South, Southeast Asian Nations Lag in Protecting Minorities, US State Dept Says

John Bechtel
South, Southeast Asian Nations Lag in Protecting Minorities, US State Dept Says Indonesian Muslims hold flags that say “There’s no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger,” during a protest in Jakarta, Nov. 2, 2018.

Although constitutions of South and Southeast Asian countries provide for equality of faiths, governments do not always protect the rights of minority groups, the U.S. State Department said in its 2020 International Religious Freedom Report released on Wednesday.

The American commitment to defending freedom of religion and belief goes back centuries – and continues today – Secretary of State Antony Blinken said as he announced the publication of the 2,397-page document covering 200 countries and territories.

“Religious freedom, like every human right, is universal. All people, everywhere, are entitled to it no matter where they live, what they believe, or what they don’t believe,” Blinken told reporters.

“Religious freedom can’t be fully realized unless other human rights are respected, and when governments violate their people’s right to believe and worship freely, it jeopardizes all the others. And religious freedom is a key element of an open and stable society.”

For many people worldwide, the right to religious freedom is still out of reach, Blinken said.

For instance, in Bangladesh, the constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism, prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions, the report said.

Despite those protections, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and other minority religious members told U.S. Embassy officials that community members often harassment and were sometimes physically attacked.

“The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights NGOs continued to report harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for converts to Christianity from Islam and Hinduism … in spite of constitutional guarantees protecting an individual’s right to change faiths” the report said.

The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council told American embassy officials that communal violence against minorities continued throughout the year, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, BenarNews reported about a Muslim mob attacking a Hindu village and vandalizing dozens of houses and at least seven temples in northeastern Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, there was no progress in a court case regarding a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria district, the report said. Rights groups attributed this and inaction over other attacks and harassment to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.

As part of U.S.-funded training for community policing, the embassy encouraged law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities, the report said.

Blasphemy in Indonesia

Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, Indonesia’s blasphemy laws are a concern, said Daniel Nadel, a senior official in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

“With regard to Indonesia, we remain concerned about [the] use of blasphemy laws against individuals which allow for detaining and sentencing people of up to five years in prison,” Nadel said during a question-and-answer session.

“Overall more than 150 people have been convicted under the blasphemy laws, which are regularly used against members of non-Muslims, non-Sunni minority groups.”

Blasphemy articles in the criminal code prohibit deliberate public statements or activities that insult or defame any of the six officially recognized religions – Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

In August 2020, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation reported that 38 blasphemy cases were filed during the first five months of the year, including five involving children younger than 18, the report said. Police arrested people across the nation in April on blasphemy charges after posts on social media altered lyrics to a song about the wife of the Prophet Muhammad.

“On Aug. 21, the chairman of Komnas HAM [the National Commission on Human Rights], Ahmad Taufan Damanik, said a lack of clarity in the blasphemy law meant it was often used to target religious minorities,” the report said.

“On March 6, the commissioner of the National Women’s Commission, Siti Aminah Tardi, said prosecutions under blasphemy laws targeted women, especially those from religious minorities.”

Blasphemy convictions can carry five-year prison terms.

Elsewhere in the region, Malaysia’s constitution states Islam is the religion of the federation, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony, the State Department noted.

But “local human rights organizations and religious leaders again expressed concern that society was becoming less tolerant of religious diversity,” the report said.

“A joint council of minority religious communities released a statement expressing its ‘grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.’”

The State Department said U.S. Embassy officials, in 2020, regularly met with Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysia Police, and Prime Minister’s Department officials to discuss constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, an increase in religious intolerance and respecting religious minorities.

In addition, embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom.

Thai Deep South violence

In the Philippines, Christians and Muslims told U.S. Embassy officials about government developments that undermined their religious freedom.

Muslim groups objected to the anti-terrorism law passed in July 2020, citing fears that it could restrain in the free practice and free expression of their faith. Several Muslim lawmakers, lawyers, and citizens filed petitions before the Supreme Court stating that the definition of terrorism in the law infringed on the freedom of religious expression.

BenarNews reported that human rights and legal advocacy groups sought a Supreme Court injunction just days after President Rodrigo Duterte signed the law on July 3.

“The definition of terrorism in Section 4 is so vague and broad … it can be read to include legitimate and lawful gatherings and demonstrations where people assemble to exercise their freedom of speech, of expression, and of the press,” said an excerpt from an 84-page petition filed by a group of law professors at the Far Eastern University (FEU), a private campus in Manila.

Separately, “Catholic and Protestant groups expressed concern over reported cases of church workers being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the New People’s Army, the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines,” the report said.

The government has been trying to suppress a rebellion involving the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), since 1969.

The State Department noted that embassy members, while limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, used “online platforms and virtual engagements to emphasize strong U.S. support for religious freedom and protection of civil liberties for persons of all faiths.”

The Thai section of the report detailed ongoing trouble in the country’s Deep South where an armed Malay Muslim separatist movement is blamed for much of the violence.

“According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Deep South Watch, violence during the year resulted in at least 116 deaths – among them 83 Muslims, 29 Buddhists and four individuals with unidentified religious affiliation,” it said.

But despite being victims themselves, Muslims said they faced discrimination by state agencies.

“The Muslim community in the Deep South continued to express frustration with perceived discriminatory treatment by security forces and what they said was a judicial system that lacked adequate checks and balances,” the report said.

The Deep South encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province. It has been the flash point of armed conflict between government troops and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, Thailand’s largest separatist insurgent group, over several decades.

Throughout the year, U.S. Embassy officials met with Ministry of Culture officials along with religious leaders, academics and others to promote religious pluralism, tolerance and interfaith dialogue.


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