Case study

Freedom of Religion or Belief in South East Asia

A case study from the 2014 Human Rights and Democracy Report.

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Whilst South East Asia remains a highly diverse and mostly tolerant region, there were some worrying signs of increased discrimination against religious minorities in 2014.

Malaysia also saw growing concerns over religious freedom in 2014, including moves to stop non-Muslims from using the word “‘Allah”’, the seizure of bibles and other religious texts, and proposals to introduce Hudud, the Islamic penal code. Government policies promote Sunni Islam, whilst other teachings and forms of Islam remain illegal, and there have been some arrests of individuals who are considered deviant. The politicisation of Islam by the ruling UMNO party is also a concern, and could further reduce tolerance towards non-Muslim Malaysians, negatively impacting on their right to freedom of religion or belief.

In the main, most people in Vietnam are able to practise the religion of their choice. However, there are reports of religious persecution of some ethnic minorities. Religious leaders and groups are also subject to the same restrictions on freedom of expression that affect the rest of the population. There was disruption to elements of a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief in July 2014. His visit was subject to official surveillance, and the activists he was due to meet were intimidated, meaning he was unable to investigate certain issues of concern.

Indonesia’s peaceful democratic transition over the last 15 years has been remarkable, and it has strong pluralist and inclusive traditions. Whilst the country’s constitution enshrines plurality of religious belief, hostility towards, and occasional attacks on, the Ahmaddiya, Christian and Shi’a communities has intensified in recent years, without a clear government response. The major outbursts of inter-religious violence seen in the early 2000s have not been repeated, but risks remain. In a positive development, ministers in the new government, elected in 2014, have undertaken to draft legislation that will strengthen protection for Indonesians to choose and practise their own religion or belief, whatever that may be. We continue to support small-scale civil society projects in Indonesia to strengthen respect for freedom of religion or belief.

In Brunei, the government introduced the first phase of a sharia penal code in May 2014. Further phases (which include punishments such as stoning and amputation) have not yet come into force. We have urged the authorities in Brunei to consider the impact of the new code very carefully. We have also encouraged a delay to the introduction of the further phases until the authorities have fully considered compliance with Brunei’s international human rights commitments, and the right to freedom of religion or belief.

There are different factors contributing to restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in South East Asia. However, we would like to see consistent messages from individual governments and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to send a strong signal that religious discrimination and violence will not be tolerated. The region’s traditions of tolerance and diversity have underpinned stability and supported rapid economic growth, which we hope to see continued. We also had concerns about anti-Muslim discrimination in Burma. This is covered above, in the section on anti-Muslim hatred below, and in the Burma report.

This case study is part of the 2014 Human Rights and Democracy Report.

Published 12 March 2015