As President Barack Obama met with Southeast Asian heads of state in California in mid-February, religious leaders from many of the same countries gathered in Taiwan to discuss persecution in the region. In contrast to the smiles and pleasantries exchanged at the Sunnylands summit, the participants of the inaugural Asia Pacific Religious Freedom Forum spoke solemnly about human rights and religious liberty violations in their home countries. In some cases they lamented how little the U.S. has done to help.
Holding the religious freedom forum in Taiwan—just a strait away from China—was a bold move. Katrina Lantos Swett, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Freedom House’s Mark Lagon called out the communist nation for persecuting Muslim Uyghurs, tearing down church crosses, and arresting human rights lawyers. Representatives from the Tibetan and Uyghur communities were notably missing among the 99 religious leaders, parliamentarians, and NGO workers from 26 countries in attendance. Taiwanese authorities asked them not to attend due to pressure from China. For security reasons, the speakers’ list also did not include any mainland Chinese participants.
Attendees from countries such as Malaysia, India, and Vietnam voiced frustration about how Obama’s photo-ops with their leaders legitimizes rulers who categorically violate religious freedom. Andrew Khoo, co-chair of the Malaysian Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee, pointed to Obama playing golf with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2014, while religious freedom, freedom of speech, and human rights are diminishing in the country. With a Muslim majority, Christians are barred from using certain words, like “Allah,” and Malay Muslims get preferential treatment. Shiite Muslims and other Islamic sects are banned in Malaysia, and groups that question the government’s human rights record are declared unlawful.
In the international community, Khoo said Malaysian authorities have learned to use the right words to charm the West. Just last week, Obama said in an interview with Singapore’s Channel News Asia that he wanted to partner with countries like Malaysia that “represent the best of moderate Islam” to combat the rise of extremist groups. But Khoo believes it’s important to make sure countries define terms the same way: “Our definition of moderation is we ban [the Islamic sect] Ahmaddiya, and prohibit the sharing of the Shiite school of thought. So if that’s moderation, than you worry about what is extremism.”
This spring, Obama is expected to make his first trip to Vietnam, where religion is controlled by the communist government. About 60 percent of the population worships in unrecognized houses of worship. Nguyen Thang, executive director of the U.S.-based Boat People S.O.S., noted any advocacy for religious freedom in Vietnam leads to imprisonment. One conference attendee from Vietnam had to first travel to Cambodia and stay several nights in Thailand before flying to Taipei, Thang said. Once the conference ends, she may face problems back home.
“In Vietnam, the government divides to conquer, therefore … most of these religious communities are in almost total isolation, not only to the outside world but amongst themselves,” he said. Thang’s group educates religious leaders about their basic rights under national and international law and tells them how to report violations to the United Nations. Local religious leaders have begun to meet at conferences outside Vietnam, and Thang hopes with the help of international religious freedom groups, these leaders will be able to organize roundtable discussions in Vietnam.
As Vietnam desperately seeks trade benefits and stronger diplomatic relations with the West, America is in a place to press for greater religious freedom in the country, Thang said. With Obama’s upcoming trip, Thang believes the people of Vietnam “are expecting that he would send a strong message … about U.S. support for rights and freedoms.”
John Dayal, co-founder and secretary general of the All India Christian Council, fumed over Obama publicly embracing Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, Muslims, Christians, and Sikh minorities face greater persecution and violence, with churches set on fire and Christians arrested for “forcing conversions.” Extremists who want India to become a Hindu nation use anti-conversion laws to curb the growth of the small Christian minority.
Khoo insists human rights must take a higher priority as Obama pivots U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region.
“Obama’s come twice now to Malaysia and he’s talked in general terms about how human rights is a necessary ingredient for economic development,” Khoo said. “But put economic development aside and let’s talk about how you actually promote a culture that’s supportive of an expansive and wide definition of human rights. That’s far more important.”
Publication date: February 29, 2016