People have taken to the streets to fight for democracy even as a deadly coronavirus plagues the world. In Asia, people from the Philippines, Thailand, and Hong Kong have staged mass demonstrations against perceived government power grabs.
One thing the movements have in common is protesters’ dissent against laws believed to infringe on their freedom to speak out and criticize the government.
In Hong Kong, authorities in Beijing imposed a national security law in June that ramps up control of the mainland.
In the Philippines, the newly signed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 allows the government to monitor people they suspect to be terrorists.
In Thailand, the controversial Section 112 of the Criminal Code makes it illegal to defame the monarchy. Thailand also has its 2016 Computer-Related Crime Act (CCA), which allows the government to enforce surveillance on information in computer systems.
Here’s a closer look at the laws in question:
Thailand’s Section 112 criminalizes lèse majesté, or insulting the monarchy. Anyone who defames, insults, or threatens the ruling family can be jailed for up to 15 years. Lèse majesté has been in force since 1957.
Thai watchdog iLaw reported 98 people were charged for violations of Section 112 from the May 2014 coup until July 2019.
In December 2014, Thai newspaper Prachatai reported royalist groups filed a lèse majesté case against a woman for allegedly wearing black close to the King’s birthday. In 2015, an auto-parts worker was charged with the same crime over a “satirical” Facebook post about the King’s dog.
In June 2020, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha said the King told him to stop invoking the law “because His Majesty has mercy,” according to a Bangkok Post report.
Chan-O-Cha said violations of the law increased since the government stopped using it “2 to 3 years ago.”
But even as the government claims lèse majesté arrests have stopped, the computer crimes law remains a threat to activists. Thai authorities have issued warrants for prominent activists for violations of the CCA.
Under the computer crimes law, there are broad grounds for offenses that may increase censorship, including producing data that are:
- fully or partially false or distorted
- likely to cause damage or panic to the public
- likely to harm “maintenance of national security, public safety, national economic security, public infrastructure serving the public interest”
“Service providers such as social media platforms and access providers will also be required to delete or otherwise prevent the availability of such content following government notification, or they will also be subject to punishment for that content,” said Human Rights Watch in a 2016 report.
The Philippines’ anti-terror law signed by President Rodrigo Duterte in July enables the government to punish those who meet vague definitions of “terrorism.”
Under the law, terrorism includes acts that:
- create extraordinary fear
- provoke the government
- destabilize the political, economic, and social structures of the country
- seriously undermine public safety
People even just suspected of being terrorists in the Philippines can be subject to wiretapping and surveillance by the government’s Anti-Terrorism Council. The government could make warrantless arrests, and detain persons for up to 24 days.
Human rights groups have warned the law could be used to stifle dissent. Even without the Anti-Terrorism Law, the Duterte administration has not shied away from threatening its critics – from opposition politicians, to critical media, and activist groups tagged as communists.
Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law, created and passed in secrecy without input from Hong Kong authorities, asserts mainland dominance over the semi-autonomous territory.
The security law criminalizes:
- secession, or breaking away from the country through pro-independence demonstrations
- subversion, or undermining the authority of the central government
- collusion with foreign or “external forces”
These are punishable by a maximum life sentence in prison. Some cases can be tried in mainland China, akin to the failed extradition bill introduced in 2019 that originally sparked the protests.
Government bodies will take “necessary measures to strengthen management…of foreign and external NGOs and news organizations” in Hong Kong, according to the law.
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press, unlike in China, where the media and all forms of public commentary are heavily monitored by the government.
Law professor Jerome A. Cohen, who specializes in the Chinese legal system, told The New York Times “all in all, this is a takeover of Hong Kong.”
Student movements, arrests
Students play an instrumental role in all 3 movements.
Demonstrations coinciding with Philippine Independence Day on June 12, and President Rodrigo Duterte’s 5th State of the Nation Address the following month, saw thousands of students and activists gathering at a state university to protest the anti-terror law.
In June, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, an exiled Thai activist and alleged lèse majesté offender, was abducted by armed men in Cambodia, sparking youth-led protests over the summer. (FAST FACTS: Thailand’s pro-democracy protests led by students)
The tech-savvy youth made use of social media to create environments of dissent and discussion, even as the laws threaten these spaces as well. #JunkTerrorBill trended on Philippine social media as did #ยกเลิก112, or “cancel 112,” in Thai circles.
Students likewise have become central figures in the Hong Kong protests since last year. The largest incidents were in November 2019, when students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong directly confronted the police for two days. The following week, police sieged and blockaded Hong Kong Polytechnic University for 12 days to arrest protesters hiding out on campus.
Filipinos, Hong Kongers, and Thai citizens expect harsher clampdowns on government criticism and democratic institutions unless the governments give into their demands. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com