Religious freedom another casualty of Southeast Asia’s regressive turn
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Religious freedom another casualty of Southeast Asia’s regressive turn

MUCH concern has been raised about a trend of rising authoritarianism across Southeast Asia, from President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous drug war in the Philippines to Cambodia’s rapid descent into dictatorship under Hun Sen.

New reports jointly released by The International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) and Bangkok-based Asia Centre this week illustrate yet another worrying trend across the region: that of rising religious intolerance, persecution and intercommunal conflict.

One of the most religiously diverse regions on the planet – home to 250 million Muslims, 150 million Buddhists, 120 million Christians and sizeable communities of the Hindu, Confucian, Taoist and indigenous faiths –Southeast Asia has seen growing conflict along the fault lines of religion in recent years.


Buddhist monks ride a truck in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, September 26, 2017. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

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The Freedom of Religion or Belief under threat in Southeast Asia reports analyse the situation across the 10 Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member states as well as the region’s newest nation Timor Leste via submissions and recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.

The author Dr Robin Ramcharan of the Asia Centre identifies that there are four-fold challenges: from rising religious-based intolerance, discrimination against minorities and indigenous peoples, the “securitisation” of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in the context of fighting terrorism, and the “dire need” to uphold international human rights standards in this overall context.

In Burma (Myanmar), the report notes state-based discrimination and “serious violations” against the Rohingya Muslim community as well as other religious minorities, at a time when more than half a million refugees have fled persecution and violence into Bangladesh in little over a month.

While Burma has promised to “repatriate” refugees, the IPPFoRB report notes that Rohingya are “denied citizenship and fundamental rights”. Recent research from the Burma Human Rights Network showed that the Rohingya crisis was spurring broader “state-led persecution” and anti-Muslim sentiment across the country.

In Thailand Rohingyas also faced discrimination, along with the country’s numerous stateless minority ethnic communities. Moreover, according to the report, “Muslims in South Thailand were a concern in spite of the Government’s claims that the conflict is not a religious one.”

Muslim women and girls also faced discrimination in the Catholic-majority Philippines, it said.


Rohingya refugee childdren learn to recite Koran in an Arabic school a refugee camp, in Palang Khali near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh October 5, 2017. Source: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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The world’s largest Muslim nation Indonesia, meanwhile, has seen an “upswing in religious intolerance and violence in the past few years”, including ongoing discrimination against Christians and the Ahmadi Muslim minority sect under the guise of “maintain[ing] harmony.”

Indonesia’s constitution and state ideology of Pancasila guarantee freedom of religion, however in practice the majority population often imposes its will due to pressure from conservative elements.

The country’s blasphemy law – which this year saw Jakarta’s former Christian mayor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama jailed for allegedly insulting Islam – remains out of step with international rights norms.

Muslim-majority Malaysia’s religious environment was found to be highly restrictive, with prohibitions on conversion away from Islam, banning books and broader limitations on freedom of expression, forced “Islamisation policy” towards the indigenous Orang Asli population and “discrimination against women on religious grounds.”

A UN Special Rapporteur recently concluded that “the freedom of religion or belief of Muslims themselves is now at stake in the struggle against fundamentalism in Malaysia.”

The oil-rich sultanate of Brunei Darussalam places heavy restrictions on establishing places of worship for non-Shafi’i Muslims and bans the importation of other religious materials. Its strict Syariah Penal Code of 2013, however, was found not to violate FoRB.


Devotees attend mass inside a Catholic church in Quezon City, metro Manila, Philippines September 22, 2017. Source: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

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In Indonesia’s Roman Catholic-majority neighbour Timor Leste meanwhile, there was “little concern for the state of freedom of religion or belief.” Amid “diminution of basic civil rights and abuse of human rights defenders”, religious freedom was not a major concern in Cambodia either, except for a lack of guarantee around freedom of expression and assembly.

The Communist States of Laos and Vietnam – while both guaranteeing FoRB in their respective Constitutions – impose “systemic discrimination and persecution” against various religious groups, especially those of minority groups such as Christians.

Singapore tightly restricts freedom of expression under the premise of preserving racial and religious harmony, and there is particular concern over the safeguarding of religious freedom for migrant workers.

While the Asia Centre’s reports present a bleak outlook for religious freedom in much of the region, they “provide a valuable resource for parliamentarians and civil society organisations across South East Asia,” said IPPFoRB Steering Group member David Anderson.

“It gives them the tools to hold their Governments to account on their obligations and commitments to freedom of religion or belief.”