Many countries around the world have imposed restrictions and confinement to contain the spread of COVID-19, and Southeast Asia imposed some of the harshest.
Most quarantine protocols require residents to remain at home, while mass gatherings are virtually prohibited.
In Malaysia and the Philippines, the particularly strict application of these measures led to thousands of arrests and severe penalties for violators as of March.
Several government officials were caught violating the same quarantine protocols that they were supposed to supervise.
Global Voices analyzed some of these cases, and their consequences, which highlight how the laws apply more to ordinary citizens than to powerful politicians.
We have also examined a case in Myanmar that showed how religious discrimination can influence law enforcement.
Malaysia: “Disparity in sentencing”
In Malaysia, almost 30,000 people were arrested for violating the Movement Control Order (MCO). The authorities considered that the harsh application of this measure was necessary to avoid an increase in cases of COVID-19.
However, the public realized that several politicians disobeyed the guidelines. The Center for Independent Journalism collected and documented many of those cases. For example, Noor Azmi Ghazali, Deputy Minister of Health, posted a photo of him (already deleted) with another elected representative who they shared a meal with about 30 students. Meanwhile, Deputy Minister for Rural Development Datuk Abdul Rahman Mohamad enjoyed an impromptu birthday party. The vice minister said it was a surprise organized by his friends and said he could not tell them that they left out of courtesy.
Datuk Abdul Rahman Mohamad denies defying the MCO by holding a birthday party in his house. The Deputy Rural Development Minister claims the gathering was spontaneous after visitors came to his home. Photos went viral showing Abdul Rahman & others not practicing social distancing pic.twitter.com/APTiSjNw5y
– BFM News (@NewsBFM) April 20, 2020
Datuk Abdul Rahman Mohamad denies having challenged the MCO with a birthday party at his home. The Deputy Minister for Rural Development says the meeting was spontaneous after the visitors arrived at his home. The photos went viral and showed how Abdul Rahman and the others did not practice social distancing.
In many cases, politicians and their families, who were accused of not practicing social distancing measures, received light fines. Instead, ordinary citizens received maximum penalty fines and even imprisonment.
This prompted the Malaysian Bar Association to issue a statement on the “disparity in sentence”:
The Malaysian Bar is disturbed by accounts of excessive sentences and cases of disparity in sentencing between ordinary people and those with influence, in relation to persons who have violated the MCO.
We acknowledge that the range of sentences handed down may well be within the ambit of the law, but the power of the Court to hand down sentences must be exercised judiciously in order to avoid any travesty of justice.
The Malaysian Bar Association is concerned about accounts of excessive sentencing and cases of disparity in sentencing between ordinary and influential people, relative to people who have violated the MCO.
We acknowledge that the range of sentences passed may be within the purview of the law, but the Court's power to pass sentences must be exercised judiciously to avoid any imitation of justice.
Philippines: “ñan Mañanita’, not a birthday party “
The United Nations Human Rights Office cites the Philippines as another country that relied on a “highly militarized response” to deal with the pandemic. More than 120,000 people have been detained for violating the curfew and quarantine. Security measures have led to numerous human rights violations.
The government's credibility in applying the guidelines of the Community Enhanced Quarantine (ECQ) plummeted after it was reported that Major General Debold Sinas, director of the National Capital Region Police Office, benefited from a birthday party organized by his subordinates.
BREAKING: Metro Manila top cop Debold Sinas and other police officers were charged Friday for staging a birthday blowout on May 8 despite strict quarantine rules, the Philippine National Police says. https://t.co/9YUp5aFF35
– CNN Philippines (@cnnphilippines) May 15, 2020
Sinas and 18 Manila police officers charged for birthday party.
LAST MINUTE: Manila Police Chief Debold Sinas and other police officers were denounced Friday for organizing a birthday party on May 8 despite strict quarantine rules, says the Philippine National Police.
Sinas insisted that it was not a birthday party but only a “Mañanita” – a police tradition that includes a morning serenade for the boss. but the violent public reaction forced him to issue an apology.
Critics noted that Sinas and his team have been enthusiastically detaining activists and community workers for organizing relief activities during confinement. They attacked the general for celebrating festivities at a time when millions of people have lost their jobs and income due to measures against the pandemic.
Later, Sinas was accused of violating the ECQ rules but, until now, he has managed to maintain his position. His case is still pending in court.
Ramon Farolan, a retired military officer, advised Sinar to resign:
Your apology would take on greater meaning if you step down from your position. Accept that you made a poor judgment call, showing insensitivity to the plight of our less fortunate. Don't wait for higher authorities to decide your case.
Your apology would have more meaning if you resigned from your position. Accept that you made the wrong decision, that you showed insensitivity to the situation of the less fortunate. Don't wait for higher authorities to decide your case.
Myanmar: religious activity or pagoda renovation?
In Myanmar, the chief of government of Yangon, Phyo Min Thein, and Naing Ngan Lin, chairman of the COVID-19 Emergency Control and Response Committee, have been accused of breaking the law by attending a Botataung Pagoda festival while that religious gatherings are prohibited in the country.
The photos published on the Facebook page of the head of the government showed dozens of people gathered on the river bank to observe a Buddhist rite.
The reactions of social networks focused on the clear violation of government guidelines, which include the prohibition of meetings of four or more people.
Phyo Min Thein denied that the activity was a ceremony, insisted that it be a pagoda renovation and that the other people in the photographs were mere spectators.
Many commented that while the government has been consistent in jailing Muslims and Christians for celebrating religious activities during confinement restrictions, it has been less so in banning Buddhism-related activities – the religion with the most followers in the country.
Kyaw Phyo Tha, news editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy, criticized the actions of the head of government:
Whatever the case, the chief minister’s actions were unacceptable. They have put the Union government in an awkward position, as its orders have been undermined by a senior official. Due to U Phyo Min Thein’s shortsightedness, Myanmar will have to pay the price internationally by being accused of religious discrimination.
In any case, the actions of the head of the Government were unacceptable. They have put the Union Government in an awkward position, as their orders have been undermined by a senior official. Phyo Min Thein's lack of vision will make Myanmar pay the price internationally when accused of religious discrimination.
Phyo Min Thein has already paid for his scandal during confinement, as more and more Yangon regional lawmakers are trying to file an impeachment against him for breaking the rules.