LAST November 7 to 8, the Third Southeast Asian Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference was held in Manila after its inaugural conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2015 and second conference in East Timor the previous year. In a bid to uphold and promote the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief (even non-belief) as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, a consortium of regional and international NGOs saw it fit to hold these annual gatherings to address the growing concern over the prevalence of religious intolerance in the region.
It is indeed ironic to know that as we fete and celebrate the ties of solidarity between and among nations in the ASEAN region with Manila being host to the 31st summit of the regional organization, there are alarming stories of religious intolerance, bigotry, and outright genocide taking place within these countries that were shared in the parallel conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief. What raises the concern of many is that the perpetrators of these extreme acts of chauvinism are not just ordinary people who belong to dominant religions victimizing religious minorities, but that these harrowing incidents often occur with the full-backing and complicity of authorities.
The representatives from Myanmar spoke about the plight of the Rohingya Muslims who have been systematically driven out of their ancestral land by the army. Since the violence broke out last year, tens of thousands of Rohingyans have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. The specter of Islamic extremism is a predictable bogey and it is now being used to consolidate the Army’s power and influence over the majority of the Buddhist population who have deep-seated attitudes of superiority agains the ethnic minority group.
The same kind of religious intolerance is also present in Vietnam. There was a participant in the conference who had to travel for almost a month from his remote Vietnamese village to attend the conference in Manila, going about the journey in a circuitous way because she is persecuted as a Christian. Religious leaders who just want to profess and practice their faith are placed under surveillance and harassed by state forces.
In Malaysia, rising religious intolerance is indicated by the surfacing of Muslim-only launderettes. Muslim proprietors of these laundry shops argue that washing the clothes of non-Muslims would taint or soil the machinery and do the same to the clothes of believers. Although Malaysia is a multiethnic society with only about 60 percent practicing Islam, it is still recognized as the country’s official religion.
These narratives and more indicate a troubling increase in social paranoia that on the one hand, celebrate and privilege, the dominant sectors of the population at the expense of the minority who are already historically and structurally disadvantaged.
The conference had a panel on the intersectionality between the practice of freedom of religion or belief and nationalism that I was a part of . I believe the conference organizers were intimating on the links between the consolidation of national identities and nation-states and the rise in the practices of intolerance.
The nation-state is a developing project in the region and in the course of its evolution, standards of who belong and thereby enjoy the benefits of the national resources are still being determined, primarily by the dominant sections of the population. I believe religious intolerance is a symptom of this deeper more sinister process and the real issue is the battle over who controls and benefits from these resources in the final analysis.
Our own national narrative vis-à-vis the indigenous peoples of Mindanao, the Lumad, also bear this truth out, although the pattern is much more nuanced and drawn-out historically. The Lumad narrative is, of course, characterized by a long history of displacement as the Philippine nation-state consolidated Mindanao’s precious resources into the national economy which is then tied to the global capitalist order. First, it was logging and cattle-ranching, and then large-scale agricultural plantations and more recently, mining, that caused and continue to cause the displacement of the Lumad from their ancestral lands.
A cursory look at the indigenous beliefs and practices of the Lumad would show how their notions of gods and dieties are inextricably linked to their environment. The benevolent and malignant forces that occupy the Lumad cosmology, elements of which constantly struggle to give either punishment or rewards, all reside in their environment. If their ancestral lands are taken away from them, it also results in the violation of their freedom of religion or belief.
Some time in the future, the horrors of the rise and evolution of the nation-state will be fully accounted for. Behind the flag-waving and celebrations of national solidarity, are the hidden stories of bigotry and chauvinism that have victimized minorities for the sake of the dominant populations’ projects of nation-building.