Asia Pacific

Human Rights by region

Su Su Nway, a labour rights activist, arrives at Yangon airport, Myanmar, 16 October 2011.

© REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

“It’s time, people of China!It’s time.
China belongs to everyone.
Of your own will
It’s time to choose what China shall be.”

Zhu Yufu, Chinese dissident

As winds of political change blew in from the Middle East and North Africa, several governments in the Asia-Pacific region responded by increasing their efforts to retain power by repressing demands for human rights and dignity. At the same time, the success of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt inspired human rights defenders, activists, and journalists in Asia to raise their own voices, using a combination of new technologies and old-fashioned activism to challenge violations of their rights.

Zhu Yufu, the author of the poem cited above, was detained by Chinese authorities in March. The prosecutor cited this poem as key evidence in support of the charge of “inciting subversion of state power”. Zhu Yufu, who had already spent nearly nine of the last 13 years in prison for demanding greater political freedom, was just one of dozens of critics, activists, and dissidents detained and harassed by the Chinese authorities after February in what has been one of the worst political crackdowns since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In addition to Zhu Yufu, the long list of those detained, placed under illegal house arrest or subjected to enforced disappearance included Liu Xia, wife of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, lawyer Gao Zhisheng and Ai Weiwei, the globally renowned artist. In several cases, Chinese authorities tortured detainees to extract “confessions” and promises to avoid using social media or speaking to journalists or others about their mistreatment.

The harshness of the crackdown was an indicator of just how worried the Chinese government was about the anonymous “Jasmine” online messages that began circulating in February, calling for Chinese citizens who were fed up with corruption, poor governance and political repression to gather peacefully and simply walk around designated areas in selected cities. As innocuous as these calls were, the Chinese government responded by banning internet searches for the words “jasmine” and “Egypt” at various points in the year. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of demonstrations occurred throughout the country as Chinese protesters sought to protect their human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural.

The dynamism of Chinese citizens invoking their rights contrasted with the situation in neighbouring Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), where there were no indications of an improvement in the country’s horrific human rights situation after Kim Jong-un, in his late twenties, succeeded his father as absolute ruler of the country on 17 December. If anything, there were signs that the authorities had detained officials suspected of potentially challenging or questioning a smooth transition, and there were concerns that those detained would be sent to join the hundreds of thousands already suffering arbitrary detention, forced labour, public execution and torture and other ill-treatment in the country’s numerous political prison camps. 

Repression of dissent

Few governments in the region were as brutal as the North Korean regime in repressing the voices of their own people, but violations of the right to freely express and receive opinions continued throughout the region. Several governments deliberately crushed dissenting views. In North Korea, those deviating from official ideology could end up spending the rest their lives in a bleak and remote political prison camp. Both Viet Nam and Myanmar have criminalized free expression of dissenting views, and have intelligence agencies that are dedicated to intimidating and silencing critics. 

Other countries also muzzled critics, although they relied on less overtly violent means. Continuing to hold itself as an exception to international standards on the protection of freedom of speech, Singapore briefly jailed 76-year-old British author Alan Shadrake on 1 June, having charged him with contempt of court after he criticized the judiciary for imposing the death penalty.

In India, which boasts a proud history of free speech and a vibrant media, the government sought to impose new restrictions on social media including instant messaging services. Internet media also remained under pressure in Malaysia, although it was slightly less fettered than the country’s heavily censored print and broadcast media.

In Thailand, the newly elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra (sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) did not put a stop to the aggressive enforcement of the highly problematic lèse majesté law, which prohibits any criticism of the royal family. Many of those who were targeted had posted material on the internet which prosecutors had found objectionable, or, in the case of a 61-year-old grandfather, Ampon Tangnoppakul, had allegedly sent text messages deemed offensive, earning a 20-year prison sentence. 

Authorities in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) increasingly invoked the National Security Law to harass those perceived as opposing the government’s policy on North Korea. At times, this resulted in absurd applications of the Law, as in the case of Park Jeonggeun, who faced detention and criminal prosecution for posting satirical snippets of North Korean propaganda. 

Other critics demanding human rights and dignity in the region provoked more severe responses and, at times, paid the ultimate price for raising their voices. Pakistani journalists managed to maintain a boisterous and at times fractious media environment in the country despite a violent backlash from the government as well as from political parties and insurgent groups such as the Pakistani Taleban. At least nine journalists were killed during the year, including Saleem Shahzad, an online journalist who had openly criticized the country’s powerful military and intelligence agencies. Other journalists told Amnesty International that they had been seriously threatened by the country’s powerful and shadowy intelligence agencies, security forces, political parties or militant groups. 

Journalists were not alone in being attacked for their opinions in Pakistan. Two high-profile politicians were assassinated for challenging the use of the highly problematic blasphemy laws: Salman Taseer, the outspoken Governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, Minister for Minorities (and sole Christian cabinet member). 

