Author: Christopher Lu
December 18, 2023
The right to dissent is one of the most important fundamental rights that must be defended, especially in a world run by political factions and parties. The freedom of speech, the freedom to assemble peacefully without arms, and the freedom to form associations are all ways an individual or group can express their opinion towards the government or its policies. In some countries, these freedoms are readily available, allowing for open discussion between opposing sides to potentially resolve problematic issues.
However, in other parts of the world, dissent is readily met with repression, often through violent force. Namely, the nations of Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand have faced growing scrutiny in recent years for their suppression of dissenting voices and political opposition. Each country has witnessed the stifling of free expression, leading to concerns about the state of democracy and human rights in the region.
Throughout the past century, the people of Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand have lived under multiple militarized regimes. In their long history of political instability and civil unrest, ruling governments have utilized martial law, media control, and violence to continuously repress dissenters and dissolve opposing political factions (see historical timelines for more specifics). Unfortunately, in the modern age, these countries' political landscapes have remained largely unchanged, and their governments’ repression of dissent is still very commonplace.
Political History Timeline Links
- Cambodia post-independence
- Myanmar post-independence
- Thailand post-independence
Under the 38-year-long leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia has experienced a prolonged period of political repression. The government has been accused of using a range of tactics to suppress dissent, including the dissolution of opposition parties, arrest of activists, and restrictions on the media. In 2017, the government prosecuted political opponents on dubious charges, closed down various news outlets critical of the government, and used increasingly threatening political rhetoric. Critics theorized that these actions were due to Hun Sen being fearful of the outcome of the 2018 general election. Due to this 2017 crackdown, the 2018 general elections were widely criticized for lack of fairness due to a lack of opposition, further cementing the dominance of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). More recently, prior to the 2023 general elections earlier this year, Kem Sokha, leader of opposition party CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party), which was dissolved in 2017 after polling 44% of the popular vote, was also sentenced to 27 years of house detention on fallacious charges of overthrowing the CPP. General elections were still held in July earlier this year in which Hun Sen had stepped down as the CPP’s party leader, and his son, Hun Manet, had taken his place. FUNCINPEC, an opposing royalist party that has cooperated with the CPP in the past, won 5 parliament seats previously occupied by CPP members, but this did little to change the CPP’s supermajority government as the CPP still held onto the remaining 120 parliament seats. Additionally, the CPP’s current main opposition party, the Candlelight party which won 22% of the popular vote at last year's local communal elections, was disqualified from participating in the 2023 general elections. All these erosions of democratic processes and the stifling of opposition voices have left Cambodian citizens with limited avenues for expressing dissent towards the ruling CPP.
Myanmar, formerly hailed for its political reforms and brief transition toward democracy from 2011 to 2015, took a tragic turn with the military coup in February 2021. However, it should be noted that despite Myanmar’s policy reforms surrounding corruption and censorship, the persecution of the Rohingya population was never addressed. The military junta, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, seized power, detaining civilian leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Mass protests erupted across the country, which were met with a brutal crackdown, resulting in at least 17,000 protesters and activists being arrested and 2,900 being killed. In the past few years, the military regime has used torture, violence, arbitrary arrests, and “scorched earth” tactics to quell protests and gatherings of dissenters. Additionally, the internet has been frequently shut down, and the media faces severe restrictions, limiting the flow of information, especially surrounding the government’s injustices. Much like Cambodia, Myanmar continues to hold “elections,” but with the Parties Registration Law in place, the junta can disqualify any opposing party. Consequently, Aung San Suu Kyi’s faction and main opposition party, the National League of Democracy, was barred from participating and eventually dissolved. The military's iron-fisted rule has erased years of progress toward democratic governance, leaving Myanmar in a state of turmoil. Under the Burmese authoritarian government, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) has estimated that at least 17 million people in Myanmar are in need of humanitarian aid. However, the junta has continuously blocked this assistance from reaching millions of displaced people. Although international communities have tried to impose arms embargoes on Myanmar, they have proved to be unsuccessful. Instead, many human rights activists call on other governments to impose economic sanctions on the military’s revenue sources, such as its exports of natural resources (current sanctions on Burma by the US).
In Thailand, a cycle of military coups and periods of civilian rule has characterized the political landscape. The military junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, seized power in a 2014 coup, justifying its actions as a response to political unrest. Since then, dissent has been met with strict measures, including the imposition of restrictive laws and the arrest of activists. In 2020 and 2021, youth-led protests calling for democratic reforms faced a heavy-handed response, with allegations of human rights abuses and restrictions on freedom of expression. Additionally, the role of the monarchy, a highly sensitive subject, has also been a focal point of contention. Many critics of the monarchy have been prosecuted under the lèse-majesté law. Many of those currently in detention under lèse-majesté charges are prominent democracy advocates such as Arnon Nampha, who led a student protest criticizing the monarchy back in 2020. Alongside their perpetual repression of dissenters, the government has continued to use extreme tactics to stifle their opponents, such as torture and enforced disappearances. Despite many government pledges to reform their policies on these tactics, the Thai government has seemingly circumvented these legal obligations for years. Fortunately enough, the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Bill passed last year, criminalizing the government’s repression tactics. However, the government continues to postpone enforcement of this law, claiming more time is needed to procure equipment such as cameras and recorders that would be used to prevent authoritative abuses.
The fundamental right to dissent stands as a cornerstone of democratic societies, enabling citizens to voice their opinions and participate in the governance of their nations. The cases of Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand illustrate the critical importance of safeguarding this right against repressive regimes and political crackdowns. In Cambodia, the erosion of democratic processes and the stifling of opposition voices have left citizens with limited avenues for expressing dissent. Myanmar, once on a path toward democracy, witnessed a tragic regression with a military coup, resulting in widespread human rights abuses and the stifling of opposition voices. In Thailand, a history of military coups has perpetuated a cycle of repression, with dissenters facing strict measures, including arrests and human rights abuses. These examples underscore the need for a collective commitment to defending the right to dissent globally, as it remains an essential element for fostering open dialogue, promoting human rights, and ensuring the vitality of democratic principles. Without the protection of this fundamental right, the fabric of democracy becomes susceptible to unraveling, and the voice of the people risks being silenced by oppressive forces.
View the Post-Independence Political History of Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand on our website here, or download via the link below.
Coup: A sudden decisive exercise of force in politics and especially the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.
Dissent: To differ in opinion; political opposition to a government or its policies.
Dubious: Giving rise to uncertainty; doubtful.
Fallacious: Tending to deceive or mislead.
Junta: A council or committee for political or governmental purposes.
Martial law: The law administered by military forces that is invoked by a government in an emergency when the civilian law enforcement agencies are unable to maintain public order and safety.
Sanction: An official order, such as the stopping of trade, that is taken against a country in order to make it obey international law.
“Scorched Earth” Tactics: The military tactic of destroying everything that enables the enemy to wage war, including crops, livestock, buildings, and infrastructure.