WASHINGTON – When Binh T. Nguyen was younger, her father was killed in a re-education camp in communist-era Vietnam.
Now as director of Human Rights for Vietnam PAC, Nguyen feels a strong obligation to advance the rights of fellow Southeast Asians.
Nguyen is part of a growing tide of Southeast Asian activists campaigning for labor rights and gender equality in the region, where many countries have authoritarian governments that traditionally see women as lesser than men.
“Many young women like myself have taken on the burden and responsibility to change their paths and futures,” Nguyen said Monday at the New America Foundation in Washington.
She was part of a panel discussion about the rise of young, female human rights activists in Asia, jointly organized by the nonpartisan think tank and non-profit broadcaster Radio Free Asia.
The latter has published an e-book titled “It’s Not OK” on the topic, ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.
Panelists said women in Southeast Asia have become greater presences in activism and in the workplace, but the West has an important role in holding governments accountable for respecting female citizens’ rights.
In a 2013 report, the consulting firm Grant Thornton ranked Vietnam among the top 10 countries with the fastest growth in the number of women in senior management.
This merely creates “an illusion of the concept of equality,” Nguyen said.
“Women in these positions have no ability or way to make financial decisions and they are often put in these positions partly because they are more likely to go along with the decisions the men in power made,” she said.
Women in these countries, however, are beginning to harness the power of their voices.
“More young female activists are acting a lot more aggressive and strongly against government,” she said. She lauded the Internet for helping connect women’s voices to an international audience.
“More women could be targeted now since there are so many speaking out – but they do feel that this is a rite of passage for them to stand up for their brothers and sisters,” cautioned Catherine Antoine, managing editor of Radio Free Asia and executive producer of the women’s activism e-book.
Myanmese activist Zin Mar Aung, who co-founded the Yangon School of Political Science, agreed. In 2011, her country began a series of political reforms, including the relaxation of press censorship, amnesties of more than 200 political prisoners and the implementation of labor laws.
But since then, the landscape has changed.
She said that the rising ultra-nationalist regime movement has begun to target the rights of women. “We’re not sure if this transition [to liberalization] is leaning to democracy or another kind of regime,” she said.
There are 24 women, or slightly less than 6 percent, out of the more than 400 members in Myanmar’s parliament.
The West has a unique role to play in putting the pressure on governments, Aung said.
As an ex-political prisoner, she was only able to get a passport to receive her International Women of Courage Award in 2012 after the U.S. intervened.
“Government-to-government advocacy is really needed because governments here don’t want to listen to their own citizens, because of power,” she said.