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My Recent Work

January 29, 2009

In December, I completed my most recent four-year term with the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in Hong Kong and have enjoyed spending time with my parents in Ohio since returning to the United States. My itineration in local churches will take place between March and May before returning to Hong Kong in July where, after working for AHRC for nine years, I'll begin a new area of work with Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), a joint program of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs (APAY) in Hong Kong and the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), which is now based in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

In the past year, my work at AHRC has primarily concentrated on media relations and human rights education and has largely focused on issues in Nepal, Burma, South Korea and the Philippines. Because I have tried to address concerns in the Philippines in this annual letter the past few years and because my thoughts about the country can be found online at the Asia web site of United Press International (UPI) at <>, I will devote most of the contents of this letter to the other three countries.

Shortly before leaving Hong Kong I completed editing a book by Jit Man Basnet, a Nepalese journalist and lawyer, who retold in 258 Dark Days the inhuman experiences of his disappearance and torture in 2004. The book catalogues the variety of human rights violations at the time – arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions, disappearances, torture and summary executions – and forms of torture – simulated drownings, electrocution of sexual organs, rape and brutal and constant beatings—that resulted in broken backs, paralysis, unconsciousness and even death. Through his description of this state-sanctioned violence against Nepal's people, Jit Man clearly illustrates the impunity that permitted the army to continually violate people's rights, including the most fundamental right of all – the right to life. The book's relevance for today is that it offers evidence of this repressive chapter of Nepal's history, evidence that should be used by the country's new government elected in 2008 to prosecute those responsible.  For it is the view of AHRC, based on its analysis of similar episodes in other Asian countries, that if no one is held accountable and justice is not rendered it only lays the foundation for further human rights abuses and injustice in the future. (Copies of the book may be acquired at <>.)

In response to the ongoing human rights violations in Burma, especially the crackdown on the Saffron Revolution in September 2007 led by Buddhist monks, a group of NGOs, and individuals formed the Hong Kong Coalition for a Free Burma in February 2008. While people in Hong Kong are generally aware of the human rights problems facing Burma and the country's lack of democracy, there are few acts of solidarity for the Burmese people in the city. Thus, our coalition has attempted in a small way in the past year to raise the profile of Burma's suffering in the local community through public forums and press conferences that featured Cheery Zahau, a human rights activist of Burma's Chin ethnic minority and coordinator of the Women's League of Chinland, and Nyo Ohn Myint, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) based in exile in Thailand. In her presentations in June, Cheery highlighted the systematic use of sexual violence by the Burmese army against Chin women as well as described the hardships of Burma's people after the devastation of Cyclone Nargis that struck the country in May. Nyo, as a member of the '88 Generation – students that sought to end military rule in Burma – helped the coalition commemorate the 20th anniversary of that August 8th uprising.

In July I was part of a four-member fact-finding mission to South Korea organized by AHRC and another regional human rights NGO, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) in Bangkok. Generally, human rights violations in South Korea are considered part of the country's past when it was ruled by military governments. It is this belief that was one of the factors driving the creation of the mission – for it was feared that more than 20 years of progress was quickly being eroded in a matter of months after President Lee Myung-bak took office in February 2008. The primary concern of the mission was curbs on freedom of expression and riot police attacks on human rights defenders – lawyers, journalists and medical workers – at the candlelight vigils that had been held since early May to protest against an agreement reached the previous month with the U.S. government to import U.S. beef into the country. Those attending the daily vigils worried that insufficient safeguards were in place to protect Koreans from contracting mad cow disease, i.e., the agreement in its present form threatened people's right to health.

The mission's interviews confirmed reports that the riot police had violently attacked people clearly identified as lawyers, journalists, and medical workers at the vigils in addition to brutally assaulting protesters with their batons and police shields and firing water cannons and fire extinguishers at almost point blank range – clear infringements of even the police's own manual. Moreover, a number of vigil organizers had been arrested under what the mission regarded as an antiquated law prohibiting public assemblies at night. Among the mission's findings it recommended that this outdated law be amended and that the use of conscripted young men in the riot police stop as their youth and inadequate training contributed to the police brutality at the vigils (the mission's final report can be read online at <>). It is hoped that dissent will once again be tolerated in South Korea and that all views will be considered in formulating public policy in order that the best policy may be produced.

With peace,

Bruce Van Voorhis

(Bruce Van Voorhis is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong whose work often focuses on the Philippines. In addition to working at the commission since 2000, he is also a co-convener of the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, a coalition formed in April 2005 to respond to the upsurge of extrajudicial killings in the country.)

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong Kong.  He serves as Communication Officer with the Commission.


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