Liberty: An Uncounted Fatality of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia

Thai artist and gallery-operator, Danai Ussama, was arrested on the afternoon of March 23 while under self-quarantine in his home in Phuket.

His crime?

Posting on Facebook that he and fellow passengers were not ushered through medical checks upon arriving at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok.

Conviction of Thailand’s ‘Computer Crime Act’ carries with it the possibility of up to five years imprisonment and 100,000 baht in fines.

Danai’s arrest is far from an isolated case. Dissident arrests and authoritarian decrees and state of emergency laws have become commonplace within Southeast Asia. Using five categories, Lone Umbrella has pieced together a map to help visualize responses in the region.

Visual by Yusoof Monawvil | Refer to footnotes for highlighted sources

The five categories used in producing the results of the map include:

  • Press restriction
  • Dissident arrests
  • Surveillance trespasses
  • Freedom/availability of information
  • Speech restriction / ‘fake news’ restriction

Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam top the region off with the heaviest-handed approaches to COVID-19. Forcing internet service providers to comply with state-mandated censorship of independent media has led largely to a difficulty in procuring information valuable in the fight against the virus and its spread—putting the nation in lockstep with communist dictatorships—Laos and Vietnam.

Notable Dissident Arrests:

Arrested nine days ago in Ninh Kieu, Vietnam, Ma Phung Ngoc Phu, 28 years old, was sentenced by the district’s People’s Court to nine months in prison for posting on Facebook: “We’ve just now received information about COVID-19 deaths in Vietnam. Why is state media not publishing this news?” Her sentence was labelled an “abuse of democratic freedoms” and Ma has been accused of abusing the state through her social media posts. In line with social media-triggered arrests, Dinh Vinh Son—a 27-year-old Vietnamese man in Lam Dong province—was also arrested on allegations of “illegal posting on computer networks.” He had posted on Facebook that the city of Da Lat had three COVID-19 cases, with one fatality.

Such breaches of civil liberties are not to be unexpected in Vietnam, but among hybrid regimes in Southeast Asia—namely Cambodia and the Philippines—COVID-19-triggered developments have highlighted cause for concern.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s response perhaps is best described and most concisely summed up by The Diplomat’s Michael Beltran in his May 12 article, in which Beltran describes the administration’s response as marrying incompetence with militarism.

Duterte’s administration began their response with a relatively well-timed lockdown beginning in mid-March. The response only went downhill since then. Brutal beatings of essential workers not wearing masks, mentally ill veterans, and anyone with criticism of the government’s handling of the situation has come to define the callousness of Duterte’s administration.

The degree of sheer and utter blundering has led to the wholesale arrest of relief workers—the very people working to ensure those unable to procure food were afforded care and a degree of food security.

May 1st—Labor Day—proved instrumental in cementing the public conception of Duterte’s response. In a single day, nearly a hundred citizens from across the Philippines were imprisoned for participating in food security programs or for protesting online.

If summarized from start to finish, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s response is deserving of an entire post, granted his administration’s response lurched from denying anything ought to be done to all-hands-on-deck plan of attack that utilized safety as a guise for persecuting journalists and stifling political opposition.

Making headlines for hugging tourists disembarking from cruise ships, Prime Minister Hun Sen began his response alleging there existed little reason for concern, ejecting members of the press from press conferences for questioning this stance. The government has since switched course, making use of the virus as a means to go after former-members of the country’s now disbanded opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party.

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