ASEAN Member States have responded to COVID-19 with a wide number of measures, including the introduction of new laws, policies and practices. The authorities in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and the Philippines passed or invoked state emergency laws which gave governments sweeping powers. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, while not declaring a state of emergency, utilised existing laws and/or introduced specific, non-emergency legislation. Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have utilised contact tracing apps that act as surveillance over people’s movement. Most countries deployed military and police forces to implement movement restrictions and combat what they described as online falsehood or fake news under the pretext of safeguarding national security and countering COVID-19.
At the ASEAN regional level, the first official response to the COVID-19 Pandemic was on 15 February 2020, with the Chairman’s Statement titled ASEAN’s Collective Response to the Outbreak of the 2019 Coronavirus, on behalf of ASEAN’s heads of states and governments. The statement highlights the need to strengthen coordination of national and regional efforts in ensuring ASEAN’s readiness and responsive measures to mitigate and subsequently eliminate the threat of COVID-19. In addition, the statement provides that the people should be “rightly and thoroughly informed on the COVID-19 situation.”
Since then, several commitments were undertaken at the regional level, among them the adoption of the Hanoi Plan of Action on Strengthening ASEAN Economic Cooperation and Supply Chain Connectivity in Response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the statement made by the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) issued in early May to highlight the need to integrate “human rights values” within the response to the pandemic. However, questions have been posed by civil society organisations and the public on whether these commitments have been implemented in practice and in particular whether ASEAN is able to address the human rights situation on the ground.
Participants in the webinars and subsequent research have pointed to several trends in the ASEAN Member States policy on COVID-19. These include resort to a security-approaches as well as wide-scale use of surveillance, which have brought detrimental impact on civic space violations of human rights, including the right to liberty, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and association.
Based on observations from webinar participants and FORUM-ASIA’s research, it is evidential that the ASEAN governments’ response to COVID-19 has accelerated the rise of authoritarianism and increased the use of military in further repressing democracy, human rights and civic space. Discriminatory treatment and at times violence towards has marginalised groups, including women, the homeless, people living in poverty, indigenous groups, and LGBTIQ further exacerbate public health risks of members of these groups.
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