Taiwan’s ‘Formosa Incident’ and International Human Rights Day

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Shih Ming-te holds up a “most wanted” poster featuring him as a young man on the run from law enforcement in 1979.

TAIPEI – December 10th is celebrated as International Human Rights Day. But in Taiwan the event takes on a more somber tone as the day to commemorate the 1979 Formosa, or Kaohsiung Incident.

This was a defining moment in Taiwan’s history – then under Chinese Nationalist (KMT) rule and its “White Terror” martial law from 1949 to 1987.

Shih Ming-te led Taiwan’s very first human rights day rally on Dec. 10, 1979 in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. He’d just been released from a 15-year prison sentence for intending to overthrow the government.

Shih, 77, is set to release his new book To Be Able To See The Sun Tomorrow at Taipei’s Sheraton Hotel – site of a former military prison – 39 years later to pay homage to his fellow political prisoners who paid the ultimate sacrifice for democracy.

“The reason I chose December 10, [international] human rights day, is to tell the Taiwanese all the freedom you’re enjoying today is because of these men whom you’ve forgotten,” he said.

All members of Shih’s “party without a name” were arrested in Kaohsiung. They were demanding an end to martial law, the ban on political parties, and the “10,000-year” parliamentary rule of the KMT’s Chiang Ching-kuo (son of Chiang Kai-shek).

Shih fled Kaohsiung but was captured and arrested by police not long afterward.

“I knew I would face the death penalty,” he said. “Prison is where you learn how to fight difficulties, to fight an oppressive regime.”

Due to international attention on Shih’s case, he was sentenced but served only 10 years and was released from prison in 1990. In total he spent 25 years of his life behind bars.

At the age of 49, he was already one of Taiwan’s most prolific writers and political activists. He went on to lead A Million Voices Against Corruption in 2006 to oust then-President Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s first non-KMT president.

“I’m now relieved and also proud seeing how democracy has come together on this island of Taiwan. I was a kid who was born under dictatorship. I’m proud of what Taiwanese democracy has accomplished,” he said.

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Shih Ming-te’s new book To be Able to See the Sun Tomorrow will be available Dec. 10, 2018

Shih has self-published over a dozens books and memoirs. But his latest is not like the others. This one is a limited edition, dedicated to his brother who died on hunger strike, protesting Shih’s treatment in prison.

“This book is not about me. It’s about the people in jail with me sentenced to death. I’m paying respect to those martyrs. They died unjustly,” he said.

The first chapter is called One Bottle of Prison Wine. The gift box contains the book and a bottle of red wine.

“We should pay honor to these people. This is the highest quality on the market. Every chapter will have artwork to complement the Chinese characters,” he said.

Shih plans to announce Dec. 10, 2018 that he has located a former military execution site in Taipei New City where many political prisoners were killed. He will ask the government for permission to build a human rights memorial wall there for victims of the KMT’s White Terror.

“I’m not asking for money, just the land,” he said. “This is what I should do for my brother who died [defending democracy].”

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Taiwan activists: Marriage-equality movement setback not the end

Despite ballot-box failure, proponents say it’s only a matter of time before same-sex marriage is written into law.

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Gay rights activist Chi Chia-wei arrives to cast his vote in the referendum on same-sex marriage [Ann Wang/Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – “Every defeat is a deeper blow. But we’ll keep on fighting until we are free,” sings American singer-songwriter – and Taiwan transplant – Ellery Prescott in his song Keep on Fighting. He dedicates it to Taiwan’s marriage equality movement.

It may still be the first place in Asia where gay couples can legally marry, even though Taiwanese voters rejected legalising same-sex marriage in a referendum last week.

The referendum results were a setback to the island’s LGBTQ community, but not the end of its fight dating back to 1986 – when civil rights icon Chi Chia-wei began his struggle to have same sex marriage recognised and legalised.

Last year the constitutional court ruled the government must amend the law to allow gay couples the right to wed. It gave them until May 2019 to adopt the practice – more than 30 years since Chi was first rejected for a marriage license at a Taipei court.

“We must prevail. Our constitutional court’s victory is historic. It clearly recognises the freedom to marry [for] same sex couples. We must defend that,” said Victoria Hsu, executive director of Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights.

Hsu hopes to marry her fiancé next year, once the government passes its anticipated law to enshrine the rights of same sex couples. But a lack of progress in Taiwan’s legislature led to a conservative backlash.

