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Southeast Asian Activists Unite in ‘People’s Walk’ Ahead of Regional Leaders’ Summit

People's Walk. Photo from Facebook page of ASEAN Peoples' Forum

People's Walk. Photo from Facebook page of ASEAN Peoples’ Forum

Southeast Asian activists and members of various civil society organizations gathered in Malaysia a few days before the start of the 26th Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The assembly concluded with a “People’s Walk” where more than 1,400 participants marched in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, to call for the immediate action and resolution on several issues affecting the residents of the region.

ASEAN is currently undertaking an ambitious plan to integrate the economies of Southeast Asia. Inspired by the European Union model, ASEAN is also envisioning the formation of a united community that will become one of the strongest economic blocs in the world. Malaysia is the host of this year's summit aside from leading the ASEAN secretariat.

While promoting unity is a worthy goal, Southeast Asian activists urged their leaders to address the impact of the ASEAN integration on marginalized groups and sectors. They also urged ASEAN to consider the views of ordinary citizens on global initiatives that will affect the region like the Trans -Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Through the ASEAN People’s Forum, which united civil society organizations across the region, participants declared their position on issues such as the Mindanao (southern Philippines) peace process, Rohingya (stateless people of Southeast Asia) persecution, human rights violations, and growing economic inequality.

Some of the delegates of the ASEAN Peoples' Forum

Some of the delegates of the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum

One of the workshops pressed for a “Junta-Free ASEAN” and an ASEAN free of political prisoners “so that the voices and choices of the people can displace all forms of dictatorship and strengthen solidarity for democracy and social justice across the Region.” This is also in reference to the situation in Thailand today where a military-backed government is accused of establishing a junta.

A banner displaying an image of Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the army general who led a coup in 2014.  Activists are calling for the restoration of democracy in the country. Photo from the Facebook of Julius Choo Chon Kai

A banner displaying an image of Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the army general who led a coup in 2014. Activists are calling for the restoration of democracy in the country. Photo from the Facebook page of Julius Choo Chon Kai

Another issue discussed in the forum is the demand for greater protection of free speech. Human rights groups highlighted the increasing number of laws in the region that restrict media freedom:

Governments across the region are imposing sweeping restrictions on the right to freedom of expression through repressive legislation as well as state-sanctioned attacks and intimidation. Draconian laws, often enforced under the guise of protecting national security, target peaceful dissenters both online and offline. Human rights defenders who are working on the frontline to promote human rights as well as to expose human rights abuses by state and non-state actors continue to face attacks, threats and imprisonment for their work.

An activist holding a placard in support of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a Thai journalist who was charged with Lese Majeste (anti-Royal Insult law). His case is an example of the free speech restriction in Thailand. Photo from ASEAN Peoples' Forum

An activist holding a placard in support of Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a Thai journalist who was charged with Lese Majeste (anti-royal insult law). His case is an example of the free speech restriction in Thailand. Photo from ASEAN Peoples’ Forum

The Twitter hashtag #AseanPeople was used during the forum and the People’s Walk. Below are some of the images during the event:

The case of missing activist Sombath Somphone from Laos was tackled during the forum. There was a workshop which cited the cases of other missing activists in the region.

Photo from the Facebook page of ASEAN Peoples' Forum

Photo from the Facebook page of ASEAN Peoples’ Forum

The plight of detained Myanmar students was also featured in the People's Walk. The students were arrested in Myanmar for leading a rally which was organized to demand education reforms.

Photo from the Facebook page of ASEAN Peoples' Forum

Photo from the Facebook page of ASEAN Peoples’ Forum

Some participants decried the death penalty conviction of Filipina maid Mary Jane Veloso in Indonesia. The High Court of Indonesia affirmed the conviction of Veloso, who was earlier found guilty of drug trafficking. But activists asserted that Veloso didn't receive proper legal representation and that she was a victim of human trafficking.

Also present during the People's Walk were activists supporting the cause of migrant workers, in particular the improvement of welfare of Cambodian workers.

Photo from the Facebook page of Julius Choo Chon Kai.

Photo from the Facebook page of Julius Choo Chon Kai.

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