Is Sri Lanka using the Easter attacks to limit digital freedom?

Sri Lanka has drafted a new cybersecurity bill but experts warn country could be using political turmoil to pass laws.


The coordinated Easter bombings that ripped through Sri Lankan churches and luxury hotels were carried out by suicide bombers which killed and injured hundreds of people [Chamila Karunarathne/AP]

COLOMBO — Hours after the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, rumours started to circulate online that Colombo’s water supply was poisoned and that there was a truck full of explosives driving down the capital’s traffic-lined Galle Road.

This caused panic. But Yudhanjana Wijeratne, a data scientist for public policy at Colombo-based think-tank LIRNEasia, got to work debunking.

Along with a few friends, Wijeratne began fact-checking rumours submitted to them by verifying the information with calls to police, journalists or people they knew living in the areas where the stories originated.

“We got drawn into what I would describe as low-level information warfare,” he said.

In the weeks after the attacks, carried out by a small group of fighters pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), there were Facebook posts calling on Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and restaurants, even going so far as threatening to kill them.

These social media posts in the online world led to violence against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community. Facebook’s response was that several of these posts didn’t violate its community standards.

Sri Lanka’s social media watchdog group Groundviews cited six million people using social media – out of a population of 21 million. The National Information and Cybersecurity Strategy stated there are 4.2 million Facebook accounts in Sri Lanka.

The social media giant has promised to hire more Sinhala and Tamil language content reviewers as most of the hate speech on the platform is posted in local languages.

Since April 21, the government has blocked social media applications three times. This has forced many Sri Lankans to download Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access their accounts.

“The ban prevented people from accessing information about what was happening. It may have simply exacerbated panic. The hateful actors continued to spread hate,” said Raisa Wickrematunge, a social media researcher at Groundviews.

The Sri Lankan government revived the idea for a new anti-hate speech bill late last year. It has now drafted a new cybersecurity bill to combat online threats to citizens and the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Technology experts believe the definition of what constitutes hate speech and critical infrastructure is too broad and that existing laws to deal with these issues are not being implemented properly by authorities.

According to the Center for Policy Alternatives, no Sri Lankan has been prosecuted for perpetrating hate speech or hate crimes under the country’s laws.

The ICCPR Act, adopted in 2007, states: “No person shall…advocate national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.”

Legal experts say this offence is not the only speech-related law in Sri Lanka’s penal code.

“The ICCPR is a mechanism to protect human rights, our civil and political rights. But in Sri Lanka it’s a different picture,” said Viranjana Herath, president of the Free Media Movement.

This law has been used to arrest 10 Sri Lankans for various offences – three of which were charged because of Facebook posts – with one Muslim woman arrested for wearing a shirt with a ship’s helm thought to resemble a Buddhist dharma wheel, stated Herath.

A Sri Lankan writer is now in jail for allegedly violating this same law. He published a short story to Facebook that dealt with themes of child abuse in the Buddhist clergy.

Herath believes that the law is being used to stifle fundamental freedoms in Sri Lanka.

Hate speech and misinformation

The phenomenon of hate speech and misinformation is not new to a country that ended its three-decade-long civil war in 2009. Both the government and the Tamil Tigers disseminated lies and propaganda to win the hearts and minds of Sri Lankans.

Political and religious leaders in Sri Lanka who have instigated communal violence using the mainstream media are increasingly turning to social media platforms like Facebook, Whatsapp and Viber – the three most popular messaging applications.

A Muslim doctor in Kurunegala – 90km northeast of Colombo – was arrested and accused of sterilising Buddhist women. The Criminal Investigation Department told the local court last week that it had no evidence to submit, nor did it believe this doctor was linked to any terrorist groups.

Wijeratne said these allegations were made on social media and have popped up several times in the last five years. This is an example of how hate speech and misinformation spread online can lead to actual harm.

Sri Lanka has been under a state of emergency for two months. The threat of violence against the Muslim community continues but no charges have been laid.

“This particular government has spread misinformation, fake news and hate speech to the fullest. They’ve had almost four years to bring in these laws, why now?” asked Eranda Ginige, founder of Social Enterprise Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s government appears to be using the political turmoil to pass laws that they have been unable to since beginning its reform agenda in 2015.