‘Family Guardians’

“Marriage for us is a union between a man and a woman,” said Father Otfried Chan, spokesperson of the Family Guardian Coalition. “It’s not the duty of the grand justices to make laws for that. It’s the task of the parliament.”

The Family Guardian Coalition consists of several of Taiwan’s Christian denominations. It organised in 2013 to pressure legislators against proposed amendments to the civil code to legalise same sex marriage.

It won that fight, but was dealt a blow with the 2017 constitutional court ruling. The Family Guardian Coalition views itself as defending moral values in Taiwan.

It put forth a referendum this year asking voters if they agreed that Taiwan’s civil code should restrict marriage to heterosexual couples only – exceeding expectations and passing with 69 percent voter support at the ballot box last Saturday.

But Taiwan’s LGBTQ community rejected the result as illegal and unconstitutional. Taiwan is known for its progressive stance on human rights in Asia.

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Taiwan’s Family Guardian Coalition spokesperson Father Otfried Chan [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

‘Doesn’t matter’

LGBTQ groups initiated their own referendum to counter Family Guardian Coalition and other faith-based groups opposing same-sex marriage. In it, they asked voters if they agreed the civil code should be amended to allow same sex marriage.

It failed to pass the threshold last Saturday with only 30 percent voter support.

“It doesn’t matter with the referendum [results] because our constitutional court made a decision [that] if within two years our Legislative Yuan cannot pass the bill, same-sex people can go register [their marriage],” said Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Yu Mei-nu.

Hsu helped introduce both marriage equality and civil partnership bills before parliament. So far, Taiwan doesn’t recognise anything but marriage as defined in the civil code.

But now with the results of the referendum and a resurgent Family Guardian Coalition, legislators are talking about respecting the results by adopting a new separate law.

Hsu called any law other than marriage an inferior act. She is pursuing a lawsuit against Taiwan’s Central Election Commission for allowing what she called an anti-LGBTQ referendum on the ballot.

Court hearings on the matter will be held in December.

Same rights

“The bill might be a same-sex marriage law but not in the civil code, a separate law similar to the civil code which will be better than the civil union but still not full marriage rights,” said Jennifer Lu, spokesperson of the Marriage Equality Coalition.

“We want not only for them to be married but to have the same rights as heterosexual people,” said Legislator Yu.

The other referendum raised by faith-based groups asked voters to reject Taiwan’s 2004 Gender Equality Education Act, which teaches LGBTQ issues to students at primary and junior high schools.

Voters supported this measure too, passing the threshold with 64 percent. But the Ministry of Education has since stated it would continue to promote gender equality in schools but that LGBTQ curricula may be revised.

“The coalition will maintain its stand. We don’t approve of same-sex relationships,” said Father Chan. “If this law remains, you have to implement it, you have to promote it, you have to teach it.”

Last October, 137,000 people attended Taipei’s pride parade – the largest crowd in its 16-year history. Pride participants celebrated the constitutional court’s ruling hoping Taiwan would become the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.

Regardless of the referendum results, it looks like the LGBTQ community is standing strong. It may have to wait a bit longer than expected for the government to amend the marriage chapter in Taiwan’s civil code, or adopt a new law for same sex marriage.

If parliament is unable to do this by May 24, 2019 – as mandated by the court – then marriage equality campaigners will have to step up pressure on lawmakers to receive the same rights as heterosexual married couples.

Many gay Taiwanese couples have already married despite not having their nuptials recognised by law. Hsu is fighting for them, and her own spouse, to be able to say her vows next year knowing they will share the same rights as other married couples in Taiwan.

“We’re powerful. We’re only gonna grow… Let’s keep fighting, until we are free,” concludes the song by Ellery Prescott.

Published @AlJazeera

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Taiwan’s ‘9-in-1’ Election and 10 Referendums

TAIPEI, Taiwan – The local “9-in-1” elections and 10 referendums took place Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. Taiwanese were voting for all nine administrative levels, with 10 referendum ballots included.

The referendum was mainly about gay marriage. Five questions out of 10 on the ballot dealt with its adoption – five against it and two for it. This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.

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Weaponising the Internet in Thailand

Free Pai Dao Din tee shirt worn by a democracy activist in Khon Kaen Thailand

A “Free Pai Dao Din” T-shirt worn by a democracy activist in support of Jatupat Boonpattararaksa.

