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US State Department chides Southeast Asia in religious freedom report

Myanmar ethnic Rohingya Muslims react while holding a banner showing portrait of Ashin Wirathu, a Burmese Buddhist monk and the spiritual leader of the anti-Muslim movement, during a demonstration held near the Myanmar Embassy to demand an end to discrimination against the Rohingya minority group in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 15 July 2016. Photo: EPA/FAZRY ISMAIL

By Logan Connor 
Southeast Asia Globe
August 12, 2016

From “disproportionate” restrictions on minority religious groups in Laos to unfair targeting of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the US is highly critical of religious freedom in Southeast Asia

Every country in Southeast Asia has come in for criticism in the US State Department’s 2015 report on religious freedoms, an annual global assessment of people’s ability to exercise their faith.

Thailand’s military junta was accused of using martial law provisions to “conduct arrests, detentions and warrantless searches” in Muslim-majority provinces in the country’s south, where ethnic and religious separatists have waged a long-running insurgency.

Discrimination against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar was highlighted as a key concern, citing the former government’s passing of “Protection of Race and Religion” bills, which critics say unfairly target Muslims. Myanmar has been listed as a “country of particular concern” by the state department since 1999, although there are some hopes of improvement under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership.

In Communist-ruled Laos, “restrictions on minority religious groups remained disproportionately high in certain provinces”, the report said.

David N. Saperstein, US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said during a report briefing on Wednesday that Indonesia was one of several “tragic stories” due to its lack of religious freedom, citing the country’s enforcement of blasphemy laws.

Saperstein also positioned the report as an important source of information for NGOs, governments and members of civil society. “In the pages of this report,” he said, “we’re able to put a human face on this incredibly important issue [of religious freedom] that touches so many lives and remains a value of such concern in the hearts of the American people.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry (2-L) links his hands with Asean foreign ministers. Photo: EPA/NYEIN CHAN NAING

Despite ongoing challenges in Vietnam with respect to human rights, the report said “most leaders of religious groups agree that religious freedom is gradually expanding” in the country, citing national-level recognition of religious groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Gwen Robinson, a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said that while the report was to be welcomed for highlighting injustices surrounding religious freedom, it was not likely to prove “particularly powerful”.

“I think it does invite some resentments,” Robinson said, “which add to all the other complaints about American standards being applied to criticised countries that have their own religions and cultures.”

Cambodia was cited in the report as containing “barriers to the complete integration” of the country’s Cham Muslim population. Phay Siphan, spokesperson for Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, said the state department’s assessment was not representative of “actual customs in Cambodia”.

“We try our best to harmonise,” said Siphan. “That’s why everyone, even though they have different beliefs in their own religion, they are living in peace together in Cambodia.”

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