By Liam Hanlon
In the last decade, several of ASEAN’s member countries recognized the need for greater regional integration to confront the challenges of the 21st century. They convinced their fellow members to go along, resulting in the 2007 ASEAN Charter and the announcement of the ASEAN Political-Security Community to be established in 2015. The goal of both is the promotion of greater political integration based upon shared values of human rights, rule of law, and democracy. Unfortunately, diverging trends in freedom of expression within ASEAN signal trouble for the fast-approaching 2015 deadline.
Some developments mark important victories for free speech advocates in the region. The Philippine Supreme Court intervened October 9 to strike down the draconian Cybercrime Prevention Act, which vastly expanded the definition of criminal libel online and extended extralegal rights to the Justice Department to monitor and shut down websites. A Malaysian court October 1 ruled that the rejection of print publishing licenses on political grounds, a longstanding tactic used by the ruling party to curb political dissent, is unconstitutional. The Malaysia government in July announced the repeal of the country’s Sedition Act, although critics contend that the replacement National Harmony Act is equally oppressive.
But most surprising has been the unprecedented easing of restrictions on free speech and the media in Myanmar as a result of the ongoing reform effort that country began in early 2011. The government has opened up breathing room for the political opposition, introduced a new law allowing pre-approved demonstrations, and announced that private daily newspapers would be allowed for the first time in years. Then, on August 20, the leadership formally ended all prepublication censorship of the media. Media advocates rightly say that repressive laws, such as the Printers and Publishers Registration Act, continue to hamper freedom of expression in Myanmar, but progress is undeniable.
While the level of free speech differ in each of these countries, all have taken steps toward greater liberalization. These trends are in stark contrast to increasingly oppressive systems in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. Cambodian courts recently sentenced a land-reform activist to 20 years in prison for allegedly inciting secession through his radio program. Vietnam’s autocratic control over the media has been widely documented as one of the most repressive in the world. It continues to frequently jail bloggers and journalists for “conducting propaganda against the state,” with up to 20 years in prison. Thailand also employs its notorious lèse majesté law, which prohibits any insult to the monarchy. The complimentary 2007 Computer Crimes Act tracks internet websites for content offensive to the monarchy, currently banning as many as 100,000 websites.
These countervailing currents illustrate an underlying tension within ASEAN, between those who recognize the need to liberalize and encourage participatory processes, and those who reject freedom of speech and the connection between human rights and stability. It remains to be seen how this will transform ASEAN’s values, but the implications are troubling. Illiberal countries will hamper the ASEAN Political-Security Community’s ability to reach its full potential. ASEAN cannot genuinely herald a political community with such striking differences in civil rights. It will continue to lack political criteria for its members, which will serve the agenda of those that are more autocratic while hindering the group’s overall effectiveness.
ASEAN’s critics already cite the group’s inability to deal with crises and coordinate responses by members. A political security community that features a human rights body shaped by countries that systematically violate human rights will only reinforce these accusations of fecklessness.
ASEAN faces a choice between two distinct futures – the Cold War relic of non-intervention and consensus at the cost of all else, or the modern path of regional integration based on not only shared interests but also shared values. The disparity in freedom of expression among members is emerging as a poster child for this choice. ASEAN’s individual members, the United States, and the international community at large would do well to encourage the group to pursue the latter path because an integrated, stable, and effective ASEAN will be crucial for meeting the challenges of the 21st century Asia Pacific.
Mr. Liam Hanlon is a researcher with the CSIS Chair for Southeast Asia Studies.