BANGKOK – Thailand’s ruling regime, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), looks ready to set aside its whistle and zebra stripes amid chatter that the country is about to take tentative steps towards limited democracy, with an election looming as early as next February.

Former Royal Thai Army General and Thailand’s current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has publicly expressed willingness to shed his military uniform and don a business suit for the campaign trail.

Critics have speculated that the election might be pushed back—after all, it’s already been postponed four times—but the government insists that Thais will go to the polls in 2019.

Prayut came to power following a coup against Yingluck Shinawatra’s caretaker government in 2014. He repealed the country’s constitution and established the NCPO with himself in the top spot.

Now, as the country appears to be on its way to its first election in five years, Prayut, who retired from his army chief post in October 2014, seems ready to pivot towards partisan politics.

He has yet to be nominated by any political party, but the newly-formed Palang Pracharat Party has already attracted four of his cabinet members, and is actively recruiting a leader.

It’s been widely speculated that the prime minister will join the party and run in the next election to legitimise his four-year iron-fisted rule with a mandate from the Thai people.

But not, perhaps, without certain advantages or levers of control in his pocket.

The Computer Crimes Act in a social media era

Anybody bold enough to criticise Prayut’s calculated move online could be charged, not with defamation, but under Thailand’s repurposed Computer Crimes Act.

The Act first became law in 2007. Its original intent was to deal with computer forgery and fraud, but the law was almost exclusively used as a stiffer punishment for criminal defamation.

Amendments were made in 2017, but not everything was an improvement: the changes also included a clause stating that anybody entering false data into a computer, which could cause panic or harm to the public, national or economic security of Thailand, can face a maximum of five years in jail or a THB100,000 fine.

Legal experts say that this vague wording allows the authorities plenty of leeway in interpretation. It’s essentially a way for the NCPO to combat what it claims is “fake news”, allowing the powerful to decide what is or isn’t “false” information deemed harmful to national security or strict public order and morality laws.

Legal experts say that this vague wording allows the authorities plenty of leeway in interpretation. It’s essentially a way for the NCPO to combat what it claims is “fake news”, allowing the powerful to decide what is or isn’t “false” information

It’s especially useful for a government seeking to exercise some form of control over the otherwise freewheeling social media landscape. According to We Are Social, the kingdom’s social media penetration rate is at 67%, with Facebook and Line claiming the most subscribers.

With 51 million users, Thailand is ranked eighth globally for active Facebook users. Bangkok alone has 22 million active Facebook accounts—the most of any city in the world. Over seven million Thai first-time voters are expected in the next election.

The role of Facebook, in facilitating political discussions and influencing decisions, will likely be significant.

Opposition party members have found themselves on the receiving end of the law. Future Forward Party co-founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was targeted in August for a Facebook Live video he made June 29 called “Giving Friday Back to the People”.

In this weekly broadcast, Thanathorn attempts to counter Prayut’s Thai television media blitzes.

Thanathorn and two other senior Future Forward Party members are accused of spreading false information. In their video episode, they mentioned that Palang Pracharat Party’s close relationship to the ruling NCPO was allowing it to cherry pick high-profile politicians. They were charged under the Computer Crimes Act.

They aren’t the only ones. Members of the Pheu Thai Party—including a former energy minister under the Yingluck Shinawatra government—have also been charged with committing computer crimes for statements made against the NCPO.

A group of Thai hiphop artists released a music video for the song Rap Against Dictatorship. In it, they speak out against abuses committed by current and past military leaders.

The Bangkok police mentioned they could use the Computer Crimes Act to prosecute the rap collective for uploading the video to YouTube, but no charges have been filed to date. (Ironically, the authorities’ response simply caused the video to go viral.)

The comment section of the video was closed as human rights lawyers advised the collective they could be held responsible, and face charges, for comments made by others on the platform.

“If you look at the whole picture you can see the use of law to target political opponents,” says Anon Chawalawan, documentation officer at iLaw. “Computer crimes might be one thing but when we’re heading to [an] election you can see more political movement online. It just depends on the authorities which law [they want] to apply to any given action or statement.”

Convictions have been rare since the 2017 amendments to the Computer Crimes Act, but free speech advocates still say that the very existence and breadth of the law can have a chilling effect. This is because there doesn’t need to be a conviction for the Computer Crimes Act to have an impact on people’s lives.

