No Longer a Pariah, but Still Near the Back of the Pack

By Simon Roughneen 9 October 2013

YANGON — Sept. 13 should have been a joyous day for the Le Quoc family in Hanoi. But with pro-democracy campaigner Le Quoc Quan in jail since late 2012 on charges of tax evasion, the detained lawyer’s birthday made for a somber occasion.

The day came and went, and Le Quoc’s fate was still up in the air. “No-one knows when he will go to trial,” his brother Le Quoc Quyet told The Irrawaddy after a June hearing was suspended because it clashed with a visit to the US by Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang. It was not until a week after his birthday that the lawyer was given a new trial date, Oct. 2.

Meanwhile, in Cambodia, land rights activists Tep Vanny and Yorm Bopha have been or are in jail over protests about Boeung Kak, a landfilled lake in the heart of Phnom Penh near which the two women live. Some 3,500 families have been evicted from the lakeside to make way for offices and apartments to be built by a company owned by a senior lawmaker from Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

This correspondent spoke to both women at the Phnom Penh prison where Yorm Bopha is halfway into a two-year jail sentence for assault—charges which sound as trumped-up as those against Le Quoc Quan.

Yorm Bopha protested on behalf of Tep Vanny when the latter was in jail. Now the favor is being returned, with Tep Vanny visiting Bopha in jail and protesting for her release. “We are like sisters now, we think the same and support each other,” Tep Vanny told The Irrawaddy in early September.

Stories like these—which could be told about dozens of activists in both countries—show how far these two latecomers to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have yet to go to establish even the most basic standards of human rights. And they are not alone.

The two other countries that have joined Asean since 1995 are also showing little or no progress on rights reforms. Communist-ruled Laos, which entered the regional bloc in 1997 alongside Myanmar, is coming under increasing pressure over its suspected involvement in the disappearance of prominent activist Sombath Somphone. Sombath—a winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award (often called Asia’s Nobel Prize)—vanished without a trace last December.

Myanmar, a country that held free and fair by-elections last year, would at least seem to be doing better than Cambodia, where the ruling CPP is accused of cheating in a closely fought election in July. And possible plans to amend Myanmar’s draconian Internet laws stand in stark contrast to Vietnam’s recent retrograde steps to restrict social media users from posting news online.

But none of this means that the former black sheep of Asean is now a beacon. The cyber code hasn’t been changed yet, and there’s a draft law that reads like a government ploy to curb civil society.

Even Myanmar’s much-lauded release of political prisoners over the past two years is looking a lot less impressive these days, as a growing number of protesters opposed to land grabs land in prison—like Naw Ohn Hla, a regular protester against injustices under Myanmar’s former military government, who was summarily sentenced to two years with hard labor on Aug. 29 for demonstrating against the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region.

For now, then, Myanmar barely rises above being the best of a bad lot—not high praise for a country that has become Asean’s poster child of reform.

This story first appeared in the October 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.