President Maithripala Sirisena is not only refusing to participate in a parliamentary committee investigating security lapses that led to the Easter Sunday bombings, but he also wants to reverse the 2015 amendments to the constitution that curbed the powers of the executive.

This move has led to calls for him not to run in the 2019 presidential election scheduled for December.

“They don’t have a legitimate right to bring any laws at this stage,” Ginige added. “The right thing for the government to do is resign.”

Governmental watchdog groups such as Groundviews and the Centre for Policy Alternatives decry the fact that there has been limited engagement and public consultation on either the anti-hate speech or cybersecurity draft bills.

Wijeratne has developed a smartphone application, Watchdog, in the wake of the attacks to help his team track all the rumours and misinformation being spread online.

“Right now I’m sitting on three million words of hate speech created on Facebook,” Wijeratne said. “We can study or analyse it. We can use it to teach Facebook content moderators. They can use it for their machine learning tools to actually make a difference.”


A Muslim woman reacts next to a burnt motorbike and her house after a mob attack in Kottampitiya, Sri Lanka May 14, 2019. [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

Wijeratne is no longer alone. There is also Hate Speech Monitor, Sri Lanka Unites and the AFP Sri Lanka Fact Checking service. Hundreds of volunteers are working day and night to identify hate speech and verify rumours originating online.

If the draft cybersecurity bill becomes law, it will give sweeping powers to two new monitoring bodies, the Cyber Security Agency of Sri Lanka and the National Cyber Security Operations Centre.

But an existing body, the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team, has been providing protection to critical infrastructure against hackers and malware.

It has requested more powers to deal with cyber threats in advance.

“The Cybersecurity bill was published online in English because some of these words don’t exist in our language. Lots of laws go through in this country without consultation,” said Rohan Samarajiva, a consultant to the Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology.

Groundviews’ Wickrematunge has documented a shift in tactics by groups spreading hate online in Sri Lanka. She said they are growing in sophistication since the bans and Facebook’s new local language moderators.

“They know how to get around community guidelines to make sure their content won’t get taken down,” she added.

Sri Lanka’s cybersecurity has been put at risk every time the government blocks social media, stated Wijeratne. It justifies the temporary bans as a measure to stop hate from spreading from online into the community. But this action may do more to hurt the economy than get Sri Lankans to put down their smartphones.

“The data basically says the block was ineffective. In fact, it was counterproductive at every front,” said Wijeratne.

“All of this thinking is predicated on the idea that the government holds the legal monopoly on wireless. They can inflict this on a geographical area. But computer networks don’t function like that.”

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Rohingya Refugee Voices Amplify Across Southeast Asia

BANGKOK — The 2017 Rohingya humanitarian crisis caused by Myanmar is not only affecting Bangladesh, which has taken in 740,000 refugees, but it’s also causing strife in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Despite Myanmar’s alleged attempts at repatriation, Rohingya have stayed put in camps and cities fearing the security situation in their villages and towns of Rakhine state.

More Rohingya are returning to the seas, retracing the migration route of the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis from ports in Myanmar and Bangladesh across the Andaman Sea to the Strait of Malacca.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo mentioned the need to end the Rohingya refugee crisis and begin voluntary repatriation to Myanmar, at the recent 2019 ASEAN Summit in Bangkok.

Survivor: A Rohingya’s Journey is the title of Ziaur Rahman’s autobiography, to be published later this year.

Rahman – a married father of two – has lived in his adopted city of Kuala Lumpur for the last six years. But his story of displacement and asylum reflects the reality facing many Rohingya.

The United Nations Global Trends released in June states 70.8 million people are forcibly displaced globally, exceeding the entire population of Thailand.

“I was born in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. My father was tortured by soldiers and my family was targeted so we [fled] to the refugee camps in Bangladesh,” said Rahman. “I was living [in a refugee camp] for 20 years before I was kidnapped by human traffickers in Bangladesh.”


The United Nations Global Trends released in June states 70.8 million people are forcibly displaced globally, exceeding the entire population of Thailand. (Courtesy of Ziaur Rahman/File)

Thailand and Indonesia have become wayward stations for Rohingyas seeking refuge in Malaysia. The Rohingya community in Thailand states 5,000 Rohingya are living in the country, fearful of arrest and deportation by Thai authorities.

