By WASAMON AUDJARINT,
Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malaysia and Pakistan are set to hold elections this year. Indonesia and India are yet to announce elections due next year, while Thailand’s election, scheduled for February, is again not final.
“Whether we have the right to vote is top priority for us [in Thailand] now,” Kobsak Chutikul, secretary-general of Asian Peace and Reconciliation, told the international symposium on elections hosted by Asia News Network at a Bangkok hotel.
Panellists agreed that democracy and fundamental rights were under threat throughout Asia.
The election is no longer about exercising public will, but of powers-that-be using it to manipulate public will, said Mahfuz Anam, editor-in-chief of the Bangladesh newspaper The Daily Star.
“The people who are in power do not take elections as a measure of popularity, but being in power is about deceiving and manipulating public opinion,” he said.
Every country, including Bangladesh, is using state machinery – bureaucracy, intelligence, police and the judiciary – to manipulate public will, he said.
Democracy and the fundamental rights of the people are currently under pressure not only in Asia but all over the world, said Kingsley Abbott, senior legal adviser, Southeast Asia, of the International Commission of Justice.
The assault on human rights and the rule of law; the attack on freedom of expression as well as misuse of the law are happening widely in the region, he said.
Freedom of expression is being suppressed in many countries in the region, he said. Cambodia and Myanmar have arrested a number of journalists, he said.
In Thailand, it is unlawful for five or more people to gather for political purposes. This year alone, as of yesterday, the junta has charged more than 60 people for violations of military order, he said.
“Law is also misused,” he said. “Rather than simply violate human rights, states increasingly legislate to make violations [of human rights] lawful, such as the military order in Thailand that bans political gathering, which is a violation of fundamental rights, the right of expression and assembly.” Sedition and computer-related crime laws are being abused to violate rights in the entire region, Abbott said.
Kobsak suggested that people should not have high expectations in elections. “It is just the right of individual persons to go to vote. Like in South Asia, people just go to vote without high expectations whether or not the election could bring them good politicians into the government,” he said.
“I think we have to look beyond politicians. Behind them are the people and we have to let people have the opportunity to have a say,” he said.
Abbott called on all stakeholders, including journalists and lawyers as well as people who wish to see justice, to fight for democracy and human rights. Countries should prioritise discussion on human rights bilaterally and multilaterally. The United Nations must keep human rights up front, not just in words but through actions, he said.
“The Asean principle of non-interference should be dropped in favour of human rights and the rule of law for sustainable development. Civil society needed to be protected,” he said.
Abbott called for the Thai junta to lift all restrictions on fundamental rights and allow an election to take place soon.
Bhokin Bhalakula, a key Pheu Thai Party figure, worried that the junta’s grip on power would be maintained during the pre-election period, which could result in an unfair election process, including control of party campaigning.
“While there are laws and regulations, the question is how they would be interpreted and enforced,” the Thai politician and former deputy prime minister, said.
“So, it’s questionable whether this would bring about double standards. Rules can be deviated by people.”
His remarks could refer to the junta and the police enforcement of a series of laws, from the computer crime act to sedition to lese majeste, which have been used significantly against online commentators on subjects critical to the junta.