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


By BenarNews staff on May 29, 2018

Buddhist monks in Thailand took to social media to call for violence against Muslims last year, the United States government said Tuesday in its latest annual report on curbs to religious freedom worldwide.

The U.S. State Department also highlighted concerns about issues affecting minority groups in Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh, in its report that assesses religious freedom in 200 countries to sum up developments during the previous calendar year.

“Where fundamental freedoms of religious expression, press and peaceful assembly are under attack, we find conflict, instability and terrorism. On the other hand, governments that champion these freedoms are more secure, stable and peaceful,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Washington as he released The International Religious Freedom Report for 2017.

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.

Malaysia, Indonesia

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.

India, Bangladesh

In India, where a Hindu nationalist government is in power, the report said U.S. embassy and consular staff had met with religious groups, missionary communities and NGOs who “discussed concerns related to a perceived increase in attacks against religious minorities and the perceived diminishing space for religious freedom.”

The report said Indian authorities often did not prosecute violence committed by Hindu vigilantes against Muslims and others who were suspected of slaughtering cows, transporting and trading in cows illegally, or eating beef.

“Members of civil society and religious minorities said, under the current government, religious minority communities felt more vulnerable to Hindu nationalist groups engaging in violence against non-Hindu individuals and places of worship,” the state department said.

“Religious minority communities stated, while the national government sometimes spoke out against incidents of violence, local political leaders often did not, and at times made public remarks that individuals could interpret as condoning violence,” it added.

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 a military crackdowns in Myanmar were also mentioned in the Bangladesh chapter.

Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at-large on International Religious Freedom, 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.”