Thailand views all refugees as a security threat. There are 95,644 registered refugees living in nine camps along Thailand’s border with Myanmar, according to the UN Refugee Agency. The UNHCR in Bangkok estimates there are 4,779 urban refugees living in and around Bangkok.

Many countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have never ratified the UN Refugee Convention so they’re not obliged to provide protection to asylum seekers and refugees. But all three have signed regional frameworks to halt the flow of migrants fleeing war and persecution in Myanmar.

Thailand and Indonesia’s governments allow the International Organization of Migration to provide support to Rohingyas detained in immigration detention centers. In 2017, a 16-year-old Rohingya girl died in a Thai detention center in Songkhla. She had been held there for three years.

Regional human rights group Fortify Rights documents human rights violations faced by Rohingya refugees. It has called on the Thai authorities to investigate deaths inside immigration detention centers.

In Malaysia, there are 170,460 registered refugees; yet human rights groups believe many are left unregistered. Most Malaysia’s refugees are Rohingya – many trafficked by sea or land to the country from Myanmar or Bangladesh, via Thailand.

A childhood friend of Rahman’s from the same refugee camp in Bangladesh ended up abandoned at sea, in a boat, until he was rescued by Acehnese fishermen.

Indonesia houses 800 Rohingya refugees living in government shelters in the cities of Medan, North Sumatra and Makassar in South Sulawesi according to The International Concern Group for Rohingya. Indonesia’s president signed a decree allowing for more community shelters to be built to house refugees. But no country in the region has a plan to assimilate their refugees.

In 2017, ASEAN adopted the Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Particularly Women and Children, responding to the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis where 25,000 fled on boats to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Hundreds died at sea.

“I was forced to stay in a [human] trafficking camp in Thailand. There was no food or water. Life became unbearable,” said Rahman, referring to the time his boat came ashore in Thailand’s south.

“When I was transferred from one camp to another I was rescued by Thai police. They brought me to the police station. I spent one day there before I was transferred to a Ranong court. After a few days I was declared a victim of human trafficking,” he added.

Rahman still carries the paperwork stating this, given to him by Thai authorities upon his release. A human smuggling syndicate active in the south was monitoring the shelter he was being housed in. He and another boy were sold, again, to smugglers.

“I was trafficked four times,” Rahman said. “They forced me to call my mother and demand 7,000 [Malaysia] ringgit [US$1,684]. I told them we didn’t have any money, so they handed us over to uniformed border guards.”

Rahman landed in Malaysia. From a safe house in Penang for human trafficking victims, he was able to make his way – with a friend’s help– to Kuala Lumpur. Here, there is a large Rohingya community living in Ampang, a suburb of the city.

Rahman was able to bring his wife and child from Bangladesh to Malaysia. Human rights groups have accused refugee men of risking women’s lives, attempting to bring brides purchased from desperate families living in Myanmar or in the camps of Bangladesh to cities in Malaysia.

Rahman was forced to make the decision no son ever wants to make – opting to give a better life to his family in Malaysia, but leaving his mother in Bangladesh.

Yet refugees in Malaysia have no legal right to work or study. The costs needed to visit a doctor or a hospital is too high for families with no income, reliant on assistance from local faith-based groups.

“I’ve been a refugee for 25 years and I haven’t received any support. I lobby the [Malaysian] government to tell them that we’re all human beings and our voices need to be heard,” Rahman said. “The UN doesn’t provide us with anything.”


Many countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have never ratified the UN Refugee Convention so they’re not obliged to provide protection to asylum seekers and refugees. But all three have signed regional frameworks to halt the flow of migrants fleeing war and persecution in Myanmar. (Courtesy of Ziaur Rahman/File)

Rahman’s advocacy on behalf of the Rohingya worldwide led him to meet Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak, as documented in the 2017 film Selfie With The Prime Minister.

Now Rahman and other refugees are asking the new Pakatan Harapan government to stick to its election pledge to sign the UN Refugee Convention. This would give all refugees the right to work and earn much needed income to support their families in Malaysia, and as far as Myanmar and Bangladesh.