“For any criminal offence that has a punishment of three years’ jail term, the process for getting bail will be more difficult,” says Arthit Suriyawongkul, digital security trainer at Thai Netizens Network.

“With criminal defamation most of the time a defendant can get bail quite easy. If you use the Computer Crimes Act it will be more difficult. I think this is the tactic of why it gets used in company with other charges.”

A political weapon

In the past, computer crimes charges were tacked on to more serious crimes like lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) or sedition, but observers now believe that the regime is beginning to use the Computer Crimes Act itself as a political weapon.

“There are politicians who make a comment online against the government or military junta [who] are now subject to Computer Crimes Section 14 that mentions national security,” Anon Chawalawan says.

The law can also be used selectively, targeting particular individuals. For example, Thai democracy activist Jatupat Boonpattararaksa (also known as Pai Dao Din) was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison in 2017 for sharing a BBC Thai article on Facebook that the authorities declared was critical of the new Thai King Vajiralongkorn.

Two thousand others had shared the same BBC story on Facebook, but only Jatupat was charged and convicted of lese majeste and computer crimes for distributing the content online.

Observers now believe that the regime is beginning to use the Computer Crimes Act itself as a political weapon

Earlier this year, several democracy activists in Bangkok were charged with sedition and computer crimes for organising street protests on Facebook calling for an immediate election. According to the Democracy Restoration Group, 129 Thais were arrested during the May 2018 protests.

“I don’t think it was designed to be used as a political tool or as a tool to restrict people. Of course, when the law is written it is objective and everyone can interpret the words [used in the text],” says Thitirat Thipsamritkul, a law lecturer at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

“I don’t think the drafter could imagine it would be used in this way.”

The Pheu Thai Party has promised that, if they win, they’ll bring in new amendments to the Computer Crimes Act to prevent it from being abused. But the charge of having committed an offence under the Act has a lasting impact.

“Whether the accusation is strong enough, it’s not about the results, it’s about the process during the pre-trial, trial and post-trial that will cost you a lot of time, money and opportunities,” says iLaw’s Anon Chawalawan.

Across the region

Thailand isn’t alone in its erosion of internet freedom. Other Southeast Asian governments have also moved towards increasing their powers to regulate online expression, and occasionally learn from one another.

The regional trend is to use new cybercrime legislation with harsher punishments to deter people from sharing critical comments or opinions on popular social media platforms.

The Thai Netizens Network says that both Cambodia and Myanmar have copied some of the Computer Crimes Act text into their domestic laws against the distribution of news and information online, undermining freedom of expression in their countries as well.

The two countries appear to have been inspired in other ways, too. A new lese majeste law introduced this year in Cambodia has already seen one conviction of an opposition party member. Meanwhile, Myanmar uses Section 66D of its telecommunications law to silence critical reporting or comments against the government and military online.

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The Democracy Monument in Bangkok.

Vietnam has also passed a controversial cybersecurity law, pressuring tech companies like Facebook and Google to set up shop within the country, where the government can demand they hand over user data. The Vietnamese government has also claimed to set up a web monitoring unit to scan news items for “false information”.

Malaysia’s former government passed the Anti-Fake News Act before its general election in May this year. Although the new government has sought to repeal the law, the process has been stalled by the opposition-led Senate. The Singapore government is also looking into new legislation to deal with “deliberate online falsehoods”.

Other ways to oversee the virtual space have also been implemented. Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society has set up a computer data screening committee; some argue this could be a cybersecurity team used to monitor people’s online activity.

In a recent editorial, the Bangkok Post reported that the new Chief of the Defence Forces, General Pornpipat Benyasri, has called for a cyber army to tackle online crime in Thailand with the capability to “solve counter-terrorism problems within 30 minutes.”

This is a frightening scenario for Thais, who use social media to speak out against the monarchy and military alliance, oftentimes anonymously.

Last year, Thailand’s government threatened to shut down Facebook for failing to remove content deemed insulting to the king, claiming that the platform violated its strict lese majeste law and could be complicit in computer crimes.

Many civil society groups believe that Facebook does work with the Thai government to remove certain content deemed offensive to the monarchy, but are unsure if this extends to content critical of the military.

Elections and accountability

Laws like the Computer Crimes Act aren’t the only issue that’s triggered concern about politics and democracy in Thailand. Although the country’s deputy premier and Minister for Defence, Prawit Wongsuwan, has committed to an election date of 24 February, there are still conflicting messages from the government.

