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  • Writer's pictureManushya Foundation

🧋#MilkTeaAlliance X Space Recap: Freedom of Expression and Youth Solidarity within Asia: Are We There Yet? 15 January 2024












On January 15, 2024, Manushya Foundation, in collaboration with the Milk Tea Alliance Thailand, Indonesia, The Philippines, and Friends of Myanmar, Initiatives for International Dialogue and KontraS, hosted its first-ever X or Twitter Space session with over 700 listeners tuned-in! 🚀 The session aimed to foster discussions among youth human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists, focusing on protecting online and offline spaces through the ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship. During the session, we not only highlighted freedom of expression issues by extending our shared solidarity to the cases of Sophon “Get” Suraritthamrong in Thailand and Fatia Maulidiyanti and Haris Azhar in Indonesia but also introduced the #LetsGetRights campaign to demonstrate how we can stand in solidarity with friends detained for practicing their freedom of expression! 🙌🌍 


Missed our #MilkTeaAlliance X-Space? We got you!

🎙️Listen to the passionate solidarity conversation ⏯️ https://twitter.com/i/spaces/1dRJZEDAkQQGB?s=20 


Or keep on reading our blog ⤵️ 


Heartfelt gratitude to our co-hosts from Manushya Foundation, Emilie Palamy Pradichit, Founder and Executive Director, Ni Putu Candra Dewi, Advocacy & Campaign Associate for the Democracy & Digital Rights, and Safina Maulida from Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), for facilitating this fruitful session! And a special appreciation to our guest speakers from Thailand, Indonesia, The Philippines, and Hong Kong, as follows: 🌟


Thailand:

  • Kunthika Nutcharut - Attorney at Law from Krisadang Law Firm and Get’s lawyer

  • Tisana Choonhavan-  Member of Parliament From the Move Forward Party

Milk Tea Alliance - Thailand: 

  • Pakorn Surariddhidhamrong (Gybsa) - Get’s sibling, and #LetsGetRights member 🧋

  • Pitchaya Ket-Udom (Hiyeen) - #LetsGetRights member  🧋

Milk Tea Alliance - Indonesia:

  • Nadine Sherani - International Advocacy of KontraS 🧋

  • Miftahul Choir - Milk Tea Alliance Indonesia 🧋

Milk Tea Alliance - The Philippines: 

  • Mark Diaz (Mark) - Milk Tea Alliance Philippines and Akbayan Youth member🧋

Milk Tea Alliance - Friends of Myanmar: 

  • Xun-Ling Au - 2nd generation of Hong Kong Diaspora 🧋


Scroll down to hear the voices of our guest speakers  ⤵️


In Southeast Asia, pro-democracy activists face challenges in both online and offline spaces, encountering imprisonment, exile, and subversion charges. The Indonesian EIT law, exemplified by the case of Fatia-Haris, suppresses advocates for oppressed rights. Democracy threats spill into reality, as seen in the case of Milk Tea Alliance Thailand member Sophon “Get” Suraritthamrong, who is facing imprisonment for "royal defamation." 


🇹🇭#WhatIsHappeningInThailand 

Zooming into the Case of Get 🔎

Our member of MTA Thailand, and the Mokeluang Rimnam Group  


In 2023, Thailand underwent a significant democratic transition with its  elections. However, concerns remain about the legitimacy of the current prime minister. Despite this, the election itself is seen as an achievement, thanks to the youth movement's significant contribution. Kunthika Nutcharut, the lawyer representing Get, provided insights into Get's current condition and updated information on his case:


Since August 24, 2023, Get has been indicted for allegedly criticizing King Rama 10 and the Queen. He supposedly stated that, regardless of their ‘merit-making efforts’, their accumulated merit would not increase. During the defense, Get contested this, claiming he was talking to the police at the time. However, lèse-majesté cases in Thailand are often met with difficulties in obtaining bail, questioning the legality of the court's decisions, given the presumption of innocence in criminal law. Throughout this legal saga, Get faced discrimination, with bail conditions conflicting with international law. Despite being detained three times and multiple bail denials, efforts to prove his innocence continue, emphasizing the case as a freedom of speech issue.