“When the new government came to power I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad,” Rahman said. “I’m requesting a change of policy towards refugees in Malaysia. We’re lucky to be here, but […] I hope we can do something, otherwise our lives will remain hopeless.”

Just like President Jokowi, Mahathir pledged commitment to help Rohingya refugees find safe haven in Southeast Asia.

Leaders from Thailand’s Rohingya community attempted to submit a statement listing their demands to the leaders at the ASEAN Summit. But Thai police denied them entry.

The UN Refugee Agency states 92,400 refugees were resettled to a third country in 2018. That’s less than seven per cent of those awaiting resettlement globally. Nearly 593,800 refugees could return home, while 62,600 became naturalized citizens in the country they sought asylum.

But Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia or Thailand will unlikely allow refugees to become citizens. Official policy is to deny asylum seekers and refugees the basic protections they deserve under international law.

The Philippines is the only ASEAN country to ratify the UN Refugee Convention and provides a path to integrate them into society. President Rodrigo Duterte has even offered to resettle Rohingya refugees to the Philippines.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, wrote in the “Global Trends” report: “There has to be an enduring emphasis on solutions and removing obstacles to people being able to return home …It is one of the great challenges of our times.”

This article is part of the “Displaced and Uprooted in Southeast Asia” initiative by SEA Junction, Bangkok and the TIFA Foundation, Jakarta. The first two stories in this series were published in the Bangkok Post. Adam Bemma is a Canadian journalist and media development advisor, trainer and mentor based in Thailand.

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The Conscientious Objectors of Thailand

BANGKOK — Every April, Thailand begins its annual draft lottery to conscript Thai males, aged 21 and above, into military service. The young men line up to draw slips of paper; a red slip means one has to serve for two years, while a black indicates an exemption. Those who proactively volunteer will be spared this ritual, and will only be required to complete a six-month service.

Although Thailand’s 1954 Military Service Act states that all Thai males are required to serve in the military at the age of 21, there are exceptions to this rule. Methods of draft-dodging have triggered accusations of privilege and unfairness, and some have begun to argue that conscription should either be drastically cut down, or maybe even abolished completely.

A duty to nation, religion, and King

According to a recent survey, it’s believed that many Thais still feel obliged to serve in the military as their duty to nation, religion, and King. Military slogans are displayed in school textbooks. Soldiers are often portrayed positively in television and cinema.

But this deeply conservative institution is seeing challenges as the political scene shifts and evolves. For the first time, several political parties that contested the election in March campaigned to end military conscription.

“Our main purpose is to make the army as small as possible while still keeping them running effectively and efficiently. We compared with the neighbouring armies and we find that the Thai army is the largest compared to others,” says Sunisa Diwakorndamrong, a former officer in the Royal Thai Armed forces and secretary of Pheu Thai Party’s military reform committee.

In a context where the Thai military has seized power in 12 coup d’états since the beginning of constitutional monarchy in 1932, opposing conscription is far from an apolitical move. Ahead of the election, General Prayuth Chan-ocha—who’d served as prime minister in the military junta’s government—shed his stripes to stand for election under the banner of the Phalang Pracharath Party. The party went on to win the popular vote, and Prayuth now remains prime minister. It’s thus in the interest of other parties to call for reforms that might check the military’s might.

One example is the Pheu Thai Party—backed by the exiled-yet-influential former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra—which had won the most constituency seats in the 2019 election.

“The underpinning concept of Pheu Thai Party’s military reform policy is that the Thai armed forces should be resized,” says Sunisa.

This is unlikely to happen anytime soon; the new Thai government is still led by military junta members elected to the lower house, while 250 senators in the upper house were handpicked by the junta under their 2017 Constitution. But proposals such as those raised by the Pheu Thai Party mean that the issue of conscription is now up for debate in the public sphere.

Thailand’s military might… and how to avoid it

Thailand has roughly 440,000 military personnel. Compared to European countries of similar population size, such as the UK and France, Thailand’s military seems disproportionately large, especially since its only threat is an insurgency in the “deep south” states of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. According to Global Firepower’s 2019 Military Strength Ranking, Thailand ranked 26th in the world.

