Albion Monitor /Commentary

Human Rights Catastrophe Feared in Asia

by Sidney Jones

Violence feared as hundreds of thousands of construction workers, food vendors and petty traders return from depressed urban areas to their homes in the countryside
Chinese new year began on Wednesday and Ramadan ends this week. People have traditionally expected bonuses to cover their outlays for homecomings and annual celebrations, but this year companies will be feeling squeezed by the Asian financial crisis and the region itself is facing a host of social problems.

As the financial crisis continues to unfold, economic grievances may increasingly take on an ethnic or religious cast.

In Indonesia, most reports on the crisis have sounded alarms about possible attacks on the economically dominant ethnic Chinese. Many of these Chinese are also Christian. In the past 18 months, churches have become as much a target of the Moslem poor as Chinese-owned shops. Persecution can go the other way, too. In eastern Indonesia, which is heavily Christian, Moslem traders from the Bugis ethnic group have become the focus of resentment.

Violence linked to land disputes may also increase, as hundreds of thousands of construction workers, food vendors and petty traders return from depressed urban areas to their homes in the countryside.

The chief of Thailand's irrigation department announced on January 2 that the irrigation system would not be able to cope with the expected number of people returning to farming as a way of survival. In Indonesia, drought has devastated rural Java, making a mass influx of sacked workers even more insupportable.

When decreasing availability of money, land and water is combined with an increasing demand, the prospect for violence is high. The security forces in the countries most at risk have not shown themselves in the past to be particularly conscious of human rights when quelling social protests.

None of the Asian countries most affected has a particularly good record on labor rights. But now, in an effort to lure foreign investors, governments may promise to introduce anti-union measures and restrictions on freedom of association. With a workforce already anxious about job losses, such measures are hardly like to reduce the prospect of labor unrest.

It is time to experiment with reforms that increase, not decrease, the ability of workers to bargain collectively on wages and benefits. In a time of crisis, top-down decisions without worker involvement are guaranteed to breed resentment. Face-to-face bargaining may lead workers to understand more fully the hard choices facing their employers. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable. More than 7 million Asians work outside their own country; 2 million immigrants leave home legally every year, and there are probably just as many illegal migrants. Now countries that have traditionally received migrant workers with open arms want the jobs for their own citizens.

Malaysia initially announced it would be sending back 1 million foreign workers, mostly Indonesians, with some Bangladeshis and Filipinos. Anwar Ibrahim, deputy prime minister, has since retracted that figure, but the likelihood of mass deportations remains. Thailand has announced a new crackdown on an estimated 800,000 illegal migrants, most of them Burmese.

When past economic downturns have led to expulsions of foreign workers, the result has been physical violence against migrants, who become the scapegoat for social and economic ills.

These migrants are also subject to abuse in overcrowded immigration detention centers, to extortion by officials in both host and home countries and, in the Malaysian case, to unsafe deportation procedures in overcrowded boats. In Thailand, where the line between economic migrants and refugees is blurred, mass deportations may involve sending Burmese nationals back to persecution and worse.

In Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia the trafficking of women and children into prostitution may increase as families, particularly in tribal and upland areas, become desperate. Trafficking from Indonesia to Malaysian Borneo, and from Thailand through Malaysia to Japan, Korea, Europe and the U.S. has grown in recent years.

Meanwhile, martial law and other emergency legislation could look tempting to several leaders, especially as political dissent grows. The National Security Law in Korea, the Internal Security Act in Malaysia and the Anti-Subversion Law in Indonesia have been used to detain critics and opponents, as well as student, labor and religious activists. Given his own experience as a former dissident, Kim Dae-jung, Korea's president, may be able to prevent the misuse of the law in his country, but in Indonesia the search for political scapegoats is already underway.

Contrary to some perceptions, emergency rule has not been good for business in Asia. It was the declaration of martial law in the Philippines in 1972, initially welcomed by the business community as a stabilizing measure, that started that country's downward spiral into economic stagnation and political upheaval.

No economic or political crisis in Asia in recent memory has been resolved by violations of human rights. Human rights abuses only speed up a government's loss of legitimacy and lead to greater instability. Everyone concerned about the crisis in Asia should look beyond exchange rates and austerity measures to the political steps needed to prevent a human rights catastrophe.

The author is executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch
A version of this editorial appeared in The Financial Times, London, on January 26

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Albion Monitor February 2, 1998 (

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