EU, ASEAN parliamentarians call for release of Southeast Asian rights activists

eu asean parliamentarians call for release of southeast asian rights activists

Parliamentarians from ASEAN and the European Union called for the immediate release of three Vietnamese, one Indonesian, and four Lao prisoners of conscience ahead of Wednesday’s Inaugural EU-ASEAN summit in Brussels.

In an open letter addressing the summit, the five European and five Southeast Asian current and former parliamentarians recommended human rights cooperation between the two regional blocs and highlighted several ways that countries in ASEAN are not living up to international standards, particularly in ensuring the safety of human rights defenders.

The letter requested that ASEAN take steps to protect rights defenders, including by immediately releasing and dropping charges against “all human rights defenders arbitrarily imprisoned for their legitimate human rights work, including Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Pham Doan Trang and Nguyen Lan Thang in Viet Nam; Victor Yeimo in Indonesia; Houayheuang Xayabouly, Lodkham Thammavong, Soukane Chaithad and Somphone Phimmasone in Lao PDR.”

It also asked ASEAN countries to publicly acknowledge the importance of rights defenders, refrain from smear campaigns intended to stigmatize them and to ensure that rights organizations are able to function “independently and effectively.” 

The three prominent Vietnamese human rights defenders mentioned in the letter are among more than 200 human rights activists who are being held in prison, according to domestic and international rights organizations’ statistics. 

Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, a former businessman, is arguably the most famous human rights activist in Vietnam, known for blogging about economic and social reform. He was arrested in 2009 on the charge of “carrying out activities to overthrow the people’s government” and then sentenced to 16 years in prison. 

Pham Doan Trang is an internationally acclaimed human rights activist and political journalist who was arrested on the charge of “propagandizing against the State” in October 2020 and sentenced to nine years in prison in December 2021. She had been accused of speaking with foreign media, including Radio Free Asia and the BBC, allegedly to defame the government with “fake news.”

Nguyen Lan Thang was a contributor to RFA’s Vietnamese Service since 2013 until his arrest in early July 2022 on the charge of “conducting propaganda against the State” and is likely to receive a jail term of seven to 12 years if convicted. 

The parliamentarians’ open letter will have a positive impact on the summit, said former prisoner of conscience Nguyen Van Dai, who was set free in 2018 after Hanoi received many calls for his release from EU and German politicians and currently lives in exile in Germany.

“If the EU leaders raise their voices, it will greatly impact the freedom of the activists from Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar,” he said.

Almost all Vietnamese political prisoners are human rights defenders jailed for exercising their rights, Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, told RFA.   

“They have been hit with a rights abusing, so-called ‘national security’ law that has nothing to do with improving national life and everything to do with protecting the ruling Communist Party’s hold on power,” said Robertson.

He said dubious charges for rights defenders, such as tax evasion, were part of Vietnam’s attempt to fool the international community into thinking the detentions were legitimate.

“But as can be seen from this letter, it’s clear that people have caught on already and realize the rights abusing game the Vietnam government is playing here,” he said.

Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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