US Report Highlights Concerns about Religious Freedom in South, Southeast Asia

BenarNews staff
180529-SEA-religion-620.jpg Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters in Washington while releasing the U.S. State Department’s annual assessment of religious freedom around the world, May 29, 2018.

Updated at 4:24 p.m. ET on 2018-05-30

Religious minorities are under pressure in South and Southeast Asia, the United States government said in a report Tuesday, stressing that religious freedom was critical to reducing terrorism and boosting economic growth.

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said the key objectives of President Donald Trump’s administration were reduction of terrorism and economic growth, adding that “with religious freedom, you get both of them.”

“It is also a fundamental human right under assault in much of the world,” Brownback said at the launch of the annual U.S. religious freedom report, which highlighted concerns about issues affecting minority groups in about 200 countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in launching the report, said the United States wanted to work with other governments and its partners in the religious community and civil society to advance religious freedom.

He said Washington would host a high-level international meeting on religious freedom in July “to reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right.”

Pompeo expected the July 25-26 ministerial to “break new ground.”

“It will not just be a discussion group.  It will be about action.  We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all,” he said.

The report covering 2017 highlighted concerns over religious freedom in the region.


In its country report on Buddhist-majority Thailand, the state department pointed to how some members of the clergy who define themselves as Buddhist nationalists had “used social media to call for violence against Muslims. They also criticized what they said was the state’s accommodation of Islam.”

The Muslim community represents less than 5 percent of Thailand’s population but is largely concentrated in the far southern region known as the Deep South, where a Malay separatist insurgency has simmered for decades.

In September 2017, the state department reported, the Thai military arrested Buddhist monk Apichat Punnajanatho in the Deep South because he was suspected of promoting violent, anti-Muslim hate speech.

The military flew him to Bangkok, where the nation’s leading Buddhist clerical body, the Supreme Sangha Council, disrobed and expelled him from the monkhood, the report said. It noted that Apichat was turned over to police but they did not charge him and later released him.

The state department said there were no reports last year of calls by Muslims advocating violence targeting Buddhists in Thailand.


In neighboring Malaysia, the state department highlighted a lack of progress by police in investigating the February 2017 abduction of a Christian pastor, Raymond Koh, whose daylight kidnapping on a busy street in Kuala Lumpur was caught on CCTV, and who remains missing.

The chapter on Malaysia noted the arrests of hundreds of people practicing non-Sunni forms of Islam, which are outlawed in the country. It also noted efforts by Malaysian authorities to prohibit and fine Muslims for trying to convert to another religion.

In 2017, U.S. embassy officials “engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials” to discuss religious freedom issues in Malaysia throughout the year, the state department said.

“The ambassador raised concerns about the disappearance of Pastor Raymond Koh and three other individuals and urged government officials to speak out against religious intolerance, particularly in the wake of high profile incidents such as the ‘Muslim-only’ launderettes in two states,” the report said.


In its section on Indonesia, the report highlighted how some conservative religious groups in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation had put pressure on local governments and police in 2017 to close minority groups’ houses of worship over permit violations.

The report took note of the first-ever public canings in Aceh province of people who were convicted under its strict Sharia code for committing homosexual acts. And it prominently mentioned last year’s conviction of Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama, a member of the Christian minority and former governor of Jakarta, on a blasphemy charge for public comments that were deemed as anti-Muslim.

“The U.S. government advocated for religious freedom at the highest levels, with both government and civil society leaders, and spoke out publicly against discrimination and religious violence,” the state department reported, noting that Vice President Mike Pence had discussed such issues with Indonesian officials during a visit to Jakarta in April 2017.


In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, there were attacks last year on members of the Hindu and Buddhist minorities and Hindus and Christians also reported that “the government failed to effectively prevent forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes,” according to the State Department.

In meetings with Bangladeshi officials and in statements last year, “the U.S. ambassador and other embassy representatives continued to speak out against acts of violence in the name of religion and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and to foster a climate of tolerance,” the report said.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who are sheltering in Bangladeshi after fleeing military crackdowns in Myanmar were also mentioned in the Bangladesh chapter.

Sam Brownback touched on the plight of the stateless Rohingya as he helped Pompeo release the report.

“The situation is dire. We must do more to help them as they continue to be targeted for their faith,” Brownback told reporters at the state department.

He described his recent visit to Rohingya refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh.

“[T]here was about 20 young children that had gathered around me, and I asked randomly five of them what they had seen. Of the five, four had seen a direct close family member killed, and the fifth had seen a brother wounded. This is in a random grouping,” Brownback recalled.

“It’s a terrible situation that requires the world’s attention. There is a lot of world attention on it, but I think there needs to be more action from the world.”


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