Every time Le Anh Hung starts to write he thinks of his three young children. The 38-year-old has already been imprisoned twice for blogging about human rights and corruption from his home in Hanoi and lives half-expecting another fateful knock at the door. And yet “I’m not scared,” he says, “I know what I choose to do is risky but I accept the fight.”
Forty-six bloggers and democracy activists have been imprisoned so far this year in Vietnam — more than the whole of 2012 — amid a vicious crackdown. The intolerance is mirrored across Southeast Asia as regimes attempt to stem brewing dissent. Corruption, lack of effective democracy and a widening wealth gap have all bolstered popular protests in the region. In Malaysia, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to condemn alleged irregularities during May 5 elections that returned the incumbent National Front coalition to power. In Laos, protesters are calling for the safe return of outspoken activist Sombath Somphone. Demonstrations are ongoing in Cambodia, where a ballot slated for July 28 has been hit by accusations of dirty tricks. In recent years, strikes and social unrest have erupted in Vietnam, which is beset by inflation, land-rights abuses and venality.
This political dissatisfaction is buttressed by “deeper forces of economic change and challenges wafting through the region … and the rise of new classes,” Professor Kevin Hewison, director of the Asia Research Centre at Australia’s Murdoch University, tells TIME. Access to the Internet is also creating a culture of dissent that crosses borders. Demonstrators in Vietnam sport red shirts to mimic supporters of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose populist policies they venerate, while ubiquitous V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks point to a shared yearning for transparency.
Karin Karlekar, director of the annual Freedom of the Press report by Freedom House, sees “definite parallels” with the Arab Spring, where social media was key in heralding regime change. “It’s not surprising that governments are seeking to clamp down on this as people are being mobilized by the media,” she says. The mounting discord has led to new curbs on the Internet in the countries concerned. Besides the Vietnamese crackdown, there has been a ban in Cambodia on Internet cafés within 500 m of schools. Malaysian Internet intermediaries have meanwhile been made legally accountable for material that disseminates through their systems, including wi-fi terminals.
Stricter media controls are also being applied elsewhere in the region. New licensing rules governing online news led 150 Singapore websites to black out in protest last month, and brought more than 2,000 demonstrators to the streets (an exceptional sight in the tightly run city-state.) The Philippines Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 was suspended amid public clamor that it threatened free speech, and a replacement draft has also been widely condemned. Thailand has seen a spike in lèse majesté prosecutions and Internet censorship — 20,978 URLs were blocked last year compared with just 5,078 in 2011, according to the country’s i-Law monitoring group — with a “chilling effect on freedom of expression throughout Thai society,” writes Frank La Rue, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.
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Dissenting voices in newspapers and television in Southeast Asia have traditionally been contained through litigation, intimidation and cronyism, but the blogosphere is an entirely different beast. Prickly elites, unable to replicate China’s Great Firewall and shocked at having their actions dissected and criticized online, are choosing to “shoot the messenger,” says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. China employs the world’s most advanced censorship apparatus that filters millions of blog posts and social-media interactions every day. Neighboring governments envy this capability yet lack sufficient tools or expertise, and so employ cruder tactics. These include “Thailand hammering free-speech advocates touching previously sacrosanct topics, Vietnam jailing bloggers left and right on specious charges, and, of course, Singapore moving its censorship regimen to the Internet,” explains Robertson.
Governments must reckon, however, with the determination of online dissidents like Hung. Blogging channels his burning desire for a freer society, despite the hardship it brings to his family. “Everywhere I and my wife work, the police come and they pressure the employer to sack us,” he says, adding that he was once incarcerated inside a mental hospital in a cruel attempt to have him both humiliated and discredited. Unperturbed, he vows to “keep blogging as I accept all intimidation and harassment in the fight for human rights.”
Perhaps history will be on his side. In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Burma, officially known as Myanmar, as the world’s worst place to be a blogger. Today (albeit with the specter of draconian regulations still lurking on the statute books) it boasts one of the region’s freest Internet realms, its hard-won freedoms serving as an example to dissidents elsewhere.
“People are certainly seeing things overseas and adopting them,” says Hewison. “The media is becoming much more important.” With dissidents and governments in Southeast Asia both realizing the same thing, it looks like the struggle for control of the region’s online realms has only just begun.