Rule of law.  Photo: iStock
Rule of law. Photo: iStock

With the arrest of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak on money laundering and abuse of power charges, Southeast Asia’s handling of the rule of law is once again in the spotlight. In the region, adherence to the rule of law has been on the retreat at an accelerating pace, with the UN naming countries such as Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines on a list of 38 “shameful” countries that commit or tolerate human rights abuses.

Judiciary is politicized

Although Malaysia is not in this year’s UN report, it may find itself on the list in next year’s edition. After all, new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has not only accused Najib of illegal financial activities but also had his lawyer arrested on money laundering charges. While Najib is definitely on the defensive due to his involvement with the scandal-ridden 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund, his trial is at risk of becoming a tool for Mahathir to wash his own dirty laundry.

In an recent interview, Najib claimed that before the scandal occupied Malaysian politics and society, both Najib – then still PM – and Mahathir were on good terms. But they fell out after Mahathir grew increasingly angry at Najib for shooting down his numerous requests regarding the development and governance-focused 1Malaysia national program. As a result, the arrest of his lawyer, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, has been interpreted as a deliberate attempt to politicize the judiciary by intimidation in an effort to prevent Najib from receiving a fair trial.

Given Mahathir’s reputation, this is not an implausible assumption – so much so, in fact, that he felt compelled to call a press conference to explicitly make the point that his government “is not exacting ‘revenge’” against Najib. Still, Matahir, who defeated Razak in this year’s elections, has experience in the suppression of dissenters and those that cross him: during his previous stint as PM from 1981 to 2003, he was responsible for invoking repressive measures to silence his critics – both by redrafting laws to prohibit judicial review and by intimidating judges. With the imprisonment of critics and the imposition of strict censorship, Matahir’s human rights legacy is described as “not one to be proud of.”

Thailand’s legal system is being undermined

Similar things can be said about Thailand, where the legal system has witnessed swingeing changes as the ruling junta continues its crackdown on the opposition. Naturally, Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) robustly denies the allegations of its mistreatment of human rights activists on which the UN report was based, condemning the report and claiming it was being used to discredit the government.

The junta follows the same playbook as Malaysia in that dissidents and lawyers are frequently subject to harassment. The cases of ethnic Lahu rights activist Maitree Chamroensuksakul and human rights lawyer Sirikan Charoensiri – which the UN explicitly cited – have outraged the global community. A lawyer for peaceful critics of the junta, she has faced multiple lawsuits for supposedly filing a false report to the police, is accused of sedition, and had her property searched without a warrant.

In addition to lawyers, organized opposition movements are targeted as well. In September, the junta announced a partial easing of a ban on political activities, apparently in preparation for elections in 2019, but its iron grip on political activity is stringently maintained. For example, Thai police charged members of the new Future Forward party with spreading “false information” about the NCPO on social media. Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was charged under the Computer Crime Act over the content of a Facebook live broadcast. If convicted, he and his associates face up to five years in jail. Evidently, the NCPO employs its laws and subsequent prosecutions to limit the opposition’s reach ahead of the elections.

After its 2014 coup, Thailand’s army promised to return the country to democratic rule within two years. Four years on and with an election permanently on the horizon though never actually realised, public support for the regime is waning. In the meantime, the legal system has been amended via 298 new laws, while allegations of corruption are rife: the country scored just 37 out of 100 in Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index. This score is even lower than when the military first took power.

Myanmar is turning its back on the rule of law

Finally, if one country in Southeast East stands for backsliding, then it is Myanmar. Once a poster child for reform, the government is enforcing rule by law through the judicial system by arresting journalists and staging sham trials designed to keep dissenters in line.

As a case in point, a Myanmar court recently sentenced two Reuters journalists – Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – to seven years in prison for illegal possession of official documents gained during their investigations into atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state. The ruling has met with widespread international condemnation and adds weight to the commonly held view that Myanmar’s judiciary is in thrall to the military.

The Supreme Court in January announced it would conduct a review of its own independence, yet to nobody’s surprise not much has come of it. This perfectly encapsulates the country’s dilemma: Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, also regularly talks about respecting the rule of law, but reforms have been minimal to date, despite a stated commitment earlier this year to provide “equal access, ensuring fairness and upholding the rule of law for everyone.” As such, Suu Kyi’s fall from Nobel laureate to atrocity-apologist continues unabatedly.

From arresting lawyers, persecuting the opposition and bending the judiciary to the will of the regime, Southeast Asia is changing for the worse. Seeing how the triple promises of reform, democracy and due process have been broken in many countries in the region, there’s little hope for change any time soon.

Jon Connars

Jon Connars is an American investment risk analyst and researcher currently shuttling between Singapore and Bangkok with expertise in the ASEAN region. He has been featured in The Hill, The Diplomat and Asia Times.

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