No longer a pariah, but still near the back of the pack – The Irrawaddy


– from the October 2013 monthly print edition of The Irrawaddy

YANGON – September 13 should have been joyous day for Le Quoc Quan’s family in Hanoi. But pro-democracy campaigner Le Quoc Quan has been jailed since late 2012, accused of tax evasion.

Tep Vanny (seated) and and neighbour Gheat Koun, another Beoung Kak resident and protestor (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Tep Vanny (seated) and and neighbour Gheat Koun, another Beoung Kak resident and protestor (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Quan’s brother Le Quoc Quyet told The Irrawaddy that the detained lawyer’s birthday made for a sombre commemoration, the pain of enforced absence sharpened by murky uncertainty.

A June hearing was suspended as it clashed with a visit to the U.S. by the Vietnam President. “No-one knows when he will go to trial,” Quyet said.

In Cambodia, land rights activists Tep Vanny and Yorm Bopha have been or are in jail over protests about Boeung Kak lake, near which both women live, in the heart of Phnom Penh.

3500 families have been evicted from the lakeside to make way for offices and apartments to be built by a company owned by senior lawmaker from Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

This correspondent spoke to both women at the Phnom Penh prison where Yorm Bopha is halfway into a two year jail sentence for assault – charges which sound as trumped-up as those against Le Quoc Quan.

Yorm Bopha protested on behalf of Tep Vanny when the latter was in jail. Now the favour is being returned, with Tep Vanny visiting Bopha in jail and protesting for her release. “We are like sisters now, we think the same and support each other,” Tep Vanny told The Irrawaddy in early September.

Last year Myanmar held free and fair by-elections, while the CPP is accused of cheating in a closely-fought election in July. Vietnam’s Communist Party is the only sanctioned party in that country. Le Quoc Quan is but one of dozens of writers and activists seeking an end to single party rule but who have been caught up in a detention dragnet as the factionalised Party wrestles with a stalling economy.

But protests and murky arrests over landgrabs are nothing new in Cambodia. And Vietnam’s oft-outed ‘latest crackdown’ on dissidents is groundhog day – Le Quoc Quan was first jailed as far back as 2007.

Rights abuses in the countries seem like news partly because Myanmar’s political prisoner releases and loosening of press controls mean the former military-ruled country no longer stands out as southeast Asia’s worst rights offender. Arrests and absent elections aside, Vietnam recently announced a new internet law that bars social media users from posting news, a new restriction coming even as Myanmar mulls amending draconian internet rules.

But if Myanmar’s opening-up has diverted attention elsewhere, it doesn’t mean the former black sheep is now a beacon. The cyber code hasn’t yet been changed, and there’s a draft law that reads like a government ploy to curb civil society.

Naw Ohn Hla was a political prisoner and regular protestor against injustices under Myanmar’s military government. But now, reforms or not, she is back in jail after demonstrating against a violence-tarnished copper mine in Sagaing that has seen thousands of people pushed off their land.

Her lawyer, Robert San Aung, said that Naw Ohn Hla did not get justice in the August 29 verdict. “It was not a fair trial,” he told The Irrawaddy, reminding that his client faces a separate charge for protesting without a permit.

*Latest, at time of going to press, is that Le Quoc Quan would face trial on Oct. 2.

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