Questions have arisen regarding why Get did not choose to file more bail requests after the initial court ruling. This decision might have been influenced by the discriminatory measures he faced, including his bail conditions not meeting international standards. Additionally, frequent motions were needed for basic activities, like leaving his house. After the court revoked his bail again, he was sent back to jail for participating in an assembly critical of Thailand's treatment of human rights activists during the Thai APEC Summit. Faced with these challenges, Get may have lost trust in the judicial system's fairness, indicating a potential loss of faith in the protection the Thai Constitution should provide its citizens.


“We have lèse-majesté and SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) cases against activists throughout Southeast Asia and Get feels very strongly about that. He consistently conveys his sense of unity with everyone in the region. I'm unsure if, once you hear his story detailing the challenges he faces at every step of this case, you can imagine that activists in your country are confronting similar risks. Now is the time to advocate for better judicial cooperation and a higher standard of judge impartiality” Kunthika Nutcharut, Get’s lawyer.


Moreover, Pitchaya “Hiyeen” Ket-Udom, youth activist and Get’s partner, elaborated further on Get’s and other political prisoners’ well-being inside the prison:


Overcrowded prisons contribute to increased illness, and individuals are not allowed treatment outside, citing their health conditions are not severe enough… The situation is especially difficult for LGBT political prisoners. They are treated differently, akin to second-class citizens. Get and other political prisoners have been trying to advocate for the rights of political and LGBT people in prison, facing discrimination compared to those from other cases” Pitchaya “Hiyeen” Ket-Udom, youth activist and Get’s partner.


Thus, Get decided to withdraw his bail and instead raised two demands to challenge the state and Thailand's justice system: he requested to 1) restore the bail rights of all political detainees and 2) cease proceedings under Section 112. Hiyeen also shared that attending Section 112 case proceedings was challenging. For instance, Get's parents are barred from attending, necessitating additional efforts to monitor the case. Recent incidents during the hearings of #WhoKilledKingTaksin have raised concerns about biased treatment during the trial. Amid this, Get has faced physical harm and injuries, prompting them to file complaints with the authorities. However, responses received assert the correctness of the actions taken and adherence to due process within the court.


Let’s now delve into the perspectives of individuals working behind the scenes in order to understand how the situation has been managed. We will hear from Tisana Choonhavan, a Member of Parliament (MP) from the Move Forward Party, the victorious party in Thailand's recent general election. Despite initial expectations of a democratic transition under the party's leadership, the continued influence of the military-backed government and senators.

In light of this, Tisana discussed the Freedom of Expression (FoE), emphasizing its fundamental nature which inscribes itself in compulsory international law and should only be restricted under very specific circumstances. Despite this principle, FoE violations persist in Thailand, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the Emergency Decree was used for political ends. Over 1,000 protestors were charged under the Decree for peaceful assemblies. Tisana pointed out the misuse of laws such as lèse-majesté against democracy defenders and voices of the public, exemplified by the charges brought against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. This reflects a strategic lawsuit against public participation, contradicting provisions found in international agreements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Tisana continued by stating that the scope of FoE extends beyond criticism, but should encompass various forms of expression taking the shape of soft power, movies, documentaries, or music. Yet censorship in Thailand aims to limit FoE, particularly when artworks expose abusive or unlawful governmental and aristocratic actions. Correspondingly, the ongoing use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) is on the rise against FoE and political engagement, especially within groups opposing aristocratic influence. Despite the Move Forward Party's active efforts to address political prisoner cases and prevent the misuse of Section 112, true progress still faces a long road ahead.


