The eyes of the world have been fixed on and appalled by the sight of more than 580,000 Rohingya fleeing the violence gratuitously inflicted on them by the military in Myanmar. And the story isn’t over yet. More will be targeted and more will run for their lives in what is the most serious humanitarian crisis in Asia since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
The current challenges – housing and feeding more than half a million asylum seekers – will only intensify as the region faces the question of what to do with and for these desperate people. Will they stay where they are? Will they be repatriated? Who will be held to account for the murderous crimes against this despised minority in the already unstable and impoverished country they have fled – Myanmar?
The fortunes of the Rohingya provide a cameo of something instanced not only elsewhere in Myanmar but across Asia: the compression of religion and ethnicity as minority groups are targeted by the mainstream across the region. The Rohingya have reached a condition and are suffering an outcome that provides an insight into the nature of religious and ethnic persecution suffered by adherents to all the major religions in Asia – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus.
Most citizens in Asia live within borders only agreed to in the 20th Century. With the exception of China and the island republics of Indonesia and the Philippines, most countries had their boundaries set by their colonial masters or those who succeeded them when independence came. Within these borders, unresolved religious and ethnic rivalries and hostilities still simmer.
Myanmar is a case in point. Most Rohingya came to work in Burma at the invitation of the British in the early 19th Century, though they claim a heritage in the country that reaches back a millennium. They are Muslims and mostly have lived in Rhakine State. However, there are other non-Rohingya Muslims there along with Buddhists and Hindus. The military government of Myanmar has repeatedly attacked the Rohingya for decades, never granted them citizenship and attempted to drive them from the country. The Rohingya are only one of the recognized 135 ethnic minorities in the multilingual, multicultural and multi-religious country. Treatment of the Rohingya has the approval of the wider Buddhist community in Myanmar, something triggered by the aggressive Buddhist nationalism that is fostered by extremist monks and others promoting a distinctive and excluding definition of what it is to be a citizen of Myanmar. Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon has gone so far as to say that the Rohingya are the scapegoats for the grievances and conflicts that beset the wider population in his country.
But the Rohingya are only one group treated this way in Myanmar. At their height, up to 17 civil wars were being waged in the country; there are 500,000 internally displaced people (many from Christian majority states in Myanmar) and a further 120,000 asylum seekers across the border from Myanmar in northern Thailand.
Ethnicity and religion combine in neighbouring China to produce some of its most neuralgic points of recurrent unrest. Tibet is the home of the Dalai Lama that he fled in 1959 for his sanctuary in India, and Tibetans are a distinct ethnic group of their own. The government of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) has never accepted that anything but it should run Tibet, using it in the traditional way Chinese foreign policy has always operated – through the creation of buffers on its borders, this time with India. With the control exercised by the PRC has come the gradual “Hanification” of Tibet: the immigration of the majority ethnic group in China, the Han. Tibetans face the denial of basic freedoms of speech, assembly and movement and the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in China, Larung Gar, is being continually demolished. Similar developments are mirrored in Xinjiang Autonomous Region, home to the Uyghur Muslims who came to China along the fabled Silk Road from modern day Turkey.
“It’s hard to see how things could seemingly get much worse in terms of freedom of religion in Tibet and Xinjiang, but it conceivably could”, said William Nee, Amnesty International’s chief China researcher based in Hong Kong. “To some extent, these regions serve as petri dishes for experimenting with new modes of extreme social control… and if the government perceives these policies as working well, then they may use them against other target populations as well.”
Much of these restrictions are the brainchild of Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who was transferred from his post in Tibet, where the government perceived him as successful at quelling unrest, to Xinjiang last year. There have been door-to-door checks in Xinjiang to see if people have religious materials or are praying. Authorities have reportedly stopped people at random to see what is on their phones, and detention facilities for religious practitioners have purportedly proliferated across the region for so-called political re-education.
At the recently concluded 19th Party Congress in October, Chinese President Xi Jinping reshuffled his government, selecting the core leadership on the Politburo. Following the congress, human rights monitors fear that, given the current trajectory of the Chinese government, the situation for the country’s religious minorities may become even more tumultuous. “So far, the Chinese government’s impulse to tighten control across the board — including religion — indicates a grim outlook for religious freedom in China for years to come,” Maya Wang, senior researcher at the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, told ucanews.com. “I expect that the government will continue to push for greater ‘Sinicization’ of religions. That means the government will continue its campaign to restrict foreign influences, ties, and funding of religions in China,” Wang said, noting that this was already the trend in both Xinjiang and Tibet. Such Sinicized religion includes the practice of Catholicism under the supervision of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), a body set up by the government’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). The CPA’s refusal to recognize the Vatican forces many Catholics to illegally worship underground.
