Religious Freedom in Southeast Asia

By: Stephen Bailey

Religious freedom is a human right that contributes to the well-being of individuals and society at large, but ASEAN governments often see this freedom as a threat to order and unity. There are some social demographic and cultural reasons for the tendency to resist expanding religious freedom in the region.

The social demographics of ASEAN nations—with the exception of Singapore—reveal that most are dominated by a religio-cultural majority. These majorities are normally either Buddhist (Theravada Buddhist in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, Mahayana Buddhist in Vietnam) or Islamic (Brunei and Indonesia). Christianity serves uniquely as the majority religion in the Philippines. Malaysia’s Muslim majority (61 percent) has a much smaller majority share of the population than those of the other ASEAN nations with majorities (normally around 90 percent). Yet Islam plays the majority role in Malaysia in much the same way.

The social fact of majority religions in ASEAN nations is important because of the corresponding cultural values of order and unity in society. Together, they translate into a high degree of pressure on minorities to conform to the cultural and social norms of the majority religious group.

Collectivist or high group societies like these value unity in society and the obligation of the individual to fulfill his or her duties. The needs of the family, the community, and the nation are valued over the individual’s hopes and desires. High group societies also tend to merge culture, ethnicity, and religion to form identity in a much deeper way than in individualistic societies. Here, religion is a public and political issue, not simply restricted to private lives, as is in the West. As a result, the natural path to social order and unity in the minds of many ASEAN governments is through encouraging conformity to the majority ethnic group’s culture and religion. Valuing the group over the individual is as natural in ASEAN nations as demanding rights is in America.

Consider the wording of General Principle 6 of ASEAN’s Declaration on Human Rights.

"The enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms must be balanced with the performance of corresponding duties as every person has responsibilities to all other individuals, the community and the society where one lives."

The US State Department press release on the Declaration raised the following concern.

"Concerning aspects include: the use of the concept of “cultural relativism” to suggest that rights in the UDHR do not apply everywhere; stipulating that domestic laws can trump universal human rights; incomplete descriptions of rights that are memorialized elsewhere; introducing novel limits to rights; and language that could be read to suggest that individual rights are subject to group veto" (emphasis mine).

We should not doubt the meaning of the ASEAN Declaration; it is stating plainly that individual rights can in fact be vetoed when their exercise threatens the order and unity of society. Its concern for order is reiterated in General Principle number 8.

"The exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others, and to meet the just requirements of national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, as well as the general welfare of the peoples in a democratic society" (emphasis mine).

The “cultural relativism” concern of the State Department stems from the contents of General Principle number 7.

"At the same time, the realization of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds" (emphasis mine). 

Is ASEAN pretending to care about human rights? I think not. The Declaration clearly demonstrates ASEAN's attempt to live up to international standards on human rights, while at the same time balancing them against the drive of dominant cultural-religious groups for order and unity. Unsurprisingly, this situation translates into a reluctance to fully engage religious pluralism. All ASEAN nations have some form of constitutional protection of religious freedom as well as laws and policies designed to protect it. Yet the implementation of religious freedom among ASEAN nations falls significantly short of these constitutional and legal guarantees.

How can this situation move forward so that all ASEAN citizens can realize the religious freedom that is already legally guaranteed? The answer, I believe, is in providing the many cultural-religious communities of ASEAN nations with shared social experiences.

ASEAN nations must create social spaces that bring diverse religious groups into the same social space to work together. The nation that has made the most progress implementing religious freedom is Singapore. This is not surprising, given its policy of insisting that its citizens live, work, and study together rather than within their separate partisan religious enclaves. One could argue that Singapore has done this out of necessity, while the existence of a majority religion in the other ASEAN nations does not require this effort. True enough. But nearly all of these nations with majority religious groups are keeping social order and unity through force, if not violence, against religious minorities.

The reality today is that learning to live with people of other religious beliefs and practices is a necessity for everyone on the planet. Teaching the value of respecting each other’s religion and learning about the legal guarantee of the right to religious freedom has its place, but until religious communities live in the same neighborhoods, work together at common tasks, and study together in school, progress will be slow. 

Shared social experiences allow us to relate and understand one another because they create a common history that can re-define our identities in ways that include our religiously different neighbors. When we live, study, and work together, we move from partisan neighbors nervously coexisting to being a nation with shared histories and values.

Stephen Bailey is a professor of intercultural studies at Simpson University and the Laos Program Officer at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE).

This piece was originally authored on August 6, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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