In our party, we proposed the Anti-SLAPP law, which unfortunately was rejected… Our draft aimed to amend laws related to lèse-majesté, sedition, Computer Crime Act, and defamation.” 


In order to ensure activists can no longer be imprisoned for defamation, the Move Forward Party advocates for its classification “as a civil offense, not a criminal one”. Gradually pushing in this direction, they “seek to reduce lèse-majesté penalties from a minimum of three to 15 years to no minimum at all, and a maximum of one year,Tisana Choonhavan, a Member of Parliament (MP) from the Move Forward Party.


To counter these abuses the Move Forward Party proposed to shift defamation of the court or contempt of court charges, from criminal to civil, which were however declined by the President in the previous parliamentary session. Although parties explicitly distanced themselves due to the Move Forward Party’s stance on lèse-majesté, especially during the selection of the Prime Minister after the election, Tisana remains hopeful, as  successful amendments could occur elsewhere, whether regarding defamation, sedition, and the Computer Crimes Act. Additionally, the Amnesty Bill has also been submitted, focusing solely on politically motivated crimes. This excludes non-politically motivated crimes under the Emergency Decree, ensuring that charges related to spreading disease or violating laws for pandemic containment are not covered. The bill targets politically motivated crimes involving individuals, excluding state officials, corruption-related offenses, and other types not considered SLAPP crimes.


Against this background, Candra, one of the hosts, stressed the paramount importance of solidarity, especially for those living under authoritarian regimes in Global South Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Expressing the need for global north communities to learn from their experiences, Candra shared a poignant analogy, describing the simplicity of solidarity in daily life through a meme involving a cat owner mimicking their pet's distress. However, the narrative turned serious as she highlighted the complexities of expressing solidarity in countries like Thailand and Indonesia, where individuals could face charges for online activities. In the face of digital dictatorship, she also underscored the high cost of solidarity in the case of Fatia Haris and the urgency for global awareness and solidarity.


Zooming into the Case of Fatia and Haris 🔎

Indonesian Human Rights Defenders 


Nadine Sherani, managing the International Advocacy of KontraS, illuminated the challenges faced by human rights defenders in Indonesia's shrinking civic space. Under the looming threat of intimidation and dehumanization, stakeholders, including academics, journalists, and grassroots activists, grapple with legal restrictions, notably Article 27(A) of the Indonesian Electronic Information and Transaction Law, which defines activities qualifying as defamation.


The focal point of Nadine's narrative was the case of human rights defenders Fatia Maulidiyanti and Haris Azhar, charged for their podcast discussing military deployment in Papua. Facing over 30 hearings, internet troll threats, and unfair trial processes, the duo was accused of causing chaos within civil society. Despite their case gaining significant international attention leading to their acquittal, the prosecution plans to appeal to the Supreme Court, underscoring the persistence of the government to undermine its citizens’ freedom of expression. She related this case and the power dynamics at play, revealing how public officials dominate the country’s civic space, suppressing the right to express opinions and concerns. The misuse of defamation laws and the rhetoric that opinions should be exercised with strict limitations raises serious questions about the protection of freedom of expression in Indonesia, which Nadine stressed in this statement:  


"[...] Indonesia’s commitment to implement several international mechanisms such as Article 19 of the ICCPR, which clearly states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression and to receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers and etcetera."


Further, she talked about the glaring gap between constitutional promises and the harsh realities faced by activists, emphasizing the pressing need for Indonesian civilians to reclaim their civic space. Nadine reminded us in her closing statement that this struggle extends far beyond Fatia and Haris; it is about reclaiming civic space for all Indonesians. This call for solidarity, especially for youth activists, resonated as a crucial first step in challenging oppression and fostering a more just and free Indonesia.


This begs the question: How does solidarity manifest? Miftahul Choir from MTA Indonesia explored the answer in his intervention, offering a profound reflection on the nature of solidarity in Southeast Asia. While acknowledging existing forms of solidarity, he questioned its essence and diversity, calling to first understand what shapes it can take: 


"What kind of solidarity are we having right now?"