Sunisa wants conscripts to be replaced by volunteers. As Thai women aren’t conscripted, she herself volunteered to join the military and spent 10 years in service, reaching the rank of lieutenant before retiring and joining the Pheu Thai Party.

“At present, the Thai armed forces recruit around 104,000 conscripts each year. If the size declines by 50%, the desired number of conscripts will match the number of those voluntarily applying to serve the army annually,” Sunisa says.

Young men at a recruitment exercise in Serm Thai Complex, Muang, Mahasarakham, Thailand. netsuthep /

As it is, there are already different ways to dodge the draft. There’s drawing a black slip in the lottery, of course, but there are other possibilities.

If you’re still in school you can delay conscription until you’ve completed your studies, up until the age of 26. Then you must serve or face possible jail time.

A deferment is possible if you join the monkhood as a novice but an exemption will only be granted if you actually become a member of the Buddhist clergy. It’s believed, according to the paper The military draft in Thailand: a critique from a nonkilling global political science perspective, that many Thai males have sought refuge in the monkhood to escape the military.

Being rich helps, too. According to the researchers of The military draft in Thailand, estimates suggest that there have been 30,000 Thai draft avoiders, mostly the sons of wealthy families.

According to CJ Hinke, one of the paper’s authors, Thailand’s elite have been exploiting loopholes to evade conscription since it first began in the 1700s. A common practice is to bribe an officer to take a young man’s name off the conscription list and replace it with another’s name. This is illegal—but it happens.

This practice has drawn flak. “It’s corrupt, so I have to protest it,” says student leader Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal. “If I can pay under the table—my father and many people also did this in the past—it’s corruption.”

De-militarising Thai society

For the last three years, the 23-year-old Netiwit has delayed his conscription. He’s the author of I Can Love My Country Without Having to be Drafted, an 88-page manifesto published by the same publisher who has printed works by Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo and Timothy Snyder’s tract against authoritarianism, On Tyranny, in Thai.

“It’s an overview of [Thailand’s] history of conscription,” Netiwit says of his book. “It comes from a critical feminist and non-violent perspective.”

Netiwit documents the history of compulsory military service in Thailand beginning with the 1905 Military Conscription Act. This edict was meant to match Thailand’s military might with those of western nations. The compulsory system only ended in 1954 with the introduction of the draft lottery.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal Adam Bemma

Over the last two years, Netiwit has challenged more than Thailand’s military tradition. As Chulalongkorn student council president, he refused to kowtow in front of the King Rama V statue. This led to his removal from council and a public spat with Prime Minister Prayuth.

Following the election results—unfavourable to Thailand’s pro-democracy camp—Netiwit is now focusing his attention on overturning military conscription. He hopes this will help “de-militarise” Thai society.

“I will go to jail when I turn 26 because I refuse to be conscripted. I realise this country has become like a jail, especially for poor people who don’t have an opportunity to run away [from military service],” Netiwit tells New Naratif.

“Many in this government are former military officers and favour conscription. I must do something [about this].”

Objecting to conscription

Netiwit is one of only two declared Thai conscientious objectors—individuals refusing to perform military service due to freedom of thought, conscience, or religion. Inside Thailand, he’s the only voice publicly objecting to military conscription.

Puey Ungphakorn, a Thai economist and former Governor of the Bank of Thailand, first tabled the option of conscientious objection in Thailand’s parliament in 1974. He also proposed a non-military service to replace conscription. Both were rejected.

“As a legislator [Puey] put up the idea of conscientious objection. He wasn’t necessarily opposed to conscription but he put up conscientious objection as a fundamental human right,” says CJ Hinke, who also wrote the book Free Radicals: War Resisters in Prison.

Thailand is a signatory to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is outlined in it. But it does not refer to conscientious objection as a right.

In 2002, Thailand abstained from a vote in the UN Security Council on the issue and signed a joint letter stating it was “rejecting the universal applicability of conscientious objection to military service.” According to Amnesty International, Thailand is one of 30 UN member states that has mandatory military conscription but does not recognise conscientious objection.