Thailand’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2019 has also led to speculation that it could be used as a reason to postpone the election until at least 2020.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights has demanded Thailand lift all restrictions on political parties. The NCPO eased the ban allowing parties to register earlier this year. But the ban on public assembly of five or more people remains in place, effectively outlawing political meetings or campaigns.

Parties are allowed to meet and discuss politics but not in public, and they still are unable to mention their platforms.

The ASEAN parliamentarians have also urged an immediate return to democracy. They even question the NCPO’s motives behind a 2017 constitution, calling it an attempt to replicate Myanmar’s Tatmadaw and continue its rule under a democratic façade.

Thailand’s new constitution stipulates that an unelected 250-seat upper house will be determined by the Thai military—with six seats automatically reserved for the police and military chiefs—making them the ultimate power brokers at Government House in Bangkok.

This means that elected Thai politicians would need three-quarters of the seats in the lower house to effect any change. But this Myanmar military-style model may be what the NCPO hopes to have in place to deter future military coups in Bangkok.

“We have to make sure our elected politicians will hold the military accountable”

Any talk of an amnesty bill, or abuses of power committed by the junta, in Thailand could open a rift and lead to street protests as it did in 2013.

But for those who’ve been targeted with “attitude adjustment” sessions or kangaroo court convictions under the NCPO regime, the time to heal the rift is now.

“We have to talk about free and fair elections. The military government said it would open some space to allow human rights activists to organise,” says Chonthicha Jangrew, a founding member of Democracy Restoration Group. “We need all of the charges against us to be dropped. We have to make sure our elected politicians will hold the military accountable.”

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Vietnam’s rap queen and traditional society’s changing voice

Emerging star Suboi ‘pushing the limits’ as one of the few female rappers in socially conservative Vietnam.

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With more than a decade in the music industry, Suboi still has a hard time calling herself a mainstream artist [Courtesy: Suboi]

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – “Life is happy, so what?” sings Vietnamese artist Suboi in her new hit single N-sao.

The song has resonated with disaffected young Vietnamese and can be heard on smartphones and laptop speakers from Ho Chi Minh City to the capital, Hanoi.

“Why is it nowadays a shame to be single? Why do we always have to pay when we get pulled over?” raps Suboi, 28, taking aim at traditional Vietnamese culture and petty corruption by traffic police.

The Ho Chi Minh City artist’s video has racked up more than 1.7 million views in the last three months. Not bad for a song in Vietnamese with lyrics that could be considered subversive in an increasingly restrictive online environment.

Born Hang Lam Trang Anh, Suboi’s name reflects her upbringing. “Su” is her nickname and “Boi” comes from being labelled a tomboy as a child.

Like all rappers, Suboi represents her city, still known colloquially as Saigon.

“N-sao is so fast. Exactly like the city. I went somewhere and two months later I went back and there were new buildings,” she said. “I didn’t write this song only for Saigonese. But also for the people who’ve been to Saigon, and can see how it’s changed.”

The music video has English subtitles, but even Vietnamese have a hard time understanding as Suboi spits her verses with ferocity – a change from the usual rhythmical rhyme style she became known for.

“My life has changed dramatically. I’ve tried to put all my emotions into writing new songs for this new album,” she said. “And so N-sao is the first song in a new chapter of my life.”

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Suboi’s influence among Vietnamese women has made many inside and outside of the country take notice [Courtesy: Suboi]

Obama encouragement

Suboi shot to international fame in 2016 when she rapped for then-US President Barack Obama during a town hall meeting on a visit to Ho Chi Minh City.

Obama even provided the beat to encourage her to perform – and followed it up with an answer on the importance of freedom of expression.

Suboi admits to crying when she heard Obama’s remarks.

“That’s the first time I understood what a town hall was. For us Vietnamese people we don’t get to talk to the authorities or whoever is in power,” she said.

“There are a lot of things we don’t know. But we know for sure that Vietnam now recognises its own voice.”

Suboi returned from a two-year hiatus to release N-sao. She spent the time focusing on her creative direction, and to briefly attend the Obama Foundation Summit in 2017.

“I feel like I’m the bridge between Vietnam and the world,” she added. “Through me, people can learn that Vietnam is not just whatever stereotype they’ve heard about it.”

