Amnesty International Report 2015/16 - Asia-Pacific regional overview

Even as rapid social and economic change continued in the Asia-Pacific region, the human rights situation often remained bleak. The increasing trend towards repression and injustice threatened the protection of human rights in the region.

A recurring and central threat to people's rights was states' failure to ensure accountability, with impunity often entrenched and widespread, denying justice and sustaining human rights violations including torture and other ill-treatment.

Impunity also fuelled suffering in armed conflicts, such as in Afghanistan and Myanmar, and perpetuated injustice by failing to ensure reparations for past conflicts, as in Indonesia.

In many countries there was a serious disconnect between governments and the people. People, particularly youth, frequently felt newly empowered to speak out for their rights, often aided by affordable communications technologies and platforms, including social media. Governments, in contrast, often sought to shield themselves from accountability or criticism, while some – such as those of China, Cambodia, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam – intensified their crackdown on key freedoms. Severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly continued in Laos, where authorities further tightened control of civil society groups.

Despite a global trend towards abolition, the death penalty also continued in several countries in the region, including extensively in China and Pakistan. Indonesia resumed executions, Maldives threatened to do so, and there was a surge of executions in Pakistan after a moratorium on the execution of civilians was lifted in December 2014. However, there were also some positive steps as Fiji became the world's 100th fully abolitionist country and Mongolia's parliament passed a new criminal code removing the death penalty for all crimes.

Millions of refugees and asylum-seekers faced harsh conditions across the Asia-Pacific region, and countries as disparate as Australia and China violated international law by forcibly returning people to countries where they would face a real risk of serious violations. A major humanitarian and human rights crisis occurred in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, where people smugglers and traffickers abandoned thousands of refugees and migrants at sea, with states initially turning them away or being slow to mount search and rescue operations.

Specifically, in Nepal the devastating earthquake of 25 April and its aftershocks caused more than 8,000 deaths and 22,000 injuries, and displaced more than 100,000 people. The government refused to waive costly and time-consuming customs duties and procedures for health and relief supplies, leaving thousands in desperate need. A new Constitution, rushed through in the earthquake's aftermath, was marked by human rights shortcomings. A federalist structure was rejected by ethnic groups, leading to violent protests and confrontations. The security forces resorted to excessive, unnecessary or disproportionate force in several clashes with protesters, leading to dozens of deaths.

Extreme repression and systematic violation of almost all human rights overshadowed life in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and those who fled the country reported an increase in arbitrary arrests. Reduced daily rations severely threatened the right to adequate food, and hundreds of thousands of people continued to languish in prison camps and detention facilities where torture and other ill-treatment was widespread and forced labour routine.

China's geopolitical influence continued to grow, but an appalling internal human rights situation prevailed. Under the pretext of enhancing national security, the government increased repression by drafting or enacting an unprecedented series of laws and regulations with the potential to silence dissent and crack down on human rights defenders. The authorities also stepped up their controls over the internet, mass media and academia.

The run-up to Myanmar's general elections in November – the first since a quasi-civilian government came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of military rule – was marred by the political disenfranchisement of minority groups, in particular the persecuted Rohingya, and ongoing conflicts in northern Myanmar. Nevertheless, the landslide election victory for the National League for Democracy, led by former prisoner of conscience Aung San Suu Kyi, was a historic moment offering hope for human rights change. The real test of whether this will happen is yet to come.

As the military rulers of Thailand delayed their plans for political transition, the country experienced a continuing backslide in meeting its human rights obligations. Restrictions on human rights – in particular relating to freedoms of expression and assembly – which the authorities had promised would be temporary after taking power in a military coup in 2014, were in fact retained and strengthened.

A new government came to power in Sri Lanka in January, bringing constitutional reforms and promises of improved human rights protection. Many serious challenges remained, however, including the use of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and deaths in custody. A longstanding climate of impunity for abuses by both sides in Sri Lanka's armed conflict that ended in 2009 was still largely unaddressed.

There were other smaller signs of progress in the region, even if sometimes fragile and halting. These included tentative steps towards addressing widespread torture and other ill-treatment in Afghanistan, India and Sri Lanka.


A rise in human rights activism that had emerged in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years continued. Protests and other actions, however, were frequently overshadowed by authorities' efforts to curtail freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, including through force and violence.

People were intimidated and harassed as they exercised their right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Viet Nam; in July, security forces beat and intimidated peaceful activists attempting to take part in a hunger strike in solidarity with prisoners of conscience. In Maldives, hundreds of political opponents of the government taking part in peaceful protests were arrested and detained, and in Malaysia organizers of and participants in peaceful protests were criminalized.

In Cambodia, a 2014 crackdown on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly was reinforced by criminal convictions for demonstrators. In July, 11 opposition members and activists were found guilty on far-fetched charges of insurrection. They had taken part in a demonstration in the capital, Phnom Penh, in July 2014 that resulted in clashes with security forces. No credible evidence was produced that linked the men to the violence.