Miftah scrutinized solidarity based on class, profession, and politics, highlighting the challenges within each category. He underscored the importance of questioning whether solidarity is rooted in personal experiences and connections, especially for issues not directly linked to one's profession or advocacy. Miftah noted the prevalence of professional-based solidarity, driven by programmatic activities, and raised concerns about its sometimes overly transactional nature, lacking genuine conscience-driven initiatives. However, drawing from his observations on solidarity between migrant workers, he stated that: 


"I've seen that there is some class-based solidarity going on in Southeast Asia, especially coming from the migrant workers, which is very good because [...] they were exploited by the imperial system of work. And they create solidarity about it."


This served as an eye-opener on what true solidarity should look like, and where it should come from. Miftah further highlighted the existence of professional-based solidarity within organizations. He addressed its bureaucratic nature, exemplified by the structure of the programs, funding coming from the Global North, and the obligation to report on specific activities. This brought him to question the authenticity of this solidarity, which resembles a business transaction rather than a heartfelt commitment. For this reason, he noted a lack of campaigns for individuals like Get or other Thai political prisoners and in Indonesia, attributing it to a sense of obligation rather than genuine commitment-driven solidarity efforts. 


Followingly, he drew attention to the varying degrees of democratic breakdown taking place across Southeast Asian countries, to point out the necessity of finding a common ground for solidarity. In this light, he commented on the nuanced situation in Indonesia, where democratic erosion exists on a discursive level, requiring the deconstruction of existing dominant mindsets. 


Finally, Miftah called for regional consciousness, enquiring whether people truly feel Southeast Asian and expressing the need for heightened organizing, political education, and a shift toward creating political movements. He stands for actions pushing beyond mere complaints and policy briefs, advocating for concrete political prescriptions. He prompted discussions on long-term strategies, such as joining political parties and establishing political movements, to address the challenges faced by activists in Southeast Asia. Miftah concluded by emphasizing the significance of regional unity and a collective effort to navigate the complex terrain of democratic struggles in the region.


After Nadine and Miftah drew their conclusions from the Haris & Fatia cases, tackling the essence of solidarity, Safina, one of the hosts of the Twitter Space, in agreement with them, pursued the event by contemplating the essence of true solidarity and shared values. She recalls the construction of a political entity like the Labour Party in Indonesia. Beyond mere electoral victories, she envisions the party as a means to organize and mobilize people, fostering a collective readiness to shape a different facet of democracy. Now let us remind you of what Xun-Ling and Mark have shared in the X space.


Milk Tea Alliance - Friends of Myanmar 🇲🇲


Milk Tea Alliance - Friends of Myanmar, Xun Ling Au, a Hong Kong second-generation diaspora with deep connections with Myanmar, embarked on a journey to shed light on the tumultuous situation in Hong Kong. Xun Ling began by recounting the anti-extradition protests that had gripped Hong Kong. These young activists were at the forefront of the struggle, both physically in the streets and virtually online, fighting for their ideals.


However, the narrative took a darker turn as Xun Ling described the aftermath. The implementation of the National Security Law in 2020, coupled with the resurgence of an old British colonial-era sedition law, cast a long shadow over Hong Kong's once vibrant freedoms. 


"And it's not just these two laws that many other laws are being used to suppress speech and assembly. Much like what's happening in Thailand and is covered in Indonesia, Hong Kong's gone from being one of the places with the greatest freedoms in Asia to being one of the least in five years which is scary." 


Drawing parallels with similar suppressive actions in Thailand and Indonesia, Xun Ling explained how the dramatic decline in freedom of expression became apparent, transforming Hong Kong, which once was a bastion of liberty, into one of the least free places in Asia within a span of five years. The consequences were stark, with social media accounts disappearing en masse in the wake of the National Security Law. Fear of prosecution led to self-deactivation or dormancy, a haunting testament to the newfound atmosphere of repression. Xun Ling let the numbers speak for themselves: over 10,000 arrests, including 1,700 under the age of eighteen. Disturbingly, over 500 children faced prosecution, the youngest among them being a mere five years old.


