Southeast Asia’s Leaders Must Work on a Freer Internet

Southeast Asian leaders have begun gathering in Cambodia for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, where they will be joined by other world leaders such as US President Joseph Biden. The summit comes at a critical time of growing regional and global authoritarianism, reports of gross human rights abuses in Myanmar, and continued repression of civil society in the region. Interrupting all these problems is a threat to internet freedom.

Freedom House new Freedom on the Internet 2022 The report, which covers eight of ASEAN’s 10 member states (and which I co-authored), found that the region’s governments have restricted online expression and privacy over the past year. These restrictions have led to the 12th consecutive year of decline in global internet freedom. Leaders participating in the summit, which begins on November 8, should seize the opportunity to protect people’s rights online in Southeast Asia.

Myanmar’s junta, which has waged a stunning campaign of online and offline repression since seizing power in February 2021, will not attend the summit. The association declined its invitation due to lack of progress on a five-point peace plan involving ASEAN and the junta. took over last April.

Given the junta’s abuses, this step is necessary and welcome, but insufficient on its own. The regime has imposed severe restrictions on internet access, arrested large numbers of people for their online activities, and consolidated control over service providers under the military and military-linked companies. The military has also cracked down on online activism targeting support for the National Unity Government (NUG), a pro-democracy resistance movement that serves as a civilian alternative to the junta.

The summit provides an opportunity for ASEAN leaders to engage in more meaningful action in support of the people of Myanmar. They should support a global arms embargo and targeted sanctions against the junta and its associated companies. Any sanctions should exempt companies that provide internet services, digital platforms or evasion technologies in Myanmar, which serve as critical tools for raising people’s voices against the junta. Leaders should also reach out to the NUG to support a peaceful transition to elected civilian rule in Myanmar, resisting the junta’s rigged elections, as Malaysia’s foreign minister did on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting in May. Without such action, the junta will continue its brutal agenda with greater impunity.

ASEAN leaders can certainly do more domestically. All eight member states are covered Freedom on the Internet 2022, officials arrested people for discussing political, social, or religious topics online. Some faced heavy prison sentences. Last December, Vietnamese authorities sentenced journalist Phạm Thị Đoan Trang to nine years in prison in retaliation for her online criticism of the government. Trang joins a growing group of bloggers serving long sentences in Vietnam, including Radio Free Asia’s Nguyễn Văn Hoa, who has been jailed since 2017 for drawing attention to the environmental disaster. Meanwhile, Cambodian-American human rights lawyer Theary Seng, who was sentenced to six years in prison by Cambodian authorities for postings critical of the government on social media, has begun a week-long hunger strike to coincide with the ASEAN summit.

ASEAN leaders should use the summit as a backdrop for the unconditional release of people imprisoned for their online statements, including Trang, Hoa and Seng. Indonesian President Joko Widodo offers an example: Last October, he granted amnesty to university teacher Saiful Mehdi, who was convicted of defamation and sentenced to months in prison for criticizing his school’s recruitment process on WhatsApp. Global decision-makers attending the summit should engage ASEAN member states in advocating for such releases.

Southeast Asian governments have also tightened controls on online content. Over the summer, Indonesian authorities briefly blocked Yahoo, PayPal and other platforms that failed to register under a new legal regime for electronic services. Under this system, companies must remove content that the Indonesian government deems problematic. Meanwhile, the government of Cambodia, the current chair of ASEAN, has sought to tighten controls over the country’s international internet connectivity. If successful, the effort would strengthen the government’s ability to censor dissent and monitor internet users.

These actions are motivated in part by the harms of the digital age, such as harassment and misinformation. But people’s rights are violated when their governments decide what can and cannot be said online. Laws like Indonesia’s can be used to censor people who share opinions ranging from criticism of the authorities to expressions of personal identity. They also increase compliance costs for businesses, potentially encouraging the private sector to relocate operations or limit access to their products, and leave people with fewer choices for online services.

Instead, authorities should introduce measures of transparency to social media platforms in their products and narrowly regulate them, giving users more choice about how content is selected. By doing so, governments can empower people to shape their online experience. Greater transparency will also enhance informed policy making.

To commit to this approach, ASEAN leaders should reform or repeal repressive internet regulations, while others at the summit urged member states to adopt rights-respecting laws for the digital age. This is no small feat given the human rights record in some ASEAN member states. Their leaders need to understand that digital repression reduces people’s quality of life at home, threatens the private sector, and undermines international legitimacy.

As ASEAN gathers, Southeast Asian leaders and their global partners must commit to protecting human rights online. These steps will promote a freer internet for people in the region.

PICTURE: Protesters wave red National League for Democracy (NLD) flags and give the three-finger salute in Yangon, Myanmar on February 09, 2021. (Photo by Hkun Lat/Getty Images)

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