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East Timor »

East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, is a country of 1.1 million people in the East Indies. It was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century and was an exporter of sandalwood and coffee. As the Portuguese economy struggled in the first part of the 20th century, the nation attempted to extract more resources from its colonies, including East Timor. This increase in Portuguese business control and demands was met with resistance by inhabitants. After Portugal announced in 1975 that the colony would soon become independent and began the process of decolonization, fighting broke out between rival Timorese factions. The Indonesian Army invaded and occupied East Timor in December of that year, and a few months later the country was formally annexed by Indonesia.

The Indonesian occupation was marked by repression and brutality. Under the dictatorship of Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly were denied throughout Indonesia, including in occupied East Timor. Timorese who were suspected of harboring separatist sympathies—particularly those suspected of association with the small but resilient guerrilla resistance movement—were routinely arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Extrajudicial killings were common. The 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, in which Indonesian troops killed an estimated 200 men, women, and children who had participated in a funeral procession for a pro-independence activist, focused world attention on the continuing denial of democracy and self-determination in East Timor. The massacre and associated events also highlighted the importance of the Catholic Church, both as a focus of Timorese identity and as the only institution that could sometimes afford a measure of protection from government-sponsored violence.

In 1998, shortly after the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto, the new President B.J. Habibie announced a “consultation” by which the people of East Timor would be permitted to choose either autonomy within Indonesia or outright independence. The consultation took place in the form of a U.N.-supervised referendum in August 1999 in which 79 percent of the voters chose independence. In the weeks after the announcement of the vote, the departing Indonesian army and its associated Timorese militias destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure and killed over a thousand people. That December, a United Nations peacekeeping force was established, and a U.N. mission administered the country until the restoration of independence in 2002. East Timor and Indonesia are now both multiparty parliamentary democracies.

Violence has continued since East Timor gained independence. Violent clashes in 2006 between rioters and police forces led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. Police and rioters clashed once again leading up to the 2007 elections. The election required three separate ballots due to irregularities and accusations of fraud. Additionally, assassination attempts on both candidates and elected leaders occurred. In 2012, East Timor held both presidential and primary elections considered successful, free, and fair. At the end of that year, the UN ended its peacekeeping mission in the nation.
East Timor’s economy remains heavily dependent on commodities such as oil, coffee, and sandalwood.

Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World Report lists East Timor as “partly free.” The country earned a freedom rating of 3 with 7 being the least free. East Timor also received civil liberties rating and political rights ratings of 3. The country still struggles with corruption and nepotism as well as a weak rule of law. Additionally, there is a lack of transparency surrounding the government and law regulates demonstrations that “question constitutional order” or could damage the reputation of the nation’s leaders. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2014 report assigned a “Partly Free” rating to East Timor. 

China »

The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, after a decades-long civil war between communist and nationalist forces. The communist victory drove the nationalist government to the island of Taiwan. While tensions have eased in recent years, both the nationalist and communist forces still claim to rule all of China. China ranks as the world’s third largest country by area, and the largest by population, with over 1.3 billion people.

Since 1949, China has been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong led the country until his death in 1976. Mao’s era was marked by dramatic swings in policy, massive crackdowns on perceived opponents of the regime, and harsh repression. Since 1976, the Chinese government has broken with Marxist economic orthodoxy by instituting limited market-based reforms, but the party has retained its monopoly on political power.

Freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion are severely restricted, and the people of China are denied the right to change their government. The courts are controlled by the Communist Party and do not provide due process of law. Government control extends into every aspect of people’s lives, most notably in the one-child policy in which unauthorized pregnancies often result in forced abortion and sterilization. While technology has spread quickly in recent years, Freedom House ranks China as one of the three most repressive governments in the world in terms of Internet freedom.

While the rapid expansion of the private sector has dramatically changed the Chinese economy, fundamental principles of free market systems are lacking, including property rights and independent labor unions. Official corruption remains a major obstacle to developing a fully free economy.

In 1989, 100,000 people gathered in a peaceful demonstration in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to protest human rights violations and demand democratic reforms. The protest lasted several weeks and inspired similar nonviolent demonstrations in other cities throughout China. On June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army converged on the area with troops, tanks, and other advanced military weapons. Estimates of the death toll ranged from several hundred to several thousand. The army used similar tactics to suppress demonstrations in other cities and subsequently rounded up and imprisoned many thousands of protestors. The government vigorously defended these actions and instituted a campaign to purge those who had sympathized with protestors from the party and the government.

