ASEAN lawmakers warn that religious freedom is too restricted in their countries
by Steve Suwannarat

A group of lawmakers from ASEAN’s 10 member states call on their government to “stop using 'public order' and 'harmony' as justifications for imposing unwarranted restrictions on this fundamental right.”

Bangkok (AsiaNews) – A group of lawmakers from Southeast Asia has issued an appeal to their governments to “do more to truly guarantee religious freedom, protect minorities and stop using 'public order' and 'harmony' as justifications for imposing unwarranted restrictions on this fundamental right.”

The group, called ASEAN Parliamentarians for human Rights (APHR), released a report, Restricting Diversity: Mapping Legislation on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Southeast Asia,.

For one of its members, Indonesian parliamentarian Taufik Basari, too “many laws that inhibit, restrict, and repress religious freedoms remain on the books and are implemented throughout Southeast Asia”.

"This report,” he adds, “is a reminder that, despite all achievements to maintain coexistence in a plural Southeast Asia, there are still many problems that remain to be solved and situations that should be improved."

The report provides an overview of laws and regulations that affect freedom of religion and belief among the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The 10 countries have different political regimes, level of development, economic size, and strategic weight.

While ASEAN has made great strides in the 55 years since it was created, boosting trade, reducing customs barriers, and facilitating the movement of people, it is far from achieving any form of political integration, showing a similar concern for democracy and human rights or adopting a shared approach to domestic or international crises.

In many countries, the religious card tends to be played unscrupulously to justify national identity, nurture nationalist feelings, and discriminate against minorities. This card may be politically expedient but it has destabilising consequences for certain groups.

According to the report, “National security and public order, for instance, have often been used to justify restricting the freedom of religious minorities, including Ahmadiyah, Shia, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others. Meanwhile, blasphemy laws are often used to criminalize certain religious groups that are critical to the state, government or the religious establishment of the majority, in flagrant violation of international human rights standards.”

For this reason, some political leaders, those more open to a change of direction, appeal to members of the region’s parliaments to fully support freedom of religious belief and practice, work together to scrap or modify laws that violate freedoms often recognised in national constitutions, and adopt measures that promote more open, supportive, and integrated societies.