SINGAPORE — Efforts by Southeast Asian lawmakers to highlight religious discrimination could help prevent future atrocities along the lines of the recent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar, according to the head of the the United Nations’ human rights fact-finding mission to the country.
“Religious persecution matters because, left unchecked, it leads up to atrocity crimes. This is a condition that is not unique to Myanmar but to the region as a whole,” said mission head Marzuki Darusman, an Indonesian lawyer, speaking to the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights at the launch of the initiative in Bangkok.
ASEAN refers to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional bloc that includes all the region’s countries bar East Timor, while the APHR is a separate non-governmental organization made of MPs from across the region.
According to a June 3 statement by the APHR, Southeast Asia is “seeing an increase in online hate speech and the spread of discrimination, harassment and violence against minorities” – a deterioration that prompted the APHR’s pledge to improve protections for freedom of belief.
But the MPs may have their work cut in the wake of growing politicization of religion and persecution of minorities.
“it is very important to spread the message of freedom of religion, but this is a region where religion has been exploited for political purposes,” said Kyaw Win, a Muslim from Myanmar and founder of the Burma Human Rights Network.
Indonesia has seen the hounding and jailing of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Protestant ex-governor of Jakarta, and the August 2018 imprisonment of a Buddhist in North Sumatra after she allegedly complained that the speakers at a neighborhood mosque were too loud.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo adopted as his running-mate in his recent re-election a cleric who testified against Purnama — a move seen as Widodo warding-off claims he was too close to his former ally Purnama and not committed to Islam.
Vietnamese Catholics who protested against the communist government’s handling of an environmental disaster have been roughed up by police, while Brunei has extended the remit of its sharia laws and told citizens not to publicly celebrate Christmas or Chinese New Year.
Malaysia’s courts have often failed, arguably in contravention of the constitution, to endorse the right of citizens to convert from Islam to another faith, while Myanmar has introduced restrictions on conversion in apparent response to lurid claims that Muslims are seeking Islamicise the country through the mass betrothal of majority-Buddhist women.
Even majority religions have not escaped the caprice of governments, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte regularly castigating leaders of the Catholic Church and his government claiming a lead role for two bishops in an alleged plot, taking in journalists and opposition politicians, that purportedly aims to oust Duterte ahead of the end of his six year term in 2021.
Worst of all has been the expulsion from Myanmar of an estimated 1.2 million Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority, with over 700,000 fleeing in wake of the army’s scorched-earth reprisals for attacks on security personnel by Rohingya militants in 2017.
Benedict Rogers, an Asia-focused activist and author with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a London-based non-governmental organization. thinks the APHR’s efforts could have a positive impact. “The fact that this is initiated by parliamentarians from within the region gives it a chance of having an impact, although of course it has to be a long-term approach, as there are no ‘quick fixes’.”
Southeast Asia’s political, constitutional and religious heterogeneity could make it difficult to implement a regional approach, however.
Vietnam and Laos are single-party communist states, Indonesia and the Philippines are electoral democracies with majority Muslim and Catholic populations spread across large archipelagos. Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar are mostly Buddhist countries that have flitted between authoritarian rule and democracy. Only the Philippines formally separates faith and state, a lone case that was vitiated in practice until recently by the historic dominance of the Catholic Church.
“Increasing challenges to democracy in the region” – such as the 2014 coup in Thailand and the state-sponsored destruction of he opposition in Cambodia – mean “a further threat to freedom of religion or belief,” said Benedict Rogers.
And while economic growth is high across most of the region, there are vast differences in wealth. Singapore and Brunei rank among Asia’s richest countries, Malaysia and Thailand somewhere in the middle, while people in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are among the world’s poorest. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the commercial successes enjoyed by mostly Buddhist or Christian Chinese-descent minorities has fueled resentment — that has on occasion turned deadly — among less well-off Muslim majorities.
“There are real challenges due to the various political, demographic, and economic diversity,” said Jaclyn Neo, associate law professor at the National University of Singapore.
ASEAN introduced a declaration on human rights in 2012, three years after the establishment of a relatively-weak human rights commission. But the wording on religion does not go as far as foundation documents such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which only six Southeast Asian countries have signed up to, and contains references that appear to rank individual rights below state and community, in turn effectively privileging majority beliefs.
“One fundamental challenge, in my view, is the lack of clear consensus on what religious freedom means in the region. For instance, while the freedom to choose one’s religion is foundational to FoRB under international law, this is not clearly accepted in some ASEAN countries, “ said Neo, a prolific author on freedom of religion in Southeast Asia.
That lack of common understanding is another reason why the APHR should not expect governments to reform overnight.
“It would be foolish to expect immediate success,“ said Heiner Bielefeldt, a human rights expert and theologian at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg and a former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The current Special Rapporteur, Ahmad Shaheed, a former Maldives foreign minister, was unavailable for interview.
But reforms could happen further down the line as countries’ long-standing reluctance to comment on each others’ domestic politics is slowly being dissolved.
“They have been changing the traditional approach of non-interference and insisting on the primacy of state sovereignty,” said Bielefeldt, discussing Malaysia and Indonesia’s criticism of Myanmar over the Rohingya.
And even in countries where sectarian tensions are high, potentially-inspirational examples of interfaith friendship have emerged in recent days — such as Catholics breaking fast with Muslim neighbors in the Philippines during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, and nuns cooking dinner for Muslim soldiers guarding churches during Lebaran, the long post-Ramadan holiday in Indonesia.
“In Burma we have some Buddhist extremists who try to shut down Muslim prayer houses [in Yangon, during Ramadan], but we had a nice response from some Buddhist youths who were comforting those Muslims by offering white rose[s]” said Kyaw Win.Show