Although the Tiananmen Square massacre put an end to hopes for a speedy transition to democracy, courageous Chinese citizens have continued to risk imprisonment and worse to demand freedom. These human rights activists have included students, workers, lawyers, artists, and writers; Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims who demand respect for their cultures, traditions, and religious practices; members of the spiritual discipline known as Falun Gong; Catholics who insist that their church is headed by the Pope rather than by government-appointed religious officials; and members of the “house church” movement, representing millions of Protestant Christians who are forced to worship in secret because their churches are not authorized by the government. China’s many prisoners of conscience include members of each of these groups.

In 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. His wife was arrested in order to prevent her from attending the award ceremony, and the government employed a range of coercive techniques to prevent other human rights activists from attending. China’s leading human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, disappeared in early 2009 and is presumed to be in government custody.

The most recent Freedom in the World report from Freedom House gave China scores of 6 for civil liberties and 7 for political rights, where 1 is the highest and 7 the lowest possible score. Freedom House categorizes China as a “Not Free” country.

Burma »

Burma, a Southeast Asian country with about 57 million people, is ruled by a military regime that seized power in 1962. Although the reformist National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly in a 1990 election, the country’s military rulers ignored the results and arrested NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” The military government held a referendum on a new constitution in 2008 and a parliamentary election in 2010, neither of which was regarded by international observers as free or fair, and both of which resulted in overwhelming majorities for pro-government positions and candidates. The military regime has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, and denial of freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.

Throughout its existence, the regime has been at war with a number of Burma’s ethnic minority groups. Ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly supported the NLD in the 1990 election, and after the suppression of the democracy movement several of these groups continued or resumed armed resistance to the de facto government. Although the government signed cease-fire agreements with several of these groups ostensibly granting them autonomy within their respective regions, the Burmese military has used a range of brutal techniques, including the killing of civilians, forced labor, rape, and the destruction of homes, crops, and villages, in cease-fire zones as well as in areas where there is still armed resistance.

In 2007, as on several previous occasions, there were mass demonstrations throughout the country demanding freedom and democracy. The 2007 demonstrations were led by Buddhist monks and eventually became known as the “Saffron Revolution” after the color of the monks’ robes. The armed forces brutally suppressed these demonstrations—estimates of the number of protestors killed range from 31 to several thousand—and intensified popular dissatisfaction with the government by the killing, beating, and public humiliation of monks.

The nominally civilian government resulting from the 2010 election has been widely regarded as a façade for continuing military rule. However, in October 2011, the government released 206 of Burma’s estimated 2,000 prisoners of conscience. The next month, the government announced that it would soon release all remaining political prisoners. The NLD, which had declined to participate in the 2010 election, registered to participate in the next election and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be among the NLD candidates.

Although the military regime announced in 1989 that it had changed the English name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar,” the United States government and other international supporters of democracy in Burma have generally continued to call the country Burma because this is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates who won the 1990 election. 

Vietnam »

Vietnam is a country of nearly 90 million people in Southeast Asia. In 938 A.D., it achieved independence after a millennium of imperial Chinese rule. Vietnam was ruled by a series of dynasties until it was colonized by France in the mid-19th century. It was occupied by Japan in World War II. From 1945 to 1954, French colonial forces battled Vietnamese forces in the first Indochinese War. France withdrew, leading to the establishment of two Vietnamese states – communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam, allied with the west. War between the North and South began in 1954 and continued until 1975. American forces began arriving in 1955 and the U.S. military effort dramatically expanded in the 1960s.

With the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973, North Vietnam intensified its war against the South. In 1976, the country was officially reunified under communist control. Over one million South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps and millions left the country as refugees. In the late 1970s, Vietnam intervened in Cambodia’s civil war, leading to military conflict with China.

