Impunity in Asia on the rise

Publisher Article 19
Publication Date 11 November 2011
Cite as Article 19, Impunity in Asia on the rise, 11 November 2011, available at: [accessed 19 October 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In just the last couple of years, security for members of the media, bloggers, protestors, minority religious groups and human rights activists in the Asia-Pacific region has plummeted. In the meantime, impunity is on the rise. As courtrooms throughout the region are increasingly being filled with individuals charged for exercising their right to freedom of expression (or as said using authoritative jargon, "for subversion, threatening national security, terrorism, disrupting the peace..." the list continues), those who perpetrate the real crimes manage to slip through the cracks.

One indicator, the Press Freedom Index (PFI), shows that the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, China and Burma have all dropped in their rankings from 2009 to 2010, with the Philippines nose-diving 34 places and Thailand slipping down 23 places. It is salt to the wound to further realise that these countries were in the lower half of the index in 2009 to start, with China and Burma already sitting in the very bottom.

The looming question in the region is, will those in power continue to pat their own backs and allow the plight for civil rights to amount to nothing more than a race to the bottom? One of the determining factors to this question is the respective political-legal systems of each state, and whether they function as a mechanism for justice, or as an institution to reinforce impunity.

Take the Philippines for example, now ranked as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. It has been two years since the Ampatuan family was charged for what is known as the Maguindanao or Amputaun Massacre (November 2009), and yet there are continued delays in the proceedings and still not a single conviction. In this massacre, 32 media workers and journalists were among 57 people gunned down and strewn into a mass grave by armed men, allegedly linked to Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. This massacre is one of the worst atrocities against members of the media in recent memory and the trial has produced nothing in years due to inefficiency, threats and corruption. The situation is dire—whilst this trial treads water, violence against journalists is still rampant throughout the country.

In equally alarming measure, members of the minority sect Ahmadiyah were mob-attacked by approximately 1000 Islamic militants in Cikeusik, Indonesia on 6 February 2011. Five Ahmadis were seriously injured and three were brutally beaten to death, and attackers continued to beat them as they lay lifeless on the ground. In July of this year, a District Court found 12 people guilty for this attack, but trivialised the incident by neglecting to charge any of the perpetrators for murder or manslaughter, and doling out hand-slapping penalties of only 3-6 months in prison. If that was not insulting enough, the Court even went so far as to blame the Ahmadis for provoking the incident. The legal system has lost its legitimacy for many Indonesians, who now see it as simply another cog in the impunity machine.

To draw upon another example from a non-exhaustive list, In Thailand, Hiro Muramoto, a Japanese cameraman for Reuters, and Fabio Polenghi, an Italian photographer, were killed during the April-May 2010 clashes. In this incident at least 90 people were killed and 1,800 injured. Both sides of the clash used force and the government has yet to bring anyone into account for the incidents.

Where does this leave freedom of expression and impunity in the Asia-Pacific region? Is the former destined to decline and the latter to increase? The trajectory is difficult to determine, but one thing is certain: despite the extreme measures taken by those in power to muzzle their critics, word gets out. The internet has become the newest weapon in combatting impunity, with bloggers, social media users, journalists and webmasters putting their heads on the line to demand accountability, the right to freedom of expression, and the rule of law. Mass protests are starting to form throughout the region, and one can only look from the "Arab Spring" to the Asia-Pacific and wonder at the possibilities

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