Holding fast to freedoms in the Storm

A commentary by Shiwei Ye, Civil Rights Defenders’ Southeast Asia Programme Officer, who is currently in Hong Kong. Shiwei joined the organisation on 1 September and is part of our effort to scale up our presence in Southeast Asia in order to provide more effective support to local human rights defenders.

Images of the ‘umbrella movement’ have gone viral among Internet users in Southeast Asian countries, generating hope and passionate discussion on democratic deficit in the region. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers, many of them in their late teens and 20s, have braved 30-degree weather and high humidity to occupy major intersections.

These mass street protests in Hong Kong demanding democratic and electoral reforms are striking a chord with activists across Southeast Asia. This is especially so in countries of the region where civil and political rights are curtailed and where Civil Rights Defenders contributes to empowering human rights defenders at risk.

At night in Hong Kong, protesters light up an entire intersection with their smartphone flashlight and sing in unison “Under a Vast Sky,” a Cantopop classic that has become the unofficial anthem of the movement.  A verse in the lyrics goes: “Forgive me for yearning for freedom in my life/ But also afraid of falling down some day/ To give up one’s ideals, it isn’t hard for anyone/ It would be fine if there’s only you and me”.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong come out in numbers

For the past week, in the Mongkok district, the peaceful sit-in has been orderly, festive, and hands on, with ordinary participants invited to share their thoughts on stage. Many young protesters not only collect and pick up garbage, but also separate out the non-combustibles for recycling. Last Friday in the same district, a group of counter-demonstrators suddenly appeared, violently tore down tents and subjected peaceful protesters and some journalists to verbal, physical, and sexual harassment and intimidation. Similar mob violence was also documented in other protests sites on Friday and throughout the weekend. Police arrested 37 people so far, some of whom were found to have connections with local organised crime.

Coverage of these unfolding events in Beijing’s state media is carefully choreographed and employ routine rhetorical tactics accusing protesters of holding “illegal assembly”, “disrupting public order,” and “consorting with foreign forces” to instigate unrest. Beijing stresses that its position on the 2017 election is “unshakable.” Leaders of the protests have vowed to stay put and intensify civil disobedience activities amid risk of crackdown.

THe Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong

Activists in Southeast Asia are drawn to this modern-day David-versus-Goliath battle that pitches pro-democracy activists against a powerful authoritarian government in Beijing.  Hong Kong’s movement is taking place against a backdrop of recent and on-going setback in civil and political rights in Southeast Asia.

Early 2014 saw mass public protests in Cambodia against alleged fraud in last year’s general election, which long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party won again. The government responded with excessive force against protesters and an arbitrary ban on public assembly.

In Vietnam, the right to protest is protected by law, but rarely tolerated in practice, and a protest with demands similar to Hong Kong’s would certainly be nipped in the bud. Like China, Vietnam is a one-party State in which the Communist Party has a monopoly over political power. Members of Vietnam’s legislature are elected in periodic elections but candidates are vetted by the Vietnam Fatherland Front an arm of the Party. Therefore, voters do not have a genuine choice nor can citizens freely stand for and be elected to public offices.

Critics slammed the 2012 by-elections in Myanmar as neither free nor fair in the light of a range of restrictions placed on political activities. 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for military personnel. In 2014, human rights defenders have been charged, prosecuted or convicted for their role in peaceful assembly, as the political scene heats up ahead of the 2015 election.

In Thailand, within two months after anti-government protesters marred the February elections by blocking voting stations and threatening voters, a Thai court annulled the election results and the Thai military ousted an elected government in yet another coup, setting back Thailand’s hard-fought democratic gain.

But the people of Hong Kong are not alone……….

Crowds descend in central Hong Kong

Thai activists share on social media networks images of Hong Kong protesters and express their admiration for a brave people who are voting with their feet on the streets so that one day they may vote a truly free and fair election, something that now remains a distant goal under the junta. “Solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Hong Kong,” writes one Cambodian trade unionist on Facebook. Vietnamese activists, themselves long suppressed by a one-Party state, declare on Facebook: “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Vietnam!” Public assemblies supporting the umbrella movement have taken place in over 60 cities around the world. Mainland human rights defenders continue to express their solidarity despite reprisals.

Southeast Asian activists are closely watching the Hong Kong situation also because it presents a serious challenge to China’s central government, which has long provided diplomatic support to Southeast Asian governments accused of human rights abuses. China’s blanket censorship of online references to the Hong Kong protests only underscores Beijing’s fear of a potential domino effect on the Mainland. Any significant pro-democracy movement in China today will have a rippling effect well beyond its border.

The outcome of the Hong Kong protests is far from certain. What is certain is that Southeast Asian activists have found inspiration in umbrella-wielding protesters braving tear gas and pepper spray, under scorching sun and rainstorm, to express substantive demands for the kinds of electoral and democratic reforms long sought after in their own countries.


On September 28, 17 years after China reclaimed sovereignty over Hong Kong and 25 years after the violent crackdown on the 1989 Democracy Movement, tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong joined students in a peaceful protest against the Chinese government’s decision to screen candidates for the 2017 chief executive election despite prior promises to ensure universal suffrage. Police fired multiple rounds of tear gas and used pepper spray against peaceful protesters, prompting outrage and drawing even more protesters onto the streets.  The protest spread to other parts of Hong Kong and protesters began to demand the removal of the city’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

In 2012, Leung was elected Hong Kong’s third chief executive after winning 689 votes in a 1,200-strong Election Committee stacked with pro-Beijing electors.  His two predecessors were also elected under the same system. There are approximately 5 million eligible voters in Hong Kong. In June this year, Beijing inflamed public opinion in Hong Kong by publishing a whitepaper that states that those governing the city must be “patriotic”. Under Beijing’s latest decision on the 2017 election, only candidates who win more than half of the votes in a Nomination Committee, to be formed along the lines of the Election Committee, could be on the ballot. Under such a system, the protesters argue, voters are essentially given a choice between ‘puppet A’ and ‘puppet B’.

Hong Kongers see Beijing’s decision as an overt attempt to vet candidates for political loyalty. They see such an electoral arrangement as violation of China’s treaty obligations to ensure “a high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong and the protection of basic rights and freedoms, under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Basic Law (the city’s mini-constitution), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies in Hong Kong (but not in Mainland China).

Categories: News.
Tags: Cambodia, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Shiwei Ye, SouthEast Asia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Regions: Southeast Asia.