Netiwit’s newest recruit to his anti-conscription movement is 16-year-old Rew Worachit. Rew is currently enrolled in the territorial defence curriculum. It’s a programme that offers an alternative to conscription, since those who complete it are exempt from the draft at 21. But it involves field and weapons training and takes five years to complete—three of which are spent in the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

“I’m studying the military programme in school. I don’t have to be conscripted. This is an alternative for students who can’t reach a [post-secondary] level education,” Rew says.

Netiwit doesn’t support this programme and views it as an attempt at providing a career path in the military to Thai teenagers without the fear of conscription.

Contemplating change

Since Puey Ungphakorn’s failed attempts in parliament, no concrete steps have been taken by legislators to reform the conscription system, either to reduce the number drafted or to introduce other forms of national service beyond military duty. But Thai academics have been discussing alternatives.

Conscript deaths have also prompted further reflection. After Private Noppadol Worakitpan’s collapse from cardiovascular failure prompted a police investigation in 2017, Siwach Sripokangkul and John Draper, researchers on Thailand’s military at Khon Kaen University, co-wrote an op-ed in the Bangkok Post calling for conscription to be changed to explore non-military avenues of serving one’s country. They argued that a “universal national service would revolutionise the economy. It also promotes a civilian government which stands above the military, a fundamental principle for eventually demilitarising Thailand and consolidating Thai democracy.”

The May 2019 death of a 22-year-old volunteer serving in the Royal Thai Armed Forces headquarters in Bangkok has also made Sunisa more vocal about ending conscription. According to reports, a military panel has been set up to investigate the death. But Sunisa believes that, as in the past, the military will not provide answers to the family of the deceased conscript, as they cite deaths as internal matters.

“It’s hard to say whether the problem is common or not, but it’s happened several times and we have demanded investigations,” Sunisa says.

Netiwit has studied Puey Ungphakorn’s attempt 45 years ago to seek recognition of conscientious objectors and present an alternative to military conscription. “I think Thai people should serve their country. But you should have a choice how best to serve it,” Netiwit says, suggesting how a national service would be a better option.

But CJ Hinke disagrees with a Thai national service.

“I think that substituting alternative service for military makes it stronger. Just because you don’t have to serve in the military, in a historical context it doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t serve in your place.”

Hinke argues that it’ll only work if there’s recognition of conscientious objectors joined by an alternative service, followed by the abolition of conscription.

“The whole point to conscientious objection is conscience. Everyone draws a line in the sand at some point,” Hinke says.

“You’ve got to pick your fights and you’ve got to know which fights you can win,” Hinke adds, referring to Netiwit’s movement. “We can win this. We can end the draft in Thailand.”


Research on Thai military conscription by iLaw (link in Thai)

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Southeast Asia’s pledge to end statelessness gathers steam

A firm promise to grant citizenship to all born in a country is crucial to halt the cycle of displacement, writes Adam Bemma

Namphueng Panya, centre, a former stateless student in Chiang Rai, poses for a picture with her team, which won an award at a science and engineering fair in the US last month.

BANGKOK — The Moo Paa or Wild Boars football team captured the world’s attention this time last year after they became trapped inside Tham Luang cave for 18 days. In addition to the dramatic rescue that followed, the media soon also discovered that three of the 12 boys on the team, along with the coach, were stateless people — living in Thailand without any form of citizenship.

In neighbouring Myanmar, the persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine state has led to the rise of people who are deprived of their citizenship by the government. At least 723,000 Rohingyas have been chased out of their homes and into refugee camps in Bangladesh and Thailand. They have relatively little hope of ever returning to their homes and regaining citizenship.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants every person the right to nationality. The UN Study on Statelessness cites that “every child must receive nationality at birth … No person throughout his life should lose nationality until acquiring a new one”.

Moreover, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that there are 2.8 million stateless people worldwide — 40% of them in the Asia-Pacific region alone. In Southeast Asia, Myanmar, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam is home to hundreds of thousands of stateless people, making it one of the most afflicted regions.

So, what’s being done?

Last month, 16 countries across the Asia Pacific region reaffirmed their commitments to end statelessness by 2024 at the UNHCR “I Belong” event in Bangkok — marking the half-way point of a 10-year pledge. However, not one country used this opportunity to make any specific commitments.

“There has been progress. The Thai government has done a lot in this regard. I think almost 100,000 people have been given Thai citizenship in recent years,” said Caroline Gluck, the UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok.

