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Hate crime, racism on the rise in Southeast Asia

Global minorities report highlights resurgence of 'ethno-religious nationalism'

<p>Members of the Rohingya minority have faced harsh persecution in Myanmar, forcing huge numbers to flee to neighboring Bangladesh (Photo ucanews.com)</p>

Members of the Rohingya minority have faced harsh persecution in Myanmar, forcing huge numbers to flee to neighboring Bangladesh (Photo ucanews.com)

  • Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh
  • International
  • July 3, 2014
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For the ninth year running, Myanmar has ranked as one of the worst countries where minorities are most under threat, while other Southeast Asian nations including Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia were singled out for growing ethnic tensions.

Released today, the annual State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples published by Minority Rights Group International presents case studies of 70 countries across the globe and ranks them based on the dangers faced there by minorities.

The only Southeast Asian country to make the Peoples under Threat index, Myanmar is ranked 8th of ten – putting it below Somalia, ranked 1st, Afghanistan, 5th, and Pakistan, 7th.

Despite the “gradual thawing” of Myanmar’s government, notes the report, there has been “growing hostility against minority Muslims”.

“The most serious abuses have occurred against Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state, but violence has also spread to other parts of the country, stoked by Buddhist extremist rhetoric. Most killings of Muslims have been carried out by local mobs or Buddhist gangs, but the government has also effectively cut
off humanitarian aid to the 100,000 displaced Rohingya living in camps,” it notes.

On Tuesday, sectarian violence broke out in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city after hundreds of Buddhists – including monks – began throwing rocks at a Muslim tea shop owner accused of the rape of a Buddhist women. Hundreds of police officers were sent to quash the mob, shooting rubber bullets into the crowd to break up the violence that saw two people killed and at least five injured.

“While Burma has made progress in some areas, it has stagnated or even regressed in others,” said Hanna Hindstrom, Asia information officer at Minority Rights Group International.

Hindstrom pointed to the ceasefire between the government and Karen National Union as one of the improvements seen since Myanmar began its reformation in 2011, but noted that violence in Kachin and Shan states showed scant signs of abating.

“Burma’s Muslim minority has faced a dramatic surge in violence and hostility over the past two years, in no small part due to the unfettered proliferation of hate speech,” she added.

Across the board, Southeast Asia last year saw an uptick in “ethno-religious nationalism … leading to several attacks on minorities”, the report states.

In Thailand, anti-government forces accused Cambodians of conspiring with the Thaksin Shinawatra family to destabilize the country. More recently, the military junta has cracked down on illegal Cambodian and Myanmar migrant workers, leading to a mass exodus of the former and stirring up fears among both ethnic groups. Malaysia and Indonesia, meanwhile, saw hate campaigns leading to attacks against religious minorities and immigrants.

After Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak barely squeaked by in the election, he was accused of fomenting racism by blaming a “Chinese tsunami” for the poor showing. With the proliferation of militant groups in Indonesia, meanwhile, hundreds of Christians and minority Muslims have been attacked in the past year. Accused of doing too little to staunch the assaults, the government instead has rammed through a series of discriminatory laws – including one requiring all Aceh residents to practice Sharia law “irrespective of their faith.”

Adiani Viviana, of the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy in Indonesia, said that minorities such as the Ahmadiya face persecution that “includes intimidation, violent acts, [and] bans on worshiping or holding religious activities”.

“So far, the police have failed to protect followers of the Ahmadiya,” added Viviana.

“Although ethno-religious nationalism is not a new phenomenon in Southeast Asia, we have seen an upsurge in many countries over the past year,” said Hindstrom. “Ironically, many of the same patterns can be found across the region, with political leaders lashing out at communities perceived to be foreign.”

While intolerance and threats against minorities are relatively rare in Cambodia, the country has seen a worrying rise in anti-Vietnamese tension and ongoing marginalization of indigenous minorities.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha widely employed anti-Vietnamese rhetoric in the lead-up to and following the July 2013 election. Vowing to stop the invasion of Vietnamese, including “colonial” takeovers of Cambodia’s territory, Rainsy has blamed the Vietnamese for job loss, land loss and ruling party control. Sokha, for his part, has taken the issue even further, presenting conspiracy theories that the Vietnamese government was responsible for “staging” the notorious Khmer Rouge security center, S-21, and of masterminding a 2010 Water Festival stampede in which more than 350 people died.

Concurrently, anti-Vietnamese tension has been on the rise. In several polling stations across the country, ethnic Vietnamese and even those who looked Vietnamese were prevented from voting by mobs who termed them illegal. Vietnamese-owned shops were attacked in the wake of January’s violent protests, while an ethnic Vietnamese man was killed the same month in what appeared to be a racist mob attack.

Ang Chanrith, executive director for the Minority Rights Organization, said the ruling party government shares a portion of the blame for ethnic tensions, pointing out that it has done little to ensure those with legal rights to citizenship have been granted it.

“They are eligible to apply or get the certificate to become the Cambodian citizen, but the law is not enforced or implemented at all, which leads them to become stateless,” he said.

As a result, the ethnically Vietnamese community of several hundred thousand has been unable to integrate with the rest of society – children without birth certificates are barred from schooling, jobs are closed off and exploitation is rampant. 

“Both political parties always use the scapegoat of the Vietnamese to gain support from voters – the ruling party doesn’t implement the law… so they can gain Vietnamese voters. And the opposition party attacks the Vietnamese because they want to get support from people who discriminate against them.”

Apart from its dealings with ethnic Vietnamese, the ruling party government has also been censured for failing to protect indigenous minorities.

“A rash of land grabs continued to plague Cambodia’s minority and indigenous communities,” the report notes, adding that the groups are often “marginalized by the state.”

While communal land titles are inscribed in law as an option for indigenous communities to protect large swathes of culturally valuable land, only five minority communities have been granted such titles in over a decade.

Speaking at a meeting last week of indigenous minority representatives from around the country, 65-year-old Prim You – a member of the ethnic Kuoy minority in Kompong Thom province – said he had little faith that the government would protect his culture.

“Right now, we have some trouble with getting the land registered. I feel like they don’t want to give us the land title, they don’t want to register us. No one has tried to take our land yet, but we’re worried,” he said.

*Additional reporting by AFP and Katharina Lestari in Jakarta

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