The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) delegates have expressed concern over the disturbing trend of jailing government critics in Southeast Asia as they called for the immediate release of political prisoners in the region, including Senator Leila M. de Lima.
In a press conference attended by members of the APHR last Sept. 19, Malaysian Parliamentarians Tian Chua and Charles Santiago denounced the continuous harassment of opposition leaders by the government throughout Southeast Asia.
“The government is using every possible means to intimidate members of the opposition, especially individuals like Sen. De Lima, who stand up against strong men dictators. Intimidation against representatives seems to be an ASEAN value at this time. Even in Malaysia, 15 members of the Parliament are facing charges and all of them are part of the opposition,” Santiago said.
“The continuous harassment and intimidation of opposition leaders – like Anwar Ibrahim and Sen. De Lima — who are being detained and stripped of their freedom, will make ASEAN look like a club of dictators,” Chua noted.
Chua and Santiago, who came to the Philippines from Malaysia specifically to meet with De Lima, attended the press conference in San Juan City with fellow APHR members, Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat Jr. and AKBAYAN Rep. Tom Villarin.
With the theme “ASEAN at 50: Democracy and Human Rights at Risk,” the visiting parliamentarians discussed the deterioration of democracy as well as the rise of records involving human rights abuses in the region.
The Malaysian Parliamentarians further cited the political situation across the region: the assault on the opposition and civil society in Cambodia, the military government in Thailand that shows no sign of relinquishing power, and the continued persecution of De Lima and Malaysian government opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Santiago, who is a member of Parliament Klang, maintained the ASEAN leaders are promoting the culture of “fear” with an axe to grind against their critics.
“The reason why critics of the government are put in jail is because the leaders want to intimidate them. They want to send messages to the people that the ‘same will happen to you if you oppose my policies.’ They are using the culture of fear so they can do what they want while silencing critics,” Santiago said.
“It also shows that there are a lot of political prisoners because the democratic space in our region has began to narrow. It is not good for the society because in any democratic country, you need multiple ideas and new ways of thinking to develop,” he added.
For Santiago, the plight of De Lima and other political prisoners in the region should send a message to the Filipinos to fight for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
“Sen. De Lima should now become the rallying cry for democracy in the Philippines and a wakeup call for the people to stand up against self-centered leaders – like Duterte — who are becoming dictators trying to push their agenda into others,” he said.
Both Chua and Santiago then reiterated APHR’s earlier call to release De Lima from detention while expressing alarm that more public government leaders will be sent to jail under the Duterte regime.
“If his term continues, I guess there will be more Senator De Limas in the Philippines. ‘You intimidate me, I’ll go after you and I’ll put you in jail because I have the power and the Parliament behind me.'” Santiago noted.
Last Sept. 19, Santiago and Chua along with Baguilat and Villarin were barred from visiting De Lima in her detention cell in Camp Crame despite having complied with a 10-day visiting notice. The authorities failed to give an exact reason for the delay of issuing the permit.
A staunch critic of the administration’s war on drugs, De Lima was arrested in February based on trumped-up charges that have no basis but the perjured testimonies of convicted felons.