The economy stagnated due to communist policies and the challenges of recovery from the decades-long civil war. In 1986, the government began instituting market-oriented reforms, which allowed for greater economic freedom while maintaining strong government control. These reforms, known as doi moi, have led to dramatic economic growth. In the first part of the 21st century, Vietnam has been among the fastest growing economies in the world. The country has become increasingly integrated into the world economy, joining organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Despite the progress, issues like income inequality and corruption remain major challenges for Vietnam.

Communist political control remains firmly in place. There are no legal opposition parties or political movements. The media remains under tight state control. In recent years the Vietnamese government has devoted special attention to suppressing free expression on the Internet. Authorities have arrested and imprisoned dozens of bloggers and have blocked access to Facebook and other social networking sites.
Religious freedom remains a contentious issue. The government has targeted religious believers who worship outside officially recognized churches or protest government takings of church property. The government has lashed out against Catholic, Protestant, and Buddhist groups and activists, as well as the human rights lawyers who attempt to defend them. These and other prisoners of conscience are typically charged with crimes such as “abusing democratic freedoms,” using “freedom of religion to injure the national unity,” and “fleeing abroad to oppose the government.”

Some political or religious activists who are members of certain ethnic minority groups are subjected to particularly harsh treatment. Several hundred Montagnards, an overwhelmingly Christian ethnic minority in the Central Highlands, are currently imprisoned for their participation in protests demanding religious freedom and an end to confiscation of traditional Montagnard lands. Other targets of persecution are the Khmer Krom, ethnic Cambodians who believe the Vietnamese government is systematically suppressing their traditional culture and Theravada Buddhist religion, and the Hmong and other hill tribes in the northwestern provinces whom government officials sometimes order to renounce their evangelical Protestantism.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized Vietnam as “not free.” The nation received a freedom rating of six overall – five in civil liberties and seven in political rights – on a scale where one is the most free and seven the least. In Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net and Freedom of the Press reports, the nation categorized as “not free.” The people of Vietnam are denied the right to change their government by peaceful means, and the government severely restricts freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion. 

North Korea »

North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 23 million people in northeast Asia, ruled by Communist dictator Kim Jong-Un. His deceased predecessors—father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung – respectively retain the titles of “Eternal President” and “The Great Leader.”

The Korean War began in 1950, when Kim Il-Sung, backed by the Soviet Union and China, attacked South Korea. The conflict ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, and the border between the two Koreas remains tense and heavily militarized.

Kim Il-Sung employed harsh tactics to consolidate his power and propagated an extreme personality cult that has been continued by his successors. A blend of communist doctrine, state terror, xenophobia and hyper-nationalism has given North Korea its unique ideology. Despite some recent openings, North Korea remains largely isolated from the rest of the world.

With the end of Soviet communism and withdrawal of economic support, North Korea’s economy collapsed in the 1990s. A massive famine, aggravated by the regime’s indifference, killed as many as 2 million people between 1994 and 1998. While conditions have improved, even today, North Korea faces problems of malnutrition and insufficient access to food.

Tensions between North and South Korea remain high. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors and attacked a South Korean island, killing four civilians. North Korea has developed and tested nuclear weapons in contravention of several international agreements. The country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 in order to test ballistic missiles and eventually a nuclear device. Multilateral negotiations have so far failed to constrain North Korea’s arms buildup and nuclear program.

North Korea is among the world’s most repressive states, engaging in widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced abortion, arbitrary detention, and denial of the rights of expression, association, assembly, and religion. The government pervasively regulates all aspects of the lives of its citizens, each of whom is categorized as “core,” “wavering,” or “hostile,” according to the history of his or her family’s relationship with the regime. Access to housing, employment, education, and other social and economic goods depend heavily on these security classifications. The government determines where each citizen will live, and travel within the country is strictly limited.

Emigration is prohibited. Refugees who have escaped to China have frequently been forcibly returned to North Korea where they are imprisoned, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and sometimes executed. The government operates a network of forced labor camps for an estimated 120,000 political prisoners. While persons convicted of ordinary crimes serve fixed sentences, those convicted of political crimes are confined indefinitely. Punishment is extended to three generations – the offender’s parents, siblings, and children are also incarcerated, as a way to pressure North Koreans to conform. Political offenders are often denied food, clothing, and medical care, and many die in prison.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report classifies North Korea as “not free” and as one of nine nations whose lack of political rights and civil liberties are considered the “worst of the worst.”