Southeast Asia: As governments fail on human rights, women stand up

As the world marks International Women’s Day, Amnesty International recognizes the work of five distinguished women human rights activists who have faced harassment, threats, imprisonment, and violence for standing up for human rights in the region.

“In Southeast Asia, there are few governments who can be proud of their human rights records, but there are countless women across the region who have braved great dangers to take a stand against injustice,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“On this International Women’s Day this year, we want to recognize five women, from five different countries, whose heroism inspires many in the region and whose contributions to society should commended, not condemned.”

Thailand: Sirikan Charoensiri

Lawyer Sirikan Charoensiri regularly defends clients who are being investigated and prosecuted for peacefully defending human rights guaranteed by international law. She is also a leading member of Thailand’s civil society. She faces fifteen years’ imprisonment under charges of treason and violating a ban on “political” assembly of five or more persons. The charges were filed in connection with her defence of her clients, penalised for acts of peaceful protest.

Other women human rights defenders working for justice in Thailand have faced targeted criminal charges and harassment, including Pornpen Khonkachonkiet and Anchana Heemina.

Malaysia: Maria Chin Abdullah

Last November, Maria Chin Abdullah was detained without trial and held in solitary confinement for 11 days. A soft-spoken 60-year-old mother of three, she was arrested under Section 124C of the Penal Code for activities “detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and held under the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA).

This draconian law allows detention for prolonged periods without judicial oversight in secret locations. Her only crime was to have led the Bersih (“clean” in Malay) protest, where thousands took to the streets to peacefully call for electoral reform and good governance.

Abdullah was the most prominent of 15 civil society activists who were arrested under various penal code offences for their connection with the Bersih rally. She has also been repeatedly investigated and charged under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 for the organization and participation in the other peaceful rallies.

Cambodia: Tep Vanny

Since August 2016, Tep Vanny, a housing rights activist, has been detained in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar CC2 Prison. Her incarceration is meant to silence her and send a chilling message to other activists.

Vanny and her community have been peacefully protesting the forced evictions of thousands of people from the Boeung Kak Lake area in Cambodia’s capital city for almost 10 years, attracting the hostile attentions of the authorities.

She and the other women activists from Boeung Kak have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, violence from security guards, unfair trials and imprisonment for their peaceful protests.

Philippines: Leila de Lima

Last month, President Rodrigo Duterte expanded his “war on drugs” to silence his most prominent critic. Senator Leila de Lima, a former justice secretary and former chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, was arrested on politically-motivated charges. Currently held at the Philippine National Police headquarters in Manila, she could face 12 years imprisonment if convicted.

Duterte made de Lima the target of his divisive rhetoric when she convened Senate hearings last August, when the wave of extrajudicial executions of alleged drug offenders had already claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people. Since then, de Lima has been the target of vilification. Last month, Duterte told a crowd of his supporters: “If I were De Lima, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll hang myself.”

De Lima has remained resolute. “My arrest,” she said, before being taken away by the police, “is an appalling sign of the return of a power-hungry, morally bankrupt and abusive government.”

Viet Nam:

Trần Thị Nga is a land rights activist and pro-democracy advocate from Hà Nam province, Viet Nam. In January, Nga was arrested under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code for “spreading propaganda against the state”, a provision that is regularly used to jail dissidents for lengthy periods. Nga joins 93 other prisoners of conscience behind bars in Viet Nam.

While recovering from a serious traffic accident she was involved in while working in Taiwan, where she suffered abuse as a migrant worker, Nga taught herself about human rights.

She returned to Viet Nam where she has relentlessly advocated for human rights, joining the independent Vietnamese Women for Human Rights network. Nga has been targeted and physically assaulted on a few occasions by men in plain clothes, as well as police. These attacks have happened in front of her four children.

Myanmar: Wai Wai Nu

Wai Wai Nu, her two siblings and her parents were prisoners of conscience under Myanmar’s military rulers. In 2005, they were shown to a closed door room, where there was no lawyer present and they were not allowed to speak, to be “tried” and convicted. At the time, Wai Wai Nu was an 18-year-old law student, and she was told she would have to spend the next 17 years behind narrowly spaced bars.

In 2012, as Myanmar creaked open to reforms, Wai Wai Nu walked out of her cell determined to rid her country of the injustices she grew to know so intimately in jail. At the age of 25, she completed her law degree and founded two human rights organizations, the Women’s Peace Network-Arakan and Justice for Women.

Wai Wai Nu, a member of Myanmar’s repressed Rohingya minority, is now widely regarded as an eloquent and fearless advocate for promoting equality and tolerance.