Art and repression

Vietnam has witnessed rapid growth since the communist government opened its markets in 1986 to stave off economic collapse. Since then the one-party state has been flooded with more Western ideas, culture and, of course, music.

But no political change has taken place inside Vietnam since reunification in 1975. This lack of progress has been expressed through all forms of art.

“I think Suboi is making a lot of noise internationally for Vietnamese rap,” said Vietmax, one of the country’s first hip-hop performers.

“We don’t have many female rap emcees. All the rappers talk about themselves, how they’re struggling, and how they live. She’s doing a good job. She has some songs that talk about Vietnam.”

With more than a decade in the music industry now, Suboi has a hard time calling herself a mainstream artist. Star Academy in Ho Chi Minh City hosted an event this month discussing underground rap culture in Vietnam.

When Suboi entered the room the crowd erupted into applause and cheered when she was introduced as a guest speaker. She was the only female artist on the panel.

Many in attendance were young women – Suboi’s most ardent fans.

“In the crowd I saw a lot of girls. That’s a big change. You know it feels good to see change in Vietnam,” she said. “We’re taught to be quiet and pretty and behaved and all that shit. For me it’s about expression. Express yourself as a girl and as an artist.”

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Getting airplay is difficult as most television and radio are still controlled by the state, but music distribution is now done independently online [Courtesy: Suboi]

‘Push the limits’

Censoring music and artistic expression in Vietnam isn’t as easy as it used to be. Getting airplay may be difficult as most television and radio are still controlled by the state, but music distribution is now done independently online.

Vietnam’s government passed a new cybersecurity law that goes into effect January 1, 2019. It will require all technology companies to hand over user data or remove content when required by the authorities.

Facebook and Google have been given one year to comply with this law.

Suboi’s influence among young Vietnamese has made many inside and outside of the country take notice.

“I think her music first came about at the time Vietnam was changing fast. Hip-hop music was starting to gain traction in society and she was one of the very first women to get attention,” said Vi Tran, co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

“She’s used her music to really push the limits in Vietnam.”

Suboi is set to release a new single and music video in December. She expects her anticipated new album to be ready by mid-2019.

The rap star doesn’t see her songs or music videos being targeted by Vietnam’s new online policing policies set to begin next year.

“I’m not trying to be a politician,” Suboi said. “I’m not interested in all that. For me, it’s about what I’ve learned so far, and what I want to learn because I feel that I don’t know enough. I’m still learning every day.”

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Digital Dictatorship in Vietnam seeks to silence dissidents

Activists fear new cyber law will allow authorities to crack down harshly on those promoting freedom of expression.

Pham Doan Trang was arrested last March for her book Politics for the Masses - Free Pham Doan Trang sign held by Vietnamese musician Mai Khoi courtesy of Do Nguyen Mai Khoi Facebook page

A ‘free Pham Doan Trang’ sign is held by Vietnamese musician Do Nguyen Mai Khoi [Courtesy: Do Nguyen Mai Khoi]

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – Pham Doan Trang strums softly on an acoustic guitar. She’s performing the Vietnamese folk song Water Ferns Drift Clouds Float Far. It’s a song permitted by Vietnam’s government. The authorities keep a close eye on any public performance.

Trang, 39, now suffers when she plays the song. Not because of its moving lyrics or melody but because she can barely strum the chords. Last August, Trang was arrested along with 50 others at a concert in a Ho Chi Minh City teashop.

“They raided the concert. They said the singer was singing unpermitted songs,” Trang said.

“They have a law that stipulates that every songwriter must register to perform and disseminate a song. That means if you compose a song and perform it somewhere without asking for permission, you are doing something illegal.”

Witnesses watched as police physically assaulted Trang who was seated in the audience. While in police custody, she sustained injuries to both hands. Many weeks later, bruises still cover her knuckles.

She was never charged with a crime but had her passport, phone and laptop confiscated.

It was not the first time Trang was arrested or assaulted. In 2015, she was participating in a protest against the felling of trees in the capital, Hanoi. Police descended on protesters and both her knees were broken.

This has left her with a debilitating limp.

“Since I became an activist, I [have been] attacked, physically attacked, many times by the police. Now I am disabled,” Trang said, looking down at her hands, knees and mobility aid by her side.

“Once you learn about freedom, it’s very hard for you to stop.”

