The governments of some countries in Southeast Asia have been playing Russian roulette with their citizens’ lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of ensuring the public’s good, leaders in Indonesia and Cambodia downplayed or downright denied the threat posed by the virus. Meanwhile, other leaders, like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, are using COVID-19 as an excuse to amass power. The U.S. should present a counter-narrative of values-based policy that prioritizes the rights of Southeast Asians and calls on their own governments to do the same.
The free and open Indo-Pacific strategy hinges on prioritizing human rights and freedom. These are the values that are supposed to undergird U.S. policy in Asia—a continuation of America’s long and worthy commitment to the region.
Human rights and freedom don’t go out the window in the face of a pandemic. If anything, they become even more important.
Poor leadership and governance in many of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries reduced preparedness and put lives at greater-than-necessary risk. For example, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, seeking to curry favor with China, denied the threat posed by the novel coronavirus. He then permitted the Westerdam, a cruise ship that had been turned away by Japan, to dock in Phnom Penh with little-to-no precautionary measures in place. One of the passengers, a U.S. citizen who proceeded to travel to Malaysia, later came down with COVID-19.
Cambodia’s long-serving leader even used the virus as an opportunity to crackdown on dissenters, arresting 17 people associated with the since-outlawed opposition party for allegedly spreading false information about COVID-19. If anything, the outbreak has allowed authoritarianism to deepen its roots in Cambodia, taking advantage of the situation in which countries are too consumed with combating their own domestic outbreaks to notice the deterioration of essential freedoms elsewhere.
Cambodia is far from the only country where poor governance prevails. Many have decried the drastic measures Duterte has invoked in the Philippines, where he even issued shoot-to-kill orders in Manila to enforce quarantine. Others lament the arrests of individuals who were charged with spreading alleged “fake news” about the virus in Thailand. And in Vietnam, individuals who post purportedly anti-government posts on Facebook are brought in for questioning, forced to take down their posts, engage in self-criticism-like “work sessions,” and recant their previous statements.
There is a strong need for the U.S.’s rights-based leadership, not only to serve as a contrast to China’s rights-rejecting modus operandi, but because such leadership is actually better for people all across the globe.
Making a values-based foreign policy a reality means ensuring adequate aid to ASEAN countries, especially those with less-developed healthcare systems and institutional knowledge to combat COVID-19. Since the start of the outbreak, the U.S. has provided $18.3 million in assistance to ASEAN member states for a range of activities, including training and assistance for responders, the development of test kits, and emergency response preparedness efforts. However, the needs are great and growing. The U.S. should continually re-evaluate its aid in order to prioritize the rights and well-being of people in Southeast Asia.
It also means unequivocally condemning countries like Cambodia for their weaponization of COVID-19. An epidemic should be treated as a disease to be defeated, not an opportunity to crack down on dissenters and restrict fundamental freedoms. The U.S. has invoked sanctions for violations of human rights in Burma and Cambodia before; it shouldn’t be reluctant to use such tools again should the need arise as a result of abuses of power during COVID-19.
COVID-19 presents yet another opportunity for the U.S. to prove the resilience of its values-based leadership—this time while our Southeast Asian friends are in need.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviaenos/2020/05/18/promoting-values-in-southeast-asia-especially-during-covid-19/#2bda573c6be1