In July, SARA director Wang Zuoan told all members of the Communist Party to give up religion. Wang said members were also banned from supporting religion for economic development or cultural purposes. In April last year, Xi laid down a highly anticipated blueprint for how the government would handle religion moving forward — and the prognosis was grim, as the Chinese president put most of the emphasis on limiting religious freedoms while strengthening the Communist Party’s power. “[The blueprint] emphasized the themes of religion as a conduit for Communist Party governance, the government’s right to tightly regulate religion, ‘Sinicization’ of religious doctrine, and preventing so-called foreign ‘infiltration’ of religion, ensuring Communist Party cadres are staunch atheists,” William Nee at Amnesty International told ucanews.com. “It may take several years for this blueprint to be implemented in detail, so I would foresee greater restrictions on religion as detailed policies and personnel are put in place,” Nee said.
The Subcontinent has other webs tying ethnicity, nationalism and religion into tight knots. Pakistan is frequently the scene of religiously motivated violence – Muslim against Muslim and Muslims against Christians and Hindus – all triggered by the country’s notorious blasphemy laws. Introduced in the 1980s, the blasphemy laws allow a Muslim to accuse others (Muslims, Hindus or Christians) of profaning the Prophet Muhammed and, without judgment or the constraint of police or courts, to execute the alleged blasphemer in the name of the Prophet. Once the Fatwa is declared, there is no protection and flight is the only available option.
A further complicating factor for Pakistan and also for Muslim-majority Bangladesh is the internationalization of militant Islam. Variants and factions of international terrorist groups have found a place in both countries and Saudi Arabia is sponsoring the development of its own extremist Islam – Wahabbism – with billions of US dollars donated especially to Bangladesh for the building of mosques and madrasas or Islamic schools.
Religious nationalism and associated persecution have found rich soil in which to flourish in India. India is a vast complex of languages, ethnic heritages, and religions. After Indonesia and Pakistan, India has the largest number of Muslims (172 million) in any country in the world. India also has substantial minority religions — Christians estimated to be around 30 million of whom 19 million are Catholics, Sikhs with 20 million and an estimated 10 million Buddhists in the birth country of the Buddha. The federal government of Narendra Modi in India has its state-based affiliates in command of a majority of state governments and more are expected to follow suit. The party he leads nationally – the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – has its ideological engine room in the fanatical Rashtriya Swayamesevak Sangh (RSS). This powerful Hindu socio-religious group is the source of the nationalistic orientation of the BJP which means “the Party of the Indian People”.
Now six BJP-ruled states have legislated to prosecute religious conversation. The latest is the eastern state of Jharkhand, passing a law criminalizing religious conversions that non-Hindus, especially Christians, see as a device used by Hindu nationalists to target Christians. Jharkhand is 4.5 percent Christian, almost double the national average of 2.3 percent. However, Christians continue to be a tiny minority after more than a century of mission work. There are just 1.4 million Christians out of a state population of 33 million, mostly tribal people or those belonging to what was formerly known as the “untouchable” castes. Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghuvar Das has been pushing for the bill since December 2014 when his party and coalition partners came to power. The law against conversion by force or allurement provides for up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 rupees (US$800). Those wishing to convert must inform the top district official of the reasons for and the place of conversion or face prosecution. There are more severe punishments for using “force” to convert minors and women as well as members of tribal minorities and lower castes.
In other states, Hindu extremists have allegedly misused the law to file false charges against pastors and to intimidate Christians. They often interpret Christian missionary services, such as education and healthcare, as constituting allurement or force to secure conversions among the poor despite the vast majority of beneficiaries being non-Christian.
The Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia are also the scene of various types of persecution. In Catholic-majority Philippines, for example, the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has been waging war with the government for almost four decades.
In Indonesia recently, large protests by hardline Muslim groups led to the arrest of Jakarta’s Christian and ethnic Chinese Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, for alleged blasphemy. This was seen by many as efforts by militant groups to undermine the country’s secular constitution.
Malaysia too has been grappling with laws to ensure that more of its programs and policies are in accordance with Islamic laws. In Laos and Cambodia, persecution could be based on any number of factors including race, ethnicity, political opinion or religion, issues relating to statelessness, or gender-based concerns.
However, in none of these countries is there the systematic and at times legitimized level of prejudice and persecution plainly evident in Myanmar, China and India.
About the only bright spot in Asia is the reduction of ethnic and religious persecution in Sri Lanka where a decades-long civil war came to an official end in 2009 when the government overran Tamil guerrillas in the country’s north. While there are still conflicts and some violence between Tamils (often Hindus) and Sinhalese (mostly Buddhists), the devastating scale of the ethnic and religious rivalry is a thing of the past.
Most Asian societies, cultures, polities, and religions are works in progress. The scale and reach of religious persecution, usually linked to ethnicity, shows little sign of declining.
Michael Kelly SJ is based in Bangkok.
First published in La Croix International, 23 October 2017.