"It's not just the prominent activists that make the news. It's everybody…Other young activists overseas have been targeted with arrest warrants. Bounties have been placed on their heads by the Hong Kong police force." 


Xun Ling recounted a chilling anecdote about a student studying in Japan who faced imprisonment for social media posts upon her return to Hong Kong. He continued unfolding the tales of overseas activists targeted with arrest warrants and bounties placed on their heads by the Hong Kong police force. Xun Ling illuminated how specific words, phrases, and even images had been criminalized, leading to the absurd case of a man being sentenced to three months for wearing a seemingly innocuous T-shirt at the airport.


However, amidst the darkness, Xun Ling found a glimmer of hope. In Hong Kong, signs of resistance persisted in the form of graffiti, flowers, and candles that continued to appear on the streets. These small symbols spoke volumes, showcasing the enduring desire for freedom among the people.


Xun Ling revealed that these events had given rise to a significant diaspora, with 400,000 people leaving Hong Kong in the last five years. Across the globe, they found new voices, building organizations, communities, and alliances to carry on the fight. In expressing solidarity, Xun Ling urged the alliance to share their stories, amplify their messages, and support them practically, especially those facing difficult economic situations.


“[...] In Hong Kong itself, there are little signs of resistance. Such as graffiti, flowers, or candles. They just continue to appear on the streets. And these little symbols of resistance just show that there are still so many people there with that desire for freedom, that desire to be able to speak out. And I think this goes a bit to how we can express our solidarity. If we see them, we share. We help amplify the messages of those. Are less able to speak out. Or we amplify the messages of those who are getting the information out.”


Xun Ling's intervention took a turn as it shifted its focus to Myanmar, a nation torn apart by a coup on February 21. What had been a gradual growth of freedoms in the country was violently snatched away, casting Myanmar into the dark shadows of oppression, now considered one of the least free countries in the world.


Athan Myanmar, a passionate advocate for freedom of expression, described this grim reality in plain terms—freedom of expression was no more. The recent events had erased the progress of the past decade, plunging the nation into an abyss. Protests were crushed, and activists were targeted and shot in the major cities, rendering it unsafe to raise one's voice against the tyranny that had gripped the land.


Yet, amidst the authoritarianism, protests persisted, led by courageous youth and women activists. Although the response from the authorities was extreme violence, the indomitable spirit of the people persevered, making a powerful statement against the relentless repression. Concurrently, online spaces in Myanmar underwent a ruthless crackdown, with social media accounts targeted, numerous arrests, and, in some instances, the internet itself blocked. Yet, the tenacity of the resistance prevailed, with information finding its way to the outside world. The sheer creativity of those resisting tyranny became a beacon of hope.


As Xun Ling wrapped up, his words pivoted towards a broader message about collective action. In the face of authoritarian rule and civic space repression, Xun Ling stressed the importance of finding ways to support each other. Everyone’s individual efforts, no matter how small, hold the potential of making a difference. Listening, learning, information-sharing, and supporting each other's campaigns emerged as the key strategies to counter the oppressive forces that sought to snuff out the flames of freedom.


Milk Tea Alliance - The Philippines 🇵🇭


Mark, an activist from the Philippines and a member of a democratic socialist organization, shared a narrative that intertwined the struggles faced by activists across Southeast Asia. Amidst the diverse stories of Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, a common thread of battling the suppression of freedom of expression arose.