Prison sentences imposed on two activists in Thailand for staging a play were part of a pattern in which the military authorities made unprecedented use of the country's Lèse-Majesté Law to target freedom of expression. The authorities continued to outlaw "political meetings" of five or more people, and introduced legislation requiring demonstrators to seek permission from the police/authorities, or face imprisonment. Students and activists carrying out small-scale symbolic and peaceful demonstrations often experienced excessive force or arrests and charges.

A brutal police crackdown on largely peaceful student protests in Myanmar was subsequently followed by mass arrests and widespread harassment of student leaders and all those associated with the protests. They included Phyoe Phyoe Aung, leader of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions.

A series of protests were held in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) over the government's response to the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster that caused more than 300 deaths. Although most protests were peaceful, police blockaded street rallies in the capital, Seoul, marking the tragedy's first anniversary in April, and used unnecessary force against participants on a vigil walk in memory of the victims.


Many governments in the Asia-Pacific region demonstrated an entrenched intolerance of dissent and resorted to draconian restrictions on human rights.

May marked the first anniversary of the military declaring martial law and seizing power in Thailand. The authorities adopted harsh measures, abused the judicial system and entrenched their powers to stamp out peaceful dissent or criticism of military rule. They displayed ongoing intolerance of peaceful dissent, arbitrarily arresting students and anti-coup activists, and holding academics, journalists and parliamentarians in secret detention or without charge or trial in military camps. Individuals faced unfair trials in military courts for speaking out against the military takeover. Authorities penalized scores of individuals for Facebook comments and statements deemed to be insulting towards the monarchy, with courts handing down sentences of up to 60 years' imprisonment.

North Korea's government refused to allow any political parties, independent newspapers or independent civil society organizations to operate, and barred almost all nationals from international mobile telephone services. Yet many people took risks to make international calls. People living close to the border with China took advantage of the unofficial private economy and accessed smuggled mobile phones connected to Chinese networks to contact people outside North Korea – exposing themselves to surveillance, arrest and detention.

In Cambodia, human rights defenders were jailed and the authorities exacerbated existing arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly by increasing arrests for online activity. The new Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations was signed into law despite protests from civil society that it threatened to undermine the right to freedom of association; it remained unclear how the law would be implemented.

In Viet Nam, the state controlled the media and judiciary as well as political and religious institutions; dozens of prisoners of conscience remained imprisoned in harsh conditions after unfair trials. There was an increase in reports of harassment, short-term arbitrary detentions and physical attacks on members of civil society.

In July, China's authorities launched a massive crackdown against human rights lawyers that persisted throughout the rest of the year. Activists as well as human rights defenders and their families were systematically subjected to harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and violence.

The space for civil society, human rights defenders and freedom of expression also shrank across South Asia. Pakistan remained one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists as targeted attacks, including killings, by armed groups continued against media workers, and the government failed to provide adequate protection. Bangladesh became increasingly dangerous for those speaking their own minds, with a pattern of repression of freedom of expression that included the killing of several secularist bloggers and publishers. NGOs also faced legislative restrictions for criticizing the authorities in Bangladesh and Pakistan. In India, authorities used restrictive foreign funding laws to repress NGOs critical of the government.

Human rights defenders in Afghanistan were targeted with impunity and suffered violence by state and non-state actors. Non-state actors were accused of involvement in grenade attacks, bombings and killings of human rights defenders. Parliament amended a mass media law that could further limit freedom of expression. After the Taliban seized control of Kunduz province in September, there were reports of mass killings, rapes and searches for media workers and women human rights defenders named on a hit list.

Elsewhere, governments demonstrating an intolerance of public criticism included the government of Japan, where a law on official secrets that could excessively restrict the right to access information held by the authorities came into effect in December 2014. South Korea's government broadened the application of the National Security Law to additional groups such as politicians, a move that could further curtail freedom of expression. Indonesia's authorities used an internet law to criminalize certain forms of freedom of expression, resulting in individuals being convicted and imprisoned simply for sharing their opinions online.

Restrictions on peaceful activism and dissent in Myanmar intensified, with scores of prisoners of conscience detained and hundreds of people facing charges for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. They included student protesters, political activists, media workers and human rights defenders, in particular land and labour activists.

Media outlets faced restrictions in Malaysia, and activists were intimidated and harassed. A Federal Court ruling confirming the constitutionality of the repressive Sedition Act – used to arbitrarily arrest and detain scores of human rights defenders and others in recent years – further undermined freedom of expression.


Torture and other ill-treatment was reported in numerous countries in the region, including Fiji, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Viet Nam. Impunity for those responsible was common.

Torture and other ill-treatment remained widespread in China during detention and interrogation.