Minority groups

Pakistan, like many other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, witnessed ongoing and serious discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. Members of minority groups were often marginalized and in many instances were the victims of direct government harassment. In numerous cases, governments failed to uphold their responsibility to protect the rights of members of minority groups.  This entrenched discrimination, aggravated poverty, slowed down overall development, and in many countries, stoked violence.

In Pakistan’s resource-rich Balochistan province, security forces as well as some insurgent groups were implicated in violations, including enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions. The government did not follow through on all its promises to address the long-standing grievances of the Baloch community relating to distribution of income from major extractive and infrastructure projects. The province also witnessed several brutal attacks on Pakistan’s Shi’a community, especially Shi’a Hazaras, many of them of Afghan origin living in Balochistan’s capital, Quetta. Militant religious groups openly called for violence against the Shi’a and were allowed to operate and carry out acts of violence, such as the execution-style killing of 26 Shi’a pilgrims on 20 September. Pakistani militant groups claimed responsibility for attacks on the Shi’a even in Afghanistan, where twin bomb blasts in December killed some 70 Shi’as participating in the Ashura religious processions in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif. 

The Ahmadiyya community, a religious group mainly based in Asia that consider themselves to be adherents of Islam, faced systematic discrimination in Pakistan and Indonesia. In Pakistan, where Ahmadis are legally barred from declaring themselves Muslims, the Ahmadiyya community experienced ongoing harassment from government officials, and without sufficient protection or support, were targeted by militant religious groups. In Indonesia, the police were criticized for failing to stop a 1,500-person mob from attacking the Ahmadiyya community in the sub-district of Cikeusik in February, killing three and injuring many more. The central government allowed local regulations restricting Ahmadiyya activities to remain in force. Ahmadis in other Muslim-majority countries in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Bangladesh and Malaysia, also suffered from discrimination for their religious beliefs, with their children barred from some schools and their right to worship freely under severe constraints. 

 Sunni Muslims were victims of discrimination in China: the Uighur population, predominantly Muslim and ethnically distinct, continued to face repression and discrimination in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The Chinese government invoked the nebulous threat of terrorism and insurgency to repress civil and political rights and interfere with the religious practices of the Uighurs, while the influx of Han Chinese migrants and discrimination in their favour has rendered Uighurs second-class citizens in terms of cultural, economic and social achievement.

Other ethnic minorities in China also fared poorly. At least a dozen Tibetan nuns and monks or former monks set themselves on fire (six of them are believed to have died) in protest against the restrictions imposed on religious and cultural practices – restrictions that have heightened Tibetans’ sense of alienation and deepened their grievances. In Inner Mongolia, too, ethnic tensions were high. Widespread protests erupted across the region after a Han Chinese coal truck driver allegedly murdered an ethnic Mongolian herder. 

Armed conflicts and insurgencies

Ethnic and religious discrimination and the resulting political and economic grievances were behind many of the multiple armed conflicts and long-running insurgencies that afflicted hundreds of thousands of people in the region. 

The decades-old conflicts between the government of Myanmar and various ethnic armed groups flared up again significantly. Government forces fought against Karen, Shan and Kachin insurgents, displacing tens of thousands of civilians and committing human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law that amounted to crimes against humanity or war crimes.

The Taleban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan engaged in widespread and systematic attacks on civilians, causing 77 per cent of civilian casualties in the conflict, according to the UN. Amnesty International renewed its call for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the situation, even as international forces assisting the Afghan government began to transfer responsibility for security to Afghan government forces. Many Afghan civil society groups, and in particular women’s groups, voiced concerns about being excluded from negotiations with insurgent groups, despite UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for women to be meaningfully and adequately represented during peace talks.

Lower intensity conflicts continued on Mindanao island in the Philippines, as well as in southern Thailand – both areas where Muslim minority populations were historically disenfranchised and had to contend with poor economic development. There was room for hope in the Philippines, as the parties seemed to pursue peace despite a brief outbreak of violence. But in southern Thailand the situation defied easy answers as insurgents continued to target civilians with the intention of intimidating the local population and displacing Buddhists and others perceived as loyal to the central government. Thailand’s central government did not meet commitments to provide accountability for violations committed by security forces, nor to provide a strategic and sustainable response to demands for greater political and economic development in the area. 

Relatively low economic development, particularly for tribal Adivasi communities, and poor governance, fuelled insurgencies in several of India’s central and eastern states. Clashes between Maoist insurgents and security forces killed some 250 people. The insurgents resorted to hostage taking and indiscriminate attacks, while government forces routinely violated the rights of the local populations they were ostensibly protecting. Recognizing the problematic nature of the government’s strategy, India’s Supreme Court ordered the disbandment of Chhattisgarh’s state-sponsored paramilitary groups allegedly responsible for serious human rights violations. The Indian Supreme Court also allowed prisoner of conscience Dr Binayak Sen to be released on bail while he appeals against his life sentence. In 2010, a Chhattisgarh district court sentenced him to life after convicting him on charges of sedition and collaborating with armed Maoists.

