Delivered by Jahangir Hasan Masum | Chairperson of the Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific and Executive Director of the Coastal Development Partnership (CDP) in Bangladesh
Dear colleagues, friends and participants,
First of all, I would like to thank the Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific (RoA-AP), CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness in Asia (CPDE- Asia), and the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL) for organizing this important event to discuss the current status of the civil society organizations (CSOs) as frontliners for a rights-based, people-centered effective development cooperation.
Today, let me first start with a snapshot of the general political situation across the Asia Pacific region. I would then like to depict the political character of the COVID-19 response, like the way a cartoonist tries to convey political insights. I will also briefly highlight the challenges that CSOs have been facing due to COVID-19. Finally, I will explore the need for a rights-based, people-centered COVID-19 pandemic recovery and resiliency, through solidarity and development cooperation.
To provide the political snapshot, I have focused on prison overcrowding and the percentage of pretrial detainees in Asia Pacific. According to the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, prisons in the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Bangladesh are at over 200% capacity. In fact, the Philippines has a 464% overcapacity rate. The large percentage of pretrial detainees is one of the key reasons for prison overcrowding in Asia Pacific. In the Philippines, 75% of the detainees have not been convicted of any crime. In Bangladesh, pretrial detainees make up around 80% of detainees, while in India, the number is around 67%. Besides internet restrictions, cyber-policing and intense surveillance practices are common government measures across the Asia Pacific region.
The political character of the COVID-19 response can be depicted by unmasking the government actions in the Asia Pacific. In the region, governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic according to the ideologies of their political leaders and their country’s political systems. Majority of the governments have adopted aggressive, non-therapeutic preventive measures, such as travel bans, public gatherings ban, lockdowns, and social distancing, with the deployment of police and militaries. In most of the Asia Pacific countries, the government’s COVID-19 response has been favoring undemocratic trends and partisan politics. The absence of an effective political opposition regarding the COVID-19 response has further strengthened the authoritarian position of the ruling parties.
Many countries, like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines, have initially downplayed the pandemic for weeks, thereby resulting in several lost weeks [in responding to the pandemic]. Many countries’ efforts to reduce the spread of the virus suffered due to the lack of coordination. Many countries have declared national lockdowns without clear communication, resulting in panic among the citizens.
Many countries have granted their governments emergency powers to counter the pandemic, which are helping governments to ignore human rights in the name of the COVID-19 response. Many governments have used the pandemic as a cover for establishing tighter control over news, media and civil liberties. Many governments have reported a lower number of cases and death tolls to the public than the actual number, to highlight their success in managing COVID-19. CSOs across the region have already raised concern that governments are taking advantage of their emergency powers to punish their critics and to increase their political control in the future.
Allow me to provide a country-level example to draw a better picture of the region. In Cambodia, the government has used COVID-19 as an excuse to undertake oppressive measures. Meanwhile, the Indonesian government used criminal defamation laws to crack down any public criticism of the government’s response to COVID-19. COVID-19 has also intensified civil-military divisions in Myanmar, as evidenced by parallel civilian and military task forces on the pandemic. In the Philippines, the government can put anyone in jail for two months, along with heavy fines, for allegations about spreading false information about the pandemic. Duterte’s order for shooting lockdown violators on sight during the pandemic depicts the Philippine government’s response. In Thailand, the government has expanded powers during the pandemic to censor the press and to suppress opponents, with [arrests and] five-year prison terms for spreading information that the government deems to be false.
Stimulus spending for COVID-19 in Bangladesh has come under criticism for targeting the industry over the country’s poor people. In India, law enforcement often acted overzealously in implementing COVID-19 lockdowns. Sri Lanka’s government has been using the pandemic to arrest citizens criticizing official guidance. Uzbekistan’s lockdown rules have punished violators with fifteen-day jail terms and heavy fines for going out for a non-essential reason or for not wearing a face mask.
The practice of retaliation against journalists and CSOs under the pretext of spreading disinformation is prevalent in Asia Pacific. The punitive measures have also been used to silence any criticism from CSOs. These government measures and practices have been shrinking civic spaces and threatening CSOs’ ability to function freely and operate without threats.
The sudden appearance of the pandemic had hit CSOs very hard, forcing them to make immediate changes that have greatly reduced their operational capacity, leading to canceled events or projects, reduced staff salaries, and diminished funds. CSOs whose mission involves human rights advocacy are struggling to cope with the pandemic. Human rights advocacy is rapidly losing its funding support due to the pressing health and economic concerns brought about by the pandemic.
I would like to draw your attention to the roles CSOs have been playing during the pandemic. CSOs have already been playing a vital role in communicating risks and engaging with communities to help mitigate COVID-19, through distributing food and hygiene kits in the early days of the pandemic. They have also raised questions about the accuracy of official pandemic data.
CSOs are even trying to hold governments accountable for their COVID-19 response, while their own resiliency is eroding. CSO resiliency can be described as the ability of civil society to adapt with the quickly changing external conditions, in order to respond effectively. Resiliency entails sustained support from donors and governments, in order for the CSOs to help their communities in mitigating the effects of the pandemic.
COVID-19 pandemic has unmasked severe inequalities within and among the countries in the region. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of the socio-economic, political and governance systems of the countries in Asia Pacific. The pandemic has exposed the differences in the quality of healthcare infrastructure between urban and rural communities, and differences in access to healthcare between the rich and the poor. The pandemic has also produced negative emotions and attitudes among the citizens. Since poverty and inequality have already been rising rapidly due to COVID-19, a rights-based, people centered response is an obligatory approach for both governments and CSOs.
Successful pandemic management needs active engagement of the majority of the population. In the past, CSOs have helped governments to reach the most vulnerable social groups for managing diseases and disasters. Unfortunately, governments and institutional donors in the region have not involved CSOs in the process of managing COVID-19. The pandemic is still spreading, and there is still a greater scope for involving the CSOs to support the efforts of the government in managing the pandemic.
Finally, I would like to draw your attention about the importance of development cooperation for COVID-19 pandemic management.
Although the world leaders in their virtual high-level meeting held last May 28, 2020 have stated that defeating the pandemic will require a whole-of-society, whole-of-government and whole-of-the-world approach driven by compassion and solidarity, the reality is the total opposite. COVID-19 response of the countries is limited within their own national territories and have not been responding collectively to this global pandemic. Countries have closed their borders by labeling each other as unsafe or risky to travel.
The world has never been in greater need for development cooperation to support the fight against COVID-19. Global solidarity is essential because the pandemic has no respect for national boundaries and it is beyond the capacity of any country to control the pandemic alone.
I hope I was able to provide an overview to you. I expect the side-event will be a great success.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.
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