Afghanistan's government took steps towards establishing a national action plan to eliminate torture; the intelligence agency issued an order reiterating a ban on its use, although torture and other ill-treatment by security officers remained prevalent throughout the prison system.

In India, torture and other ill-treatment in custody, including cases of deaths from torture, were reported. In a positive move, the Supreme Court directed states to install closed-circuit television in all prisons to prevent torture and other violations, while the government stated it was considering amending the Penal Code to specifically recognize torture as a crime.

Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, including sexual violence, continued to be reported in Sri Lanka, as did suspicious deaths in custody. Impunity persisted for earlier cases. However, the new government promised the UN Human Rights Council that it would issue clear instructions to all security forces that torture and other ill-treatment is prohibited and that those responsible would be investigated and punished.


Armed conflict in parts of the Asia-Pacific region continued. Increasing insecurity, insurgency and criminal activity in Afghanistan saw civilians injured and killed by the Taliban and other armed groups, as well as by pro-government forces. Accountability for unlawful killings by pro-government forces and armed groups was virtually non-existent.

In October, US forces bombed a hospital run by the NGO Médecins sans Frontières in the city of Kunduz, killing 22 staff and patients and triggering calls for an independent investigation. The Taliban targeted civilians or attacked indiscriminately, and briefly took control of most of Kunduz province.

Allegations of violations – including rape and other crimes of sexual violence – were made against members of the Myanmar army, particularly in Kachin and northern Shan states, where the armed conflict entered a fifth year. Both state and non-state actors were accused of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses, in a climate of impunity.

In India, armed groups continued to perpetrate abuses against civilians, including in Jammu and Kashmir as well as central India. However, in August a historic peace framework agreement was reached in northeastern India between the government and the influential armed group National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction).

Armed violence continued in Thailand's three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, as well as parts of Songkhla.


A chronic and entrenched failure to ensure justice and accountability for past and present human rights violations and abuses was a major problem in a wide range of countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Impunity for violations by security forces in India persisted, and legislation granting virtual immunity from prosecution for the armed forces remained in force in Jammu and Kashmir and parts of northeastern India.

In Cambodia, impunity continued for violations during policing of demonstrations, including deaths caused by unnecessary or excessive use of force in previous years. Unresolved cases included 16-year-old Khem Saphath, last seen in January 2014. He was feared to have been the victim of enforced disappearance and was reportedly among at least five people shot during a government crackdown. The Khmer Rouge tribunal heard for the first time evidence on charges of genocide in a case against Nuon Chea, the former second-in-command of the Khmer Rouge, and against Khieu Samphan, the head of state during the Khmer Rouge era.

Indonesia marked the 50th anniversary of the 1965 mass human rights violations, when – following a failed coup – the military systematically attacked members of the Indonesian Communist Party and suspected sympathizers. There was a continuing failure to ensure truth, justice and reparation for appalling human rights violations and the deaths of an estimated 500,000 to one million people. The year 2015 also marked the 10th anniversary of the end of Indonesia's devastating decades-long Aceh conflict between Indonesian government forces and the pro-independence Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka), in which between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed. Despite evidence that violations by security forces may amount to crimes against humanity – and that both sides may have committed war crimes – little has been done to ensure justice.

There was, however, progress towards accountability in Sri Lanka. A UN investigation into alleged abuses committed during the final years of the country's armed conflict, including enforced disappearances and military attacks targeting civilians, concluded that these abuses, if established before a court of law, could amount to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. It recommended reforms to address ongoing violations and the establishment of a hybrid court to address crimes under international law, with which the government signalled agreement.


Refugees and asylum-seekers continued to face significant hardship in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. People smuggling and human trafficking in the Bay of Bengal exposed thousands of refugees and migrants to serious abuse on board boats. Some people were shot on the boats, thrown overboard and left to drown, or died from starvation, dehydration or disease. People were beaten, sometimes for hours, for moving, begging for food or asking to use the toilet.

A crisis unfolded in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in May, triggered by Thailand's crackdown on human trafficking and the smugglers' and traffickers' subsequent abandonment of people at sea, causing an unknown number of deaths and leaving thousands of refugees and migrants stranded for weeks and lacking food, water and medical care.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand initially pushed overcrowded vessels back from their shores and prevented thousands of desperate people from disembarking, while regional governments were slow in setting up search and rescue operations. Following international criticism, Indonesia and Malaysia permitted people to land and accommodated them on a temporary basis. Nevertheless, hundreds or even thousands of people remained unaccounted for, and may have died or been sold for forced labour. By the end of the year, there were serious unanswered questions about a long-term solution for the survivors, as – despite Indonesia devoting resources to housing thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers, and helping to fulfil their basic needs – the government had not clarified whether they could stay beyond May 2016.