Communist mindset

Trang is one of Vietnam’s most prolific dissident writers. Her most recent book Politics for the Masses got her briefly detained earlier this year. It’s a political primer for pro-democracy activists.

“Many people say this book can give me a prison sentence of 20 years. This book may give me a death sentence. It’s a logical deduction,” Trang said. “I don’t know what is their strategy or plan. I mean [a] status on Facebook may attract several likes, not hundreds or thousands, but people are still given 20 years [in prison]. I can’t understand the mindset of communists.”

Vietnamese environmentalist Le Dinh Luong had his 20-year prison sentence upheld last month – one of the longest handed down to an activist. He was convicted of “attempting to overthrow the state”.

Vietnamese blogger Mother Mushroom – Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh – was released and sent into exile in the United States after serving two years of a 10-year prison sentence. She was convicted in 2016 of writing “anti-state propaganda”.

Amnesty International says there are at least 97 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson puts the total at more than 130.

This year alone, 55 Vietnamese activists, bloggers and Facebook users have been jailed, according to an AFP news agency investigation.

Many Vietnamese believe the government uses political prisoners such as Mother Mushroom as bargaining chips to gain concessions from the US and, most recently, to improve trade relations with the European Union.

Human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh served five years in prison and was released in 2014 because of pressure placed on Hanoi.

“After that the US agreed not to protest against Vietnam’s involvement in the UN Human Rights Council. That’s why I got out of jail. They tried to force me out of the country at the time but I rejected and decided to stay and keep fighting,” he said.

Facebook overthrow?

From Facebook down to the Streets is a 2016 samizdat book by Pham Doan Trang. It raised the attention of Vietnamese authorities as it documented the country’s nascent environmental movement.

Trang is extremely careful with her online activity. She knows any comment she posts to Facebook could be used to prosecute her and send her to prison like many of her peers.

Vietnam’s government has stated it employs a 10,000-strong cyber “task force” to monitor activists.

“What are they thinking? Do they actually think that people writing on Facebook can overthrow the administration?” Trang asked.

Since last June, nationwide protests against Vietnam’s proposed Special Economic Zones and cybersecurity law have caught Hanoi off guard. Hundreds were arrested.

“Vietnamese Facebook users are close to 60 million,” said Vi Tran, co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam. “Many large protests [against the government] around the country have started on Facebook.”

Inside Vietnam, historically information flowed from the top down via state-run media, but with the rise of blogging and social media platforms now the news flows horizontally with bloggers and journalists writing and sharing news independently.

Reporters Without Borders’ 2018 World Press Freedom Index ranks Vietnam 175 out of 180 countries – one point ahead of China. Freedom House says Vietnam is not free.

But unlike in China, access to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in Vietnam isn’t blocked. Under its new cybersecurity law, the Vietnamese government requested these US tech companies to open offices inside the country to store its data locally.

A song for freedom

The law will come into effect on January 1, 2019. Tech giants Facebook and Google have been given one year from this date to comply. Human Rights Watch has called it disastrous for freedom of expression in Vietnam.

“Observers are saying that the new cybersecurity law will give the government a tool to arrest more activists,” lawyer Le Cong Dinh said.

Vietnamese civil society groups are concerned Facebook has begun to block or shut down accounts requested by the authorities. This move could silence many dissidents currently using the platform to share independent news and opinions.

“I just feel worried for other people. I’m so familiar with violent suppression and political repression,” Trang said. “But for other people, it’s a real danger because now they can be arrested and given lengthy prison terms for a post.”

Trang is extremely worried about the deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam. But she’s optimistic about the peaceful, non-violent, methods used by her compatriots to express their dissatisfaction with the regime in Hanoi.

In the meantime, she’ll continue her work offline.

“My hands are hurt but I can still type. I’m working on a new book. It’s a legal handbook for people with imprisoned family members,” Trang said. “I may even write a song.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Bangkok Street Food Clearance Campaign – Southeast Asia Dispatches

BANGKOK – Some argue that Bangkok’s charm is in its bustling streets and abundance of cheap Thai food. But the authorities want to change that. Street food is rapidly disappearing in the Thai capital.

Sidewalks are being cleared of food carts and street hawkers in an attempt to modernize the city and attract investment. The authorities’ top down approach to urban redevelopment has involved displacing thousands whose livelihoods rely on the city’s informal economy.

This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, November 12, 2018.

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