Indian forces in Jammu and Kashmir again came under criticism for violating human rights. Amnesty International released a report in March that focused on the misuse of administrative detentions under the Public Safety Act (PSA), prompting the state government to promise the PSA’s reform. In September, the state human rights commission identified over 2,700 unmarked graves and identified 574 bodies as those of disappeared locals, belying the security forces’ claim that they were militants. The human rights commission’s request that the state use modern forensic testing to identify the other remains went unheeded. 

Accountability and justice

Impunity for past violations haunted many countries in the region, particularly those grappling with the legacy of conflicts. The failure to provide justice complicated reconciliation efforts and often established a pattern of injustice and lack of accountability for security forces. 

Sri Lanka’s decades-long record of faulty special commissions to address major human rights violations continued with the work of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The LLRC completed its mandate with a report that included some useful suggestions for improving the country’s human rights situation, but failed to properly investigate the role of government forces in the attacks on thousands of civilians during the final stages of the conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The LLRC’s conclusions in this regard were the outcome of a deeply flawed process, and stood in contrast to the findings of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, which concluded that there were credible allegations that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed by both sides. The Panel of Experts recommended establishing an independent investigation into the allegations of violations by all sides to the conflict, as well as a review of UN actions during the conflict in Sri Lanka. 

The failure to provide justice helped foster a climate of impunity that saw new cases of enforced disappearances in the north and east of the island, as well as threats and attacks on journalists, critics and activists. Although the government repealed the State of Emergency, it retained the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act and even added new regulations that allowed for suspects to be detained without charge or trial. 

Cambodia’s accountability process for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge period was also compromised by government interference, as one case was closed without a full investigation and another stalled. And in Afghanistan, individuals facing credible allegations of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity continued to hold senior government posts.

While those accused of human rights violations evaded accountability, many governments used flogging to punish alleged wrongdoers – a violation of the international prohibition of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Singapore and Malaysia continued to impose caning for a variety of offences, including immigration violations. The Indonesian province of Aceh increasingly used caning as a punishment for various offences, including drinking alcohol, gambling, and being alone with someone of the opposite sex who is not a marriage partner or relative. And in the Maldives, the government retained the punishment of caning under pressure from its political opposition.  

Migrants and refugees

Insecurity, natural disasters, poverty, and lack of suitable opportunities drove hundreds of thousands of people to seek better lives elsewhere, within the region as well as outside. While many governments in the region rely on migrant labour as a matter of basic economic necessity, many governments still fell short of protecting the rights of people who were seeking work or shelter.

At least 300,000 Nepalis migrated abroad to avoid poverty and the legacy of a long conflict. Many of them were deceived about the conditions of their employment and worked in conditions that amounted to forced labour. Although the Nepalese government put in place some laws and redress mechanisms to protect its migrant workers, Amnesty International’s research documented that these measures were not properly implemented due to low public awareness and poor monitoring and prosecution of wrongdoers. 

Malaysia served as a major receiving country for regional migrants, as well as a staging ground for asylum-seekers on their way to Australia. Undocumented migrants in Malaysia were often detained and imprisoned or caned. Poor detention conditions led to riots by detained migrants at the Lenggeng facility near Kuala Lumpur in April. Australia’s High Court invalidated a bilateral agreement between Australia and Malaysia to “swap” 800 asylum-seekers who arrived by boat in Australia with 4,000 refugees (predominantly from Myanmar) who were in Malaysia awaiting resettlement, citing inadequate legal guarantees for refugees in Malaysia.

Steps forward

Despite serious obstacles, many human rights defenders and activists in the Asia-Pacific region were able to navigate their way towards greater respect for their rights, with success in one country serving as inspiration and encouragement in others.  

In India, the Adivasi communities of Orissa gained a victory in July in their struggle to defend their way of life when the Orissa High Court found that Vedanta Aluminium’s bid to expand its refinery violated the communities’ rights to water, health and a healthy environment, and that the expansion would perpetrate further abuses against Adivasi communities. 

Malaysia’s Prime Minister announced in September that he would seek to repeal the Internal Security Act, which among other things allows for indefinite detention without charge or trial, and replace it with new security laws. The move came at least in partial reaction to the Bersih 2.0 (“Clean”) movement, which saw thousands of peaceful protesters marching in Kuala Lumpur in July. The police beat protesters, fired tear-gas canisters directly into the crowds and arrested more than 1,600 people.

In March, Malaysia announced that it had signed the Rome Statute of the ICC and would seek to ratify the treaty. The Philippines ratified the Rome Statute in November. 

Perhaps the most significant potential advance in terms of the region’s human rights situation was the decision by the authorities in Myanmar to free more than 300 political prisoners during the year and to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to contest  parliamentary elections. The authorities continued to harass and detain some dissidents and opposition activists, raising concerns that their main intention was to loosen the sanctions imposed on the country rather than to bring about genuine change. But as events in Myanmar and elsewhere have shown, it is through such narrow openings that political activists and human rights defenders can make their voices heard and decide what their future will be.

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