A Rohingya refugee girl looks out of a tent in Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia near Cox's Bazar on Aug. 14, 2018. The U.N. has described the Myanmar army’s purge against the persecuted minority as ethnic cleansing, and thousands of Rohingya Muslims were believed to have been slaughtered in the pogrom that began last August. (Photo by Chandan Khanna/AFP)
Efforts by Southeast Asian lawmakers to tackle religious discrimination could help in future prevent the sort of atrocities that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, according to the head of a United Nations fact-finding mission.
Religious persecution in the region matters because, left unchecked, it leads to acts of violence, warned Indonesian lawyer Marzuki Darusman, who is the chairperson of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.
He was speaking to members of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) that launched an anti-discrimination initiative in Bangkok, Thailand, on June 3.
The parliamentarians from member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in a joint statement that there had been an increase in discrimination against minorities, including through online hate speech, harassment and violence.
It was this deterioration that prompted the APHR's pledge to work to protect freedom of belief, but growing politicization of religion will make their task more difficult.
"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 for alleged blasphemy 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 amplified speakers at a neighborhood mosque were too loud.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo adopted as his running-mate in his recent re-election campaign 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.
And Myanmar has introduced restrictions on conversion in an apparent response to lurid claims that Muslims are seeking to Islamicize 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 driving out from Myanmar of an estimated 1.2 million Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority, with over 700,000 fleeing in the 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.'"
But any region-wide pushback could face challenges, given Southeast Asia's political, constitutional and religious heterogeneity.
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 the opposition in Cambodia — constitute 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.
Real challenges were posed by the scale of 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 those of the state or 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," said Neo, a prolific author on rights issues.
"For instance, the freedom to choose one's religion is not clearly accepted in some ASEAN countries."
That lack of common understanding is another reason why the regional parliamentarians who are members of APHR should not expect that governments will 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 in Germany and a former U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
But reforms could happen further down the line as countries’ long-standing reluctance to comment on each others' domestic politics is slowly easing.
"They have been changing the traditional approach of non-interference and insisting on the primacy of state sovereignty,” said Bielefeldt, discussing Malaysia's and Indonesia's criticism of Myanmar over treatment of Muslim 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.
Muslim Kyaw Win noted that in Myanmar some Buddhist extremists tried to shut down temporary Muslim prayer venues during Ramadan.
"But we had a nice response from some Buddhist youths who were comforting those Muslims by offering white roses," he said.
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