As a result of the ongoing insecurity and armed conflict in Afghanistan, nearly 3 million Afghans were refugees, mostly living in Iran and Pakistan, and almost 1 million Afghans were internally displaced in their own country, often in harsh conditions in makeshift camps.

Australia displayed an ongoing harsh approach towards refugees and asylum-seekers. Measures included pushing back boats, refoulement, and mandatory and indefinite detention, including in off-shore processing centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. An independent review of the Nauru centre documented allegations of rape and other sexual assault. The government accepted all the review's recommendations and announced in October that asylum-seekers would no longer be detained at the centre. Amnesty International gathered evidence of the involvement of Australia's maritime border patrols in criminal activity, including evidence that officials made payments to boat crews to traffic refugees and migrants found at sea to Indonesia.

Migrant workers were abused and discriminated against in several countries. North Korea dispatched at least 50,000 people to work in countries such as Libya, Mongolia, Nigeria, Qatar and Russia, often in poor safety conditions and for excessive hours; they received wages via the North Korean government, who made significant deductions.


Some authorities colluded in, or failed to address, an increasing trend of religious and ethnic intolerance, exclusion and discrimination. Abuses were reported in countries in the Asia-Pacific region including Laos, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam.

The authorities in Indonesia failed to ensure that all religious minorities were protected and allowed to practise their faith free from fear, intimidation and attack. A community of Shi'a Muslims – forcibly evicted in 2013 from temporary shelter in East Java – remained in limbo throughout 2015; they had previously been forcibly evicted from their home village in 2012 after attacks by an anti-Shi'a mob. Local authorities prevented them from returning unless they converted to Sunni Islam. Elsewhere, local authorities in Aceh province tore down Christian churches, with mob violence forcing around 4,000 people to flee to North Sumatra province.

Freedom of religion was systematically stifled in China. A government campaign to demolish churches and take down Christian crosses in Zhejiang province intensified and persecution of Falun Gong practitioners included arbitrary detention, unfair trials, imprisonment and torture and other ill-treatment. The government maintained extensive controls over Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The regional government in the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region enacted new regulations to more tightly control religious affairs and ban all unauthorized religious practice.

In India, authorities failed to prevent many incidents of religious violence, and sometimes contributed to tensions through polarizing speeches. Mobs attacked Muslim men they suspected of stealing, smuggling or slaughtering cows; and scores of artists, writers and scientists protested against what they said was a climate of growing intolerance.


Discrimination remained a concern in numerous countries, with the authorities frequently failing to act effectively to protect people.

Pervasive caste-based discrimination and violence continued in India, and dominant castes continued to use sexual violence against Dalit and Adivasi women and girls. There was some progress when the lower house of Parliament passed an amendment to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, recognizing new offences and requiring that special courts be established to try them, and stipulating that victims and witnesses receive protection.

In Nepal, discrimination – including on the basis of gender, caste, class, ethnic origin and religion – was rife, while in Australia Indigenous Peoples were jailed at a disproportionate rate.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people faced widespread discrimination and same-sex conduct remained criminalized in many countries. However, a ward in the capital Tokyo became Japan's first municipality to pass an ordinance to distribute certificates that recognize same-sex unions, while India's upper house of Parliament passed a bill to protect transgender people's rights.


Women across the Asia-Pacific region were frequently subjected to violence, abuse and injustice, including gender-based discrimination and violations and abuses of sexual and reproductive rights.

In Nepal, gender-based discrimination resulted in a range of negative impacts on women from marginalized groups. These included limiting the ability of women and girls to control their sexuality and make choices related to reproduction, such as to challenge early marriage or to ensure adequate antenatal and maternal health care. Stigma and discrimination by police officials and authorities in India continued to deter women from reporting sexual violence, and most states still lacked standard operating procedures for the police to address violence against women.

Sexual and other gender-based violence remained pervasive in Papua New Guinea, where there were also ongoing reports of violence and killing of women and children following accusations of sorcery. The government took little preventative action.


Despite some progress in the Asia-Pacific region towards reducing the use of the death penalty in recent years, several countries still applied the punishment, including in ways contrary to international human rights laws and standards. Executions were resumed in some countries.

Pakistan reached the shameful milestone of executing more than 300 people since the lifting of a moratorium on the execution of civilians in December 2014, following a terrorist attack.

In August, India's Law Commission recommended that the death penalty be abolished for all crimes except terrorism-related offences and "waging war against the state".

Amendments to China's Criminal Law came into effect, reducing the number of crimes punishable by death. Although state media claimed that this was in line with the government's policy of executing fewer people, the changes failed to bring the law in line with international human rights laws and standards on use of the death penalty. Statistics on how the punishment is used continued to be classified as state secrets.

A new Criminal Code abolishing the death penalty for all crimes was adopted by Mongolia's Parliament, to take effect from September 2016.

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