The Philippines, in particular, grappled with the repercussions of the Anti-Terrorism law hastily enacted in 2020 amid the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mark called out the true nature of this law: a tool designed to systematically stifle dissent and control those who spoke out against corruption and abuses of power. The Anti-Terrorism law, with its provision allowing to detain individuals without a warrant, cast a chilling shadow over activists, particularly those involved in protests, forums, or any form of dissent deemed as "terrorism" by the government. Journalists found themselves navigating treacherous waters, with the Philippines ranking as one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists, especially in the provinces. Illustratively, Mark recalled instances where press freedom violations soared during the initial months of a new administration:


"During the Marcos administration, the killing of journalists highlighted the risks that our journalists face. One journalist, Jumalon, was shot live on air in a studio last November. Last May 2023, a radio journalist was also shot dead at his home. In October 2022, a renowned journalist, Percy Lapid, was also shot near his home in Manila."


The killings of journalists harkened back to the dark days of the Marcos administration, exemplifying the perilous environment for those dedicated to reporting the truth. When asked about how the situation is in his context and how he strives to stand in solidarity, Mark asserted: 


"Activists really must unite in solidarity, most especially at this time. As activists in their own countries, there's a task at hand to keep supporting and connecting with comrades in other nations, sharing in their fights and issues that they carry, and Get’s case is one of those ongoing efforts for us to get together in strong bonds."


Despite these daunting challenges, Mark showed resilient hope. He envisioned a day when political prisoners, like those in Thailand, could once again march for justice and democracy. In the face of a seemingly dark future for Southeast Asia, Mark rallied for necessary radical work, urging activists to unite in solidarity for a society that is founded on justice and democracy. 


✊Call to Action 


  • Nadine’s call to action as read by our host Candra - as she must have left earlier - consisted of two important points: While awaiting the file from the public prosecutor to be sent to the high court, two things can be done: first, mobilize the international society, especially in combating internet trolls with the hashtag #StopCriminalization and second, monitor the updates on the appeal for Fatia and Haris case,”


  • Last but not least, Gybsa, #LetsGetRights team member, shared more about the #LetsGetRights campaign. With an increasing number of friends detained in political cases, the campaign has been initiated to support and raise awareness for fellow political prisoners as well.


“The wordplay involves the name "Get" within a member of the Milk Tea Alliance and Friends of Myanmar. He is a political prisoner in Thailand, incarcerated under Section 112 of the criminal code since August 24 last year. He has also requested the revocation of his bail and the bail rights of other political prisoners. The campaign is a collaboration between the Milk Tea Alliance and Friends of Get, advocating for justice for Thai political prisoners and freedom for our political prisoners. The campaign #LetsGetWriting is a public space for sharing stories to disseminate messages and fuel positive change while safeguarding human rights. We look forward to raising awareness on this important topic,” Pakorn “Gybsa” Surariddhidhamrong, a youth activist, Get’s sister, and #LetsGetRights team member. 


“The focus of the campaign is clear: #LetsGetRights advocates for the release of political prisoners in Thailand—individuals who have bravely stood up for their beliefs and are now paying the price for their commitment to democracy and human rights. As we speak, these brave souls remain incarcerated, facing adversity for the sake of a better future. #LetsGetRights serves as a tool to stand by them, demand justice, and create a world where speaking out for one's beliefs is not a crime. Together, we can be the driving force that brings about change. Join the campaign to demand the release of political prisoners. This campaign extends beyond Thai political prisoners, as people around the world face similar struggles. Visit our website to learn more, watch videos, use materials in your own space, and become an activist. Let's work together to ensure that every voice is heard!,” Meme, #LetsGetRights team member. 


Curious about the #LetsGetWriting campaign? You can find it here


📍Participate in the campaign to support friends confronting imprisonment for their opinions! Whether in Southeast Asia or anywhere facing similar challenges, every voice deserves to be heard, and no one should endure legal proceedings simply for expressing their thoughts! 


#WeAreManushyan ♾️ Equal Human Beings




🔥 While you’re here, discover our pivotal work on democracy and digital rights, shaping our online democracy in Southeast Asia  ⤵️

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