A number of countries in the region have committed to taking specific steps to achieve universal birth registration and target hard-to-reach populations. Some of the representatives also highlighted the need to tackle legal reforms, most importantly on how to end childhood statelessness.

The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines statelessness as “a person who is not considered a national by any state under the operation of its law”. The Philippines is the only country in the region to ratify and adopt this framework domestically.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) codifies the right to nationality but several countries in Southeast Asia, including Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore are not signatories.

Is Thailand leading the way?

Thailand has ratified the ICCPR and has two domestic laws which give undocumented migrants and stateless children the right to attend Thai public schools.

In Chiang Mai, Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project has been working with indigenous, ethnic minorities, and stateless communities for the last 12 years.

Sangsan’s founder Matcha Phorn-in said her organisation provides human rights education and supports young people to go to school since the costs associated with Thai public schools may make them unaffordable for kids from many stateless families. Moreover, many of the schools are located far from their rural communities.

“The issue of stateless people hasn’t really been a concern in Thai society. There are 400,000 reported stateless people by the UNHCR in Thailand. These people need Thai citizenship,” she said.

Over the last six years of working in northern Thailand, Ms Matcha said the human rights situation has worsened despite claims by the UN and government agencies that there’s been an overall improvement on cross border coordination with Myanmar.

“We focus on one village. So far, 60 children have received our support and are studying. All their family members are stateless,” said Ms Matcha. “We’re working with 3,000 to 4,000 stateless people. We have given scholarships to 70 young people who are stateless.”

Ms Gluck cites the case of an 18-yearold from Chiang Rai — where the Wild Boars are from — who received her Thai citizenship last month. This allowed her to travel to the US to compete at a school science and engineering fair.

“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” the teenager told the UNHCR in Bangkok. She is now able to attend university and seek future employment.

The UNHCR believes this teen’s success story reflects the hope for children born as stateless in Thailand today.

“I was inspired by states that say they will not allow children to become stateless,” Ms Gluck said. “We owe it to every person to fulfil their basic human rights by providing them with a nationality.”

The UNHCR and Thai community groups like Sangsan hope all children born in Thailand will receive citizenship rather than being bestowed it retroactively. Without it, families are unable to earn income or health care to help lift them out of poverty.

A firm commitment to grant citizenship to all born within the country’s borders is necessary to end the continuous cycle of statelessness, Ms Matcha added.

“People agreed in today’s world we shouldn’t have to have stateless people. They lose out on so much, like birth registration, accessing health care facilities. They also can’t receive marriage or death certificates,” Ms Gluck said.

“It affects them from birth until death.”

The UNHCR regional Asia-Pacific “I Belong” event in Bangkok last month was billed as an introductory meeting. In October, countries from around the world will meet in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss further action on how to end statelessness by 2024.

This article is part of the Displaced and Uprooted in Southeast Asia initiative by SEA Junction and the TIFA Foundation.

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Sri Lanka’s 2018 Gratiaen Prize Winning Play Put On Hold For Pride Celebration

A playwright’s determination, despite censorship in Sri Lanka, to stage an immersive play dealing with LGBT issues in Colombo wins a prestigious award.

Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke is a Sri Lankan playwright living in Colombo. Courtesy of Facebook.

COLOMBO — A sense of calm has returned to the capital, two months after the Easter Sunday bombings. Traffic has returned to the streets and even gay pride events will go ahead, although it will be a somber celebration.

Two shirtless Sri Lankan men kiss and fool around in their underwear in a Colombo apartment. No, this isn’t a sensational news story. It’s a scene from the 2018 Gratiaen Prize-winning play The Ones Who Love You So.

The play was to be staged in Colombo for Pride celebrations, and for the first time in Jaffna. But it has been put on hold due to the continuing state of emergency following the terror attacks that killed 258 and injured 500 people.

The Gratiaen Prize is an annual literary award recognizing the best in Sri Lanka. This is the first win for Sri Lankan playwright Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke.

“It seems ludicrous to go out and ask for money to do the show after the attacks,” he said. “I pushed back my timeframe to stage the show at a later date.”

Welandawe-Prematilleke, 31, is known for his immersive style of theatre where the audience chooses which narrative in the story to follow. He calls it “a live action choose-your-own-adventure novel.”

“I wrote the play about dating and hook up applications like Grindr,” Welandawe-Prematilleke said. “It’s not autobiographical by any means. It is certainly based on a lot of truth. I wanted to talk about the specific experience of a gay man for the first time.”

In Sri Lanka, censorship is commonplace. The script for The Ones Who Love You So was submitted to the government’s Public Performance Board last year. It was rejected twice before being approved by a panel of judges and allowed to go into production last August.

The Ones Who Love You So was written in fits and starts two years before neighbouring India shed its colonial era law decriminalizing homosexuality. Welandawe-Prematilleke hoped his play would force a discussion in Sri Lanka on LGBTIQ+ rights, but he admits it has only had nominal impact.

“We don’t have a theatre culture that talks about this in the way [that] it’s talked about in the west,” wrote Sri Lankan performer Sumathy Sivamohan.

Welandawe-Prematilleke will publish the script to The Ones Who Love You So. In Sri Lanka, only five English theatre scripts have been published to date. Colombo’s most prolific theatre is produced not in English but in the Sinhala and Tamil languages.

Tracy Holsinger is artistic director at Colombo’s Mind Adventures Theatre Company. She met Welandawe-Prematilleke when he was 18. The two began working together on writing original English language theatre.

When Welandawe-Prematilleke returned to Sri Lanka after six years of studies and acting in the U.K., he went from one hit play to the next with Mind Adventures. He decided to leave the company last year to work independently, culminating in his winning the 2018 Gratiaen Prize.

“Arun is a really good storyteller and he has a great ear for dialogue,” Holsinger said. “I would come up with a concept and the dialogue would come from him. The more he wrote, I could see there was unlimited potential.”

Welandawe-Prematilleke is now working on a new script, but he admits it will be hard to top The Ones Who Love You So. The looming threat of a Public Performance Board arbitrarily denying productions from being staged for the public, or of having a play cancelled mid-run, scares most playwrights, but Welandawe-Prematilleke views it as a challenge to skirt the censors.

“I have Sri Lankan friends who write in Sinhala and they receive approval from the censor board and have the play revoked in the middle of a run because it upset someone upstairs,” he said.

“I’m like a child. If you tell me no I’m going to do it anyway [laughs]. I’m just a brat basically.”

Holsinger believes despite censorship, the government doesn’t view English language theatre as a threat to Sri Lanka’s conservative values and culture.

“We have a lot more license because the audience is small compared to Sinhala and Tamil theatre,” she said. “In terms of original Sri Lankan theatre dealing with LGBTIQ issues, no, I can’t say it’s been done before.”

Sivamohan believes The Ones Who Love You So is an example of a Sri Lankan playwright challenging social customs and norms in the South Asian country.

“The moment I read Arun’s script I told him to edit and submit it [for the Gratiaen Prize]. I knew it make the shortlist and would win,” Holsinger added.

Welandawe-Prematilleke expects The Ones Who Love You So to return to a Colombo stage this October. He’s also in talks with a Canadian director about taking the prize-winning play on the road from Colombo to Toronto.

Published @Medium

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Sri Lankans ‘Rise Up’ After Easter Sunday Bombings in Colombo – CBC The World This Weekend

COLOMBO – It’s been two months since a series of bombs exploded at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, killing more than 250 people. A small group of Islamist militants were behind the attacks.

Since then life for Sri Lanka’s minority Muslims has gotten harder. Their shops and homes have been damaged and mosques attacked. But as Adam Bemma tells us, some in Sri Lanka are standing up for their fellow citizens. This story aired on CBC The World This Weekend Saturday, June 22, 2019.

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Sri Lankans Unite to Stop the Spread of Hate and Violence – CBC News

COLOMBO – Two months after Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lankans gathered at Colombo’s central park. They held a moment of silence before they denounced the country’s political leaders for spreading hate and communal violence.

Rise Up Sri Lanka was held Saturday at Colombo’s Galle Face Green to commemorate the two month anniversary of the attacks that claimed the lives of 258 people. This story aired on CBC News Friday, June 21, 2019.

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