detention in China. Most recently, in January 2018, Chinese authorities forcibly disappeared Swedish citizen and bookseller Gui Minhai while he was traveling with Swedish diplomats.

China has also used its Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) system to “legally” abduct and detain people. It allows those suspected of “crimes of endangering state security, terrorist activities, or especially serious bribery cases” to be held in secret and outside the protection of the law. According to civil society groups, human rights defenders, ethnic minorities and predominantly Uyghurs are common targets of RSDL.

China is not unique in its use of this practice, which is marked globally each year on August 30 as International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Cases of enforced disappearances continue to occur unabated across the Asian region to silence critics, cover up the truth, and create a climate of fear. It is a serious human rights violation and a crime under international law. To date, only three Asian countries – Japan, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka – have ratified the UN Convention against Enforced Disappearances. The CIVICUS Monitor, a global tool tracking civic space, has documented ongoing cases of enforced disappearances in at least 13 countries in the Asian region over the last year.

In South Asia, cases of enforced disappearances have been recorded in Pakistan and Bangladesh against ethnic and religious minorities, political activists, and human rights defenders. Families of the disappeared are also often threatened, harassed, and intimidated, especially those who have campaigned openly for justice for their missing loved ones. In the Maldives, despite the change of government in 2018, the perpetrators of the disappearance of journalist Ahmed Rilwan in 2014 have yet to be brought to justice and punished.

In Southeast Asia, the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone in 2012 continues to be an emblematic case. Sombath disappeared on the evening of December 15, 2012, after being stopped at a police checkpoint in a busy street in the capital, Vientiane. CCTV footage showed unknown individuals forcing him into another vehicle in the presence of police officers. His disappearance continues to have a chilling effect in the country. Even in Malaysia, where cases of disappearances were previously unheard of, two activists — Amri Che Mat and Raymond Koh — went missing in 2016. In April 2019, after an extensive public inquiry, the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) concluded that their abduction was carried out by state agents, namely the Special Branch or the police intelligence unit.

Despite this worrying pattern, civil society in Asia has not given up their efforts to end this cruel practice. Families of the disappeared from Pakistan to Indonesia have continued to gather regularly to seek justice for their missing loved ones. In places that have gone through years of internal conflict, such as in Aceh in Indonesia and Timor-Leste, civil society groups have led the way in documenting hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances via truth commissions, while in Sri Lanka the establishment of an Office on Missing Persons — while largely ineffective — still offers some hope. Other groups are providing psychological support to families dealing with the trauma. Activists across the region are engaging with the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances and other UN bodies to pursue truth, justice and reparations.

Nevertheless, attempts to reduce incidents of enforced disappearances remain a challenge, especially when activists are now being disappeared across borders. In January 2019, journalist Truong Duy Nhat was abductedin Bangkok with the possible involvement of Thai police officers who delivered him to a group of Vietnamese police officials. Nhat is now detained in Hanoi and is facing trial on corruption charges. This was followed by Vietnam’s detention of three Thai dissidents — Siam Theerawut, Chucheep Chivasut, and Kritsana Thapthai — whose whereabouts remain unknown. The three men were picked up by the Vietnamese authorities at the Vietnam-Laos border in early 2019 and were reported to have been handed over to Thailand in May 2019.

The Hong Kong protesters are all too aware that enforced disappearances remain a clear and present danger with or without the extradition bill. While the current use of the tactic has few government opponents across the region, the international community must do more to support the activists pushing back. Ending enforced disappearances for good requires criminalizing these grave and often government-orchestrated acts, as well a strong international push for Asian states to ratify the UN Convention against Enforced Disappearances. These would represent first steps toward holding perpetrators to account and securing justice for those that vanish without trace.

Josef Benedict is a human rights researcher with CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and is based in Kuala Lumpur.

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