Southeast Asian diaspora protesters rally in Washington against ASEAN autocrats
More than 100 protesters gathered at the Washington Monument in the U.S. capital on Thursday to call on the United States to encourage democracy and the rule of law in the largely authoritarian nations of Southeast Asia, as leaders from the region met with President Joe Biden on the first day of a high-level summit.
Waving the flags of many of the ten nations that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or in some cases, the flags of now-defunct governments, the protesters called for “Democracy, not autocracy” in the countries that make up the regional bloc.
The protesters, who mostly came from Cambodian, Lao, Burmese and Vietnamese communities across in the United States, said they were in Washington to draw attention to the lack of democratic freedoms in Southeast Asia.
Signs accused Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is the rotating ASEAN chair for 2022, of being a “dictator” and “killer of Cambodian Democracy.”
“We’re here today to work with other Asian countries to ask the president to convey our message that we do not like the authoritarians in this land of the free,” Rithy Uong of Massachusetts, a member of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and one of the leaders of Thursday’s rally, told RFA’s English Service.
“We Asians, we like to have democracy, not autocracy in our countries,” he said. “We want to have free and fair elections in Cambodia, monitored by the international community.”
Opponents of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have been targeted in a five-year crackdown that has sent CNRP leaders into exile and landed scores of its supporters in prison. Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 in a move that allowed the Hun Sen’s CPP to win all 125 seats in Parliament in a July 2018 election.
Flanked by a fellow Vietnamese-American waving the flag of the former South Vietnam, Duyen Bui, who traveled from Hawaii for Thursday’s protest, told RFA that she wanted to call attention to how the governments of Vietnam and other ASEAN countries are not directly elected by the people. South Vietnam was absorbed by communist North Vietnam in 1975.
“So we’re calling on U.S. President Biden to really listen to the voices of the people as he meets with these leaders to put human rights forward within his policy and strategic planning with these different leaders,” she said.
Much of the crowd was made up of members of the Burmese diaspora who held signs denouncing the military junta that ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government more than one year ago.
“Right now, there’s a new military coup, and we need the United States to help our country that’s being repressed by the military regime,” Burmese-American Stephanie Shwe, who lives in Maryland, told RFA. Myanmar’s elected government was overthrown by its army in February 2021, plunging the country of 54 million into political and economic turmoil and armed conflict.
“And that is why we are out here trying to raise awareness and ask President Biden to give us the support that we need so that our people can be free from injustice and oppression,” she said.
Lynn Lwin Naing, a member of the U.S. Advocacy Coalition for Myanmar, told RFA that all of the rally attendees are like-minded in support of U.S. efforts to promote democracy across the entire region.
“The communities of ASEAN — Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and others — we’re here to use this opportunity for the ASEAN summit to speak directly to Chairman Hun Sen and also encourage President Biden to help the ASEAN members move forward with issues in ASEAN, especially the crisis in Myanmar and returning democratic government to Myanmar,” he said.
ASEAN governments include several electoral democracies, traditional one-party Communist states Laos and Vietnam, strongman rule in Cambodia and Thailand, a military junta in Myanmar and a monarchy in oil-rich Brunei.
Protesters interviewed by RFA raised issues such as the absence of media and internet freedom in Vietnam to the lack of fair elections in Cambodia and an overall deterioration of human rights across Southeast Asia.
Some expressed their support for Ukraine as it fights off a Russian invasion. Several of the ASEAN member states have strong ties with Russia, and the conflict is an area that Biden is expected to focus on in his meetings with the ASEAN leaders.
Following their rally at the Washington Monument, the protesters marched to the U.S. State Department to hold another demonstration at the site of Friday’s summit.
Radio Free Asia Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036