1 of 5 | Rayhan Asat, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and Maiko Ichihara, professor at Hitotsubashi University, participate in the Human Rights across Asia: Dilemmas and Solutions panel during the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity in Seogwipo City, Jeju, South Korea, on Wednesday. Photo by Darryl Coote/UPI
JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, May 31 (UPI) -- The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent response from governments to quell the spread of the virus fueled human rights abuses across Asia, a panel of experts said Wednesday, with grave abuses committed by China against its Uyghur minority population and North Korea against its citizens.
During the pandemic, governments concentrated power and implemented draconian sanctions for those who violated COVID-19-related measures while authoritarian regimes sought to attack democracy by targeting liberal concepts, such as human rights, said Maiko Ichihara, a professor at the Graduate School of Law and Hitotsubashi University.
Ichihara was one of four experts and activists to speak during a panel on the topic of human rights in Asia during the Jeju Forum, which is ostensibly a peace forum held annually on South Korea's resort island of Jeju, located about 60 miles south of the Korean mainland.
During the talk, Ichihara pointed to Malaysia as an example of a government that sought to concentrate power and did so by suspending its parliament in order to implement policies without opposition.
"And the Indonesian government did a very similar thing," she said, "basically creating COVID-related counter-measures without allowing objections from the legislature."
She continued that the punishments doled out for curfew violations were "very harsh" in some countries, including India where people were "beaten up on the streets and in the Philippines where violators were put into dog cages."
Several countries in Asia also enacted anti-fake-news laws under the pretext of clamping down on COVID-19 disinformation but were used to suppress journalists, she said.
In a wider perspective, China and Russia, in particular, were attacking the legitimacy of human rights and other democratic ideals, such as democracy itself and elections, in order to destabilize democratic nations, which she said creates a "synergy" with the domestic human rights abuses.
China was a nation that came up frequently during the panel concerning violators of human rights in Asia, with Rayhan Asat, a leading Uyghur lawyer and a human rights advocate, telling UPI that during the pandemic surveillance techniques that have been employed to control Beijing's Uyghur Muslim population in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were exported to areas where COVID measures were met with protests.
An estimated 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minority citizens are believed to be arbitrarily interned in Xinjiang camps. While China claims they are re-education camps for the purpose of stamping out terrorism, members of the international community have repeatedly accused Beijing of committing serious human rights abuses, including forced labor, torture and sterilization, against those it holds in those compounds.
Several countries, including the United States, have accused China of committing genocide.
Asat called the camps and the Xinjiang region they are located in a "techno-authoritarian model" and a "laboratory for committing human rights abuses in other parts of China."
And she said some of the surveillance measures utilized in Xinjiang, including increased police inspections, were exported to regions and cities where protests occurred.
The senior fellow at the Atlantic Council also blamed the deaths of 10 people in a residential fire that erupted in an apartment building in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi on China's COVID-19 measures.
The fire erupted on Nov. 24, 2022, while Urumqi was in a lockdown that began in August. She said the COVID-19 measures prevented people from escaping the building.
"These issues are so interrelated," she said, referring to China's COVID-19 human rights abuses and its human rights abuses committed against its Uyghur population, "and I was very heartened to see Chinese people starting to rise up and protest, but, except it stopped just short. This is about COVID, not human rights abuses that are happening against the Uyghur population."
Hanna Song, director of international cooperation and a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, said thousands of North Koreans who have escaped their native country and are in hiding China have also been victimized by the Xi regime's surveillance laws that were expanded during the pandemic.
She added that a large concern with North Koreans amid the restrictions put in place by governments is that little information about these victimized people is reaching researchers and advocates in China but also at home.
The reason why, she said, is because so few North Koreans have been able to escape amid the pandemic.
During the height of defectors during the famine of 1994 to 1998, some 2,000 people a year fled the country and reached South Korea, she said. In 2022, only 67 made the perilous journey, which is an increase from about 63 the year before.
"And we don't expect to see much more, even as the whole world opens up their borders," she said.
Organizations like hers rely on North Korean escapees for information on human rights abuses, including those being committed by the Kim Jong Un regime during the pandemic.
"Many experts are calling this the new dark ages," she said. "Just because we hear little about what is happening in North Korea, it doesn't mean nothing is happening."