Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN) joins the global indignation over the arrest of seven (7) relief volunteers who were en route to their second wave of relief operations to a farming community in Norzagaray town, Philippines on April 19, 2020.
They brought with them ‘nutri-lief’ bags containing rice, mung beans, dried fish, rice noodles, egg, coffee, sugar, condiments, vitamins, cooking oil, and educational materials on CoViD-19. They also had in their possession a Food Pass or authorization from the Bureau of Food and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). This was a requirement needed to buy vegetables in the market and distribute these to local communities.
The volunteers, including former lawmaker Ariel Casilao of Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) Partylist, were illegally arrested and detained before they were formally charged with sedition on April 21, 2020. Charges remain baseless as the group did not commit any crime before or during the time of apprehension.
Emergency powers as a carte blanche to suppress critics
“We need to raise the alarm on the government’s exclusion and repression of civil society organizations (CSOs) who are trying their best to provide for the needs of vulnerable groups heavily burdened by the pandemic,” emphasized Jazminda Lumang, General Secretary of APRN.
This is in view of the lockdown in Luzon that started in mid-March. Dubbed as the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), the goals were to restrict mobility and stem CoViD-19 spread. When this was put to force, however, there was no clear socio-economic plan for the majority of residents on the island – the wage laborers, farmers, and fisherfolk. To date, government agencies have been running like headless chickens as they scramble to realize the aims of the ECQ.
“CSOs have been mobilizing resources not only to heed the call for national cooperation but also to address the appeals of vulnerable sectors who have gone hungry. It is disturbing to have a government that prevents and even harasses CSOs to discourage them from helping their fellowmen,” Lumang added.
“Governments implementing lockdowns should realize that the quarantine will only be effective if there is mass testing and the people’s right to feed oneself in dignity is not neglected,” she advised.
Lockdowns literally shrink civic spaces in Asia Pacific
The period of lockdown has seen an increase in human rights violations in Asia Pacific.
In India, Shaheen Bagh protesters were violently dispersed, conveniently using the rule of physical distancing as an excuse. The Shaheen Bagh protest is a long-running rally against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The Ministry of Interior of Turkey announced that they arrested 229 people for posting “provocative messages about coronavirus” on social media. Bangladeshi authorities are also reported on cracking down its dissidents. Since March 2020, the government has arrested dozens including activists and students through their repressive Digital Security Act.
Despite coronavirus havoc in world economy and health, Israeli military operations in the occupied Palestine territory continue – including raids, home demolitions, mass arrest, detention, and land confiscation. Blatant violation of international laws and the systematic imposition of repressive measures have exposed, not only Palestinians but Israeli settlers to a greater risk of infection.
Surveillance among activist groups has also been observed as in the case of the Center for Women’s Resources (CWR). On April 17, the online legal clinic on violence against women organized by APRN member CWR, in cooperation with Gabriela National Alliance on Women, was attacked by trolls and “zoom-bombers”. The webinar was disrupted when trolls suddenly started doodling offensive images and writing hate messages on the screen in one of the presentations.
“We condemn governments in Asia Pacific who harass CSOs and limit their involvement in crisis mitigation measures and relief operations. It is unconscionable for some governments to use the CoVID-19 response to silence its critics. Doors for cooperation must be open to CSOs because we are equal development partners. We are willing to act with governments for as long as it serves public good so